Mindset (text version)

Math People—a Cultural Fallacy

There is no such thing as a “math person.”  In the same way that a weight lifter can increase his or her strength, a student can exercise his or her brain to become proficient at understanding quantitative subjects like math. Scientists have shown [1] that as you learn your brain gets stronger. This translates into being able to learn a wider variety of things.

Interpretation of neuron firing. blob in the middle of the page with long, skinny arms emanating from it with different segments lit up.

Inside your brain is a network of neurons, and when you learn new things, the connections between your neurons multiply and become stronger.  In contrast to the commonly expressed idea that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” scientists have demonstrated that adults can grow their brains, too. For some, learning is a lifetime endeavor.

Do you believe that you can learn how to juggle, ride a skateboard, speak another language, or paint? Think about what steps you would need to take to learn a new skill. Would you get better at any of these things by doing the same set of things over and over? Probably not.

Scientists have found that learning something new “grows” your brain more than practicing things you already know. You can apply this idea to learning math by paying attention to how you manage your feelings and attitudes when you make a mistake.

What kind of mindset you think you have about learning math?

  1. Math is hard, but I can figure it out eventually.
  2. I always have to ask a lot of questions—I can never figure things out on my own.
  3. I’m just not a math person: it doesn’t make sense to me.
  4. I enjoy doing math. I like problems that have just one solution.

Take a moment to think about how you feel or thoughts that you have when you make a mistake.  Did you know that the brains of people who believe they can learn anything (including math) actually grow when they make a mistake? Making a mistake in a math class does not automatically mean you are unable to learn the skills or concepts required in the class. Jo Boaler, a researcher and educator at Stanford University, presents a very positive and interesting view of the growth mindset as it pertains to learning math in the following video:

After watching the video, ask yourself (without placing any judgement) the following questions:

  • If you wanted to, do you believe you could change your mindset about learning math?
  • What kind of mindset toward learning math do you want to have?

Here is a list of positive attitudes and thoughts that can help you improve or change your mindset about learning math:

  • There is no such thing as a math person—everyone is capable of learning math.
  • Mistakes give you a roadmap for growth—they tell you where you have gaps in your knowledge.
  • Questions mean you are learning—if you didn’t have questions you would either already know it, or you wouldn’t care.
  • Math is creative. It’s about finding patterns and creating language about those patterns that everyone can understand.
  • Math is an international language—it knows no political or social boundaries.  It’s a beautiful way to describe patterns and behaviors using its own language, pictures, and words.
  •  Speed is for competitive athletes. Sometimes it takes us a while to really understand the deep and many-faceted concepts in mathematics, and that’s okay.

Try repeating one or more of these statements to yourself when you are faced with frustration, disappointment, or struggle with your math course.  You may be surprised to find that you can teach your brain to have a different attitude about math, and in doing so, you can achieve success.

  1. Driemeyer, J., Boyke, J., Gaser, C., Buchel, C., M ay, A. (2008). Changes in Gray Matter Induced by Learning — Revisited. PLoS One, 3, e266 9 . doi:10.1371 /journal.pone.0002669.