“I’m no good at maths.” “I’m just not a maths-y kind of person.” “Maths isn’t really for me.” Have you ever thought one of these things? In this article, we’ll try to convince you that you can be good at maths, the world isn’t divided into “maths-y” and “non-maths-y” people, and that maths is for you. The key? Developing a growth mindset.
First, let’s meet two imaginary students: Alex and Bella.
Alex struggles to answer a difficult set of questions in his A Level Maths class. He interprets this as a sign that he’s not as gifted at Maths as some of his classmates. Because he believes that you’re either good at Maths or you’re not, he feels powerless to improve his ability. As a result, he is easily disheartened when he finds lessons challenging, and has little motivation to spend time practising, finding resources which could help him, or asking for extra assistance.
Bella also struggles to answer a difficult set of questions in her A Level Maths class. Like Alex, she finds this somewhat frustrating – however, she believes that Maths abilities are something you can develop and improve if you work on them, like most skills. Therefore, she is motivated to look for extra online resources and apps which can explain concepts to her and let her build up extra practice.
Alex shies away from challenge, whilst Bella grapples with it. It’s not hard to imagine who would end up being ‘better’ at Maths, even if they both struggled equally with the same set of Maths problems at the beginning.
The key difference here between Alex and Bella is that Alex demonstrates a fixed mindset, whilst Bella demonstrates a growth mindset.
What exactly is a growth mindset? The American psychologist Carol Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’, to describe the belief that talents and abilities are innate gifts, and ‘growth mindset’, to describe, on the other hand, the belief that talents and abilities are developed. This may be through focused effort, persistent practice, and support from others. Dweck’s crucial discovery was that people with a growth mindset tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset, because they devote more energy to learning and improvement, and are less worried by failure.1
Having a growth mindset can radically shift your approach to failure. With a fixed mindset, you might treat a failure as a sign of your innate lack of ability in a certain area or to perform a certain task. With a growth mindset, however, you focus on your potential to improve in this area. You don’t believe that a single failure is the be-all and end-all; rather, it is an essential step along the pathway to your vision of success. It is important to note that it is when facing setbacks that the effects of the two differing mindsets become most apparent. A student with a predominantly fixed mindset but who is well prepared may do well in certain contexts. However, when she meets an obstacle or challenge, she may be at a disadvantage.2
Mindsets and Maths
So, why is growth mindset important for maths learning?
In her research on mindsets and education, Carol Dweck has informally noted that ‘students tend to have more of a fixed view of math skills than of other intellectual skills’.3 Culturally, there is less stigma surrounding being ‘bad’ at Maths than there is about being ‘bad’ at reading. Put differently, we expect that everyone should be able to read, and therefore people (normally children) make the necessary effort and are given the necessary support (which may differ from child to child) to do so. On the other hand, we seem to accept that some people will never be numerate – and so effort and support with numeracy is treated as less urgent.
Yet research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology has increasingly provided evidence for the plasticity of the brain, demonstrating that elements of intelligence (and even ‘intelligence’ itself, more broadly) can be improved through training.4 Moreover, evidence shows that mindsets have a concrete impact on mathematical achievement. A study performed in 2003 by Good et al found that the test performances of a group of 7th-grade students improved after they had received growth mindset mentoring. A 4.5-point increase was seen in mathematics achievement test scores, whilst a 4-point increase was seen in reading achievement test scores.5 Strikingly, whilst Good et al found that, in the control group, males performed significantly better than females on the maths test, after the growth mindset intervention, the gender performance gap disappeared.6 This leads us to our next point: how growth mindsets can not only boost achievement generally, but also, importantly, reduce achievement discrepancies.
As we discussed in our article which explores the reasons behind the gender attainment gap in A Level Maths a growth mindset can be particularly beneficial to girls studying Maths. The simple message that mathematical abilities are developed, not innate, helps to protect girls against the effects of negative gender stereotypes surrounding Maths. In a 2012 study, Good et al. argue that the combined beliefs that a) maths ability is fixed and b) women, stereotypically, have less of this ability than men, in effect make women feel as though they do not belong in the Maths field.7 The result is that female students are less likely to pursue Maths in the future. The study’s interesting discovery is that a growth mindset message demonstrably influences a female student’s ‘sense of belonging’ in Maths and her related intent to pursue the subject in the future.
- A fixed mindset is the belief that talents and abilities are innate.
- A growth mindset is the belief that you can develop your talents and abilities through effort and practice.
- Shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can empower you to improve at skills you find difficult.
- Studies have shown that growth mindsets boost achievement of all students in mathematics, and particularly those who underachieve due to the effects of negative stereotypes, for instance female students.
You can watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk here: The power of believing that you can improve
1 Carol S. Dweck, ‘What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means,’ Harvard Business Review, 13 Jan 2016 <https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means>.
2 Carol S. Dweck, Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2008), p.4.
3 Dweck, Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement, p.2.
4 Jo Boaler, ‘Ability and Mathematics: The Mindset Revolution that is Reshaping Education,’ Forum 55.1 (2013), 143-52 (p.144); Dweck, Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement, p.2.
5 Good et al, cited in Boaler, ‘Ability and Mathematics,’ p.144.
6 Catherine Good, Joshua Aronson, and Michael Inzlicht, ‘Improving Adolescents’ Standardized Test Performance: An Intervention to Reduce the Effects of Stereotype Threat,’ Applied Developmental Psychology 24 (2003), 645-62 (p.656).
7 Catherine Good, Aneeta Rattan, and Carol S. Dweck, ‘Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102.4 (2012), 700-717.