I’m Just Not a Math Person…Yet.

By Annie Ericson

As your high school math classes begin, you may find that you’re a bit intimidated because you’re just not a “math person.” Maybe math has never come easy to you and when you look at your peers, it seems they’ve got a natural ability that you just don’t possess. I’m excited to share that this perspective of yours is not a fact about you; rather, it is a mindset, and one that can be modified with just a few small shifts.

Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck introduced the idea of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets that shape our beliefs about ourselves and can have profound affects on nearly all aspects of our lives. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, behavior, intelligence, and abilities are static attributes that we can’t change in any meaningful way. A “growth mindset” sees challenges as opportunities for progress and stretching our abilities. Growth mindsets understand that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with exercise and because of this, knows that hard work and persistence are essential elements for achievement. These two mindsets have a great deal of influence on our behavior, and ultimately our success and happiness.

About 40% of students have these damaging “fixed mindsets” when it comes to math, according to Jo Boaler, Stanford University mathematics professor and author of Mathematical Mindsets. This means we have a lot of work to do! Our success in math is stunted—not because of our “abilities,” but because of our mindsets!

So what can you do to shift to a growth mindset? Keep reading for some tips you can implement starting tomorrow in class. (Psst! These tips apply outside the math class too.)

How to Cultivate a Growth Mindset in Math

Celebrate the process, not the results.

People who practice a growth mindset know that progress and growth require practice and persistence. Remember that your brain is a muscle, and just like any other muscle in our body, it grows stronger with exercise and “heavy lifting”. When approaching a new math problem, consider the process as exercise for your brain, and as you apply new strategies and practice math, new pathways in your brain will form. Your mathematical success is a product of effort and perseverance, not a product of getting correct answers.

Take pride in failure.

With a fixed mindset, failure can be scary, but with a growth mindset, failure is celebrated! Failure is an opportunity to learn and improve—it’s a key ingredient for learning and progress. When you fail, it is not a reflection of your abilities. Instead, failure illuminates where you can improve and helps create the next strategy to implement or process to follow. The next time you get an answer wrong in math class, don’t dwell on the fact that your answer wasn’t correct; instead, reflect on the processes and logic that led to an incorrect answer. Similarly, if you get “stuck” solving a problem, don’t give up easily. These “stuck” moments are another opportunity for growth. Adjusting to failure is one way we grow as humans!

End your sentences with “yet.”

Make the small but powerful mental shift from “I do not get this” or “I can’t do this” to “I don’t get this…yet” and “I can’t do this…yet.” When thinking to yourself, “this makes no sense,” reframe that thought as “this makes no sense…yet.”

“Yet” is a powerful word. It reframes obstacles and challenges in our brains from a finite and fruitless challenge to an open-ended opportunity that takes time to master. “Yet” reminds us that learning is a journey and re-instills the patience we need to continue to persevere, ask questions and try new strategies until we “get it.”

With “yet” in your vocabulary, you’re encouraging yourself to continue the process of learning and to celebrate the failure you’re sure to experience along the way – both cornerstones of a growth mindset in math, and both major mindset shifts that will have invaluable results on your education and character.

For more on Growth Mindset:

Reading: Mindset, the New Psychology of Success

Ted Talk: “Developing a Growth Mindset with Carol Dweck”

Materials and other resources: Youcubed

Annie Ericson is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at EPrep Woodland Hills in Cleveland.