“I am not a math person.” “I can’t do math.” “I am bad at math.”
We have all either said one of these statements or at the very least heard them. But guess what? They may not be true! In 1948, sociologist Robert Merton coined the expression “self-fulfilling prophecy” and Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets uses Merton’s theory to explain how negative feelings about math can actually change a person’s math performance. She argues that teachers and parents can help students be successful in math by changing students’ attitudes toward math.
Boaler’s book is meant to be a “road map” for reducing stress and anxiety about math. She suggests incorporating practical strategies and activities into math lessons in order to unleash the math potential in all students. The author stresses the importance of embracing mistakes because mistakes actually help mathematical thinking and argues we should take the negative connotation out of making an error. She presents data that support the theory that the ability to tackle problems, find novel strategies and solutions and collaborate with others is more important than the actual math calculations. She encourages teachers, schools and parents to move away from grading math (which puts a negative focus on mistakes) and focus on the process. Boaler insists it is essential that parents and teachers promote a positive mindset about math in order to create positive self-fulfilling beliefs in students.
Working out new solutions.
In my classroom, I tried out a few of Boaler’s practical applications. I began using math-related comics and visuals as part of our morning work. We started applauding for kids who made mistakes and thanking them for helping our brains grow. I encouraged students to explore math outside of school during the weekends and report back on Monday. I invited a parent to come into the classroom to talk about his relationship with math and how he uses math in his job as a venture capitalist. One of the most effective strategies was a “this is your brain when you make a mistake” paper on my white board. At the beginning of the day, we use a plain piece of white paper to represent our brains. Every time a student makes a mistake or finds a new way to think about or solve a problem, we crumple the paper and the wrinkles represent new brain synapse and brain growth. Kids love going up to crumple the paper!
A math-related visual included in students’ morning work.
A parent discusses how he uses math in his everyday life.
At left, crumpling paper to represent how the brain grows from mistakes. At right, a sample of weekend work.
I hope that by following Boaler’s road map and changing a few practices in my classroom I can help students feel more positive and excited about math – thereby making them less likely to claim to be “bad at math” in the future!