How To Learn Math #2

math-mindsetsRecently, I began a MOOC (massive open online course) called How to Learn Math – For Teachers and Parents (2).  More than 40,000 people took the last class – mainly teachers, parents and school administrators. 95% of people completing the end of course survey said that they would change their teaching or ways of helping as a result of the course.  The course offers important new research ideas on learning, the brain, and math that can transform students’ experiences with math and is based on the work of and narrated by Jo Boaler.  It’s divided into 8 sessions and each one ends with a prompt to write a one paragraph summary reflection on the ideas.  My plan is to post those reflections here.

The second session is titled, Maths and Mindset.  There are 4 ideas that spoke to me here.

Most of us are capable of doing math.  Brain research tells us that the brain can change and grow.  Less than 5% of the population experiences severe special needs that will significantly affect their ability to learn.  But even in those situations, brain growth still occurs.  This means that our teaching has to be responsive to students’ needs.  If it’s not, students will become frustrated with learning math and soon, the trust they may have had in their teacher will fade.  Once that happens, classroom management becomes an issue and conflict starts to be of a personal nature.  And that can be the point of no return in the relationship between a student and teacher.

The brain can change and rewire itself.  It’s called neuroplasticity.  When learning happens in the brain, synapses fire which creates connections between neurons.  Returning to an idea strengthens neural pathways.  When students believe they can’t do math, it’s not because their brains aren’t wired that way or that their brains are incapable of being wired that way.  It is because they don’t believe that they are capable of learning math.

Media portrayal of math is awful.  The media usually portrays math as boring and inaccessible.  Those who are proficient with math are usually “nerdy” individuals, white, male, or Asian.  So, it becomes difficult for us to change those ideas because students, parents, and even some of our colleagues start to believe them.  How many times have you heard, I don’t get this new math?

There are two kinds of mindsets.  If one has a fixed mindset, he/she assumes there’s a certain amount of unchangeable intelligence.  They also believe that math ability is a gift and failure says to him/her that he/she is not “smart”.  Because of this, he/she will avoid challenging tasks.  This mindset is prevalent in high achieving girls and it will likely affect their choice of future course or career.  A fixed mindset can be encouraged with praise of a fixed nature – “You’re so smart.”  Someone with a growth mindset assumes that math ability or “smartness” grows with experience.  He/she sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and this mindset can be strengthened with praise that addresses effort instead of result.  “You worked really hard on that.”

Mindsets are established early but can also be changed.  Research has shown that the kind of praise that a 3-year-old receives can predict his/her mindset 5 years later.  However, early mindset intervention can also change this and often immediately.  This means that mindsets can be changed for the better or for the worse.  In cases of positive mindset change intervention, it’s been shown that African-Americans and girls show the sharpest increase in grades and valuing school.  Positive mindset change intervention also eliminates gender differences in achievement.  In fact, after 8th grade, gender gap achievement exists mainly among fixed mindset students.  As well, among girls with growth mindsets taking STEM subjects, they were more likely to ignore gender stereotyping messages and continue in those STEM subjects.



4 thoughts on “How To Learn Math #2

  1. Interesting… shouldn’t this process of being responsive to students include teaching a curriculum that is responsive to the world we live in? In particular, shouldn’t our curriculum reflect the data driven nature of our society?


  2. Good stuff, Joe. It’s important for everyone, including math teachers, to remember that the potential for learning a concept is almost always there. We conflate “ability to learn this” with “ability to learn this in these prescribed 75 minutes” very easily.

    I would like it if my teaching schedule could become responsive to students’ needs. Sometimes I need more than 110 hours with my students. The potential is so often there, but is not respected by the relentless semester.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not sure if the “relentless semester” takes into account the non-exceptional student whose cognitive abilities across the board are all low and who are not supposed to be modified by our Board definition.


      • I don’t think it even takes into account the non-exceptional learner with “typical” cognitive abilities… how confident are we that our curriculum expectations, year by year, are appropriate for most students? What if they’re not calibrated well? Then we could be systematically widening skill and conceptual gaps. Seems to me that could be a problem we’re having in Ontario…

        Liked by 1 person

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