By Susanna Miller, M.A., Producer of Educational Content with the LD@school team
Most educators have probably heard a student say “I’m not good at math” or “I’m not a math person”. You may have even heard this idea reinforced by parents and other educators. However, it’s rare to hear the equivalent for other subjects. While reading comes easier to some students than others, it is doubtful that you would hear a parent say “my child just doesn’t have a reading brain”.
Math differs from other subjects in many ways, including the emphasis on speed and the focus on calculations, procedures and rules to attain a single correct answer. In addition, math requires students to continually learn new mathematical concepts as skills develop in a more cumulative manner than reading (Sainio, Eklund, Ahonen & Kiuru, 2019), which increases the likelihood of making errors and meeting roadblocks over time. These are among many reasons students may struggle in the math classroom, however, an even bigger barrier to math success may be the belief that either students have a natural talent for math or they lack what it takes to achieve and succeed. This is called a fixed mindset and students with learning disabilities (LDs) are especially prone to this mentality.
Mindsets: Why attitudes about learning matter
Mindsets are the beliefs that people hold about their own intellectual abilities and the abilities of others. Some believe that the ability to learn is limited, or fixed, and that there is not much that can be done to change it. In contrast to this fixed mindset is a growth mindset, which is the belief that with the right instruction and practice anyone can improve their ability (Dweck, 1999). This is not to say that everyone’s ability or skill level is or can be the same, only that they can be increased. Growth mindset has been supported by recent research that has shown that the brain grows, adapts and changes across the entire lifespan (Boaler, 2016).
In addition to matching what we know about brain development, growth mindset also has numerous benefits for students. Research has shown that the growth mindset is linked to higher motivation and achievement (Dweck, 2015). Students who have a growth mindset tend to get higher grades, are more likely to recover from an initial bad grade, and report valuing learning more than the grades they receive. They are also more likely to use new strategies and change their approach when hitting a roadblock, which is vital for success in the math classroom (Dweck, 2008).
There is also some evidence that a growth mindset can serve as a protective factor to mitigate the negative effects of stereotypes and inequality related to gender, culture, or socioeconomic status. Despite recent research, showing similarities in math performance across gender (Lindberg et al., 2010, Kersey et al., 2019) the stereotype that men are better than women in math still remains. This stereotype discourages women from entering careers in math and has a negative impact on female students’ performance in the math class. Research has shown that when students have a fixed mindset, males tend to outperform females. However, when female students had a growth mindset, they slightly outperformed their male peers, reported more often that they felt like they belonged in math, and indicated they intended to continue studying math (Dweck, 2008). The growth mindset has similar positive effects for students impacted by poverty. One study found that low-income students were twice as likely to have a fixed mindset, however students with a growth mindset outperformed those that did not, regardless of socioeconomic level (Claro et al., 2016). When students believe that the odds are stacked against them, they underperform. A growth mindset helps students understand that their abilities in math can improve and are not limited due to things out of their control such as their genes, gender, or socioeconomic status.
On the other hand, students with a fixed mindset tend to believe that success relies on innate talent and working hard is only necessary if you lack ability. These students approach tasks as a way to prove their intelligence. Any struggle when completing a task undermines their self-concept and they are more likely to give up when tasks required greater effort (Hartmann, 2013). They take fewer risks and do not tend to try new approaches (Tugend, 2007). They are also less likely to believe that added effort would improve their performance on tasks, which makes them prone to negative strategies, like cheating and lying about their grades (Dweck, 2008).
LDs and Mindset
Students with LDs have often faced repeated failure and have to work harder than other students to achieve the same results. Their past struggles have primed students with LDs to have a fixed mindset. In the math classroom, the difficulties experienced by students with LDs can be compounded. The nature of math means it is not only students diagnosed with a specific learning disability in mathematics (ie. dyscalculia) that struggle. Issues with working memory, attention, planning, and self-regulation can all put learners at risk of encountering difficulties in the math classroom (Witzel & Little, 2016). Students with LDs that affect their language ability can also hit roadblocks when math instruction includes difficult terminology.
Past academic struggles predispose students with LDs to develop negative emotions about their learning, which reinforces a fixed mindset. Just like other students with a fixed mindset, students with LDs:
- tend to enjoy and value learning less
- are less motivated to complete tasks
- are more likely to avoid tasks
- tend to have lower self-perception
(Sainio et al., 2019, Hartmann, 2013)
Special education methods like differentiated instruction may help students struggling in math to learn the necessary concepts, however, these supports do not address the beliefs students with LDs have about themselves and others, which limit their achievement.
The good news is that mindset can be changed; often, through simple means. In one study of 400 students in grade five, half were told they were “really smart” after doing well on a test, while the other half were praised for the effort they put in. The students were then asked to complete one of two tasks: an easy one that they would do well on or a more interesting but more difficult task. The majority of the students who were told they were smart chose the simple task, while 90% of students praised for their effort chose the more difficult task (Tugend, 2007). Just making small changes to the way you instruct your math class can have a huge effect on learning and performance, especially for students with LDs. However, it is important to note that changing mindsets is an ongoing goal not just a one-time activity. When growth mindset is built into your daily lesson plans it allows both students with LDs and their educators time to practice and internalize this new way of thinking.
Tips for Creating “Math Mindsets”
- See the fixed mindset in yourself.
Most teachers hold a combination of fixed and growth mindsets, as they have seen students learn and improve when given the correct strategies and support. Unfortunately, teachers of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) are among the most inclined to hold fixed ideas about which students can succeed in these fields (Boaler, 2016). Therefore, it is important for educators to recognize and acknowledge their own tendency towards a fixed-mindset in their teaching and educational philosophy. Even if these beliefs are not obvious to you or verbally expressed to students, you may still be sending the wrong message. Something as simple as grouping students by skill level, even when students aren’t explicitly told which group is which, can signal to students that some people belong and others do not.
When an educator adopts a growth mindset it has a positive effect on the whole class. Teachers with a growth mindset in math are more encouraging and provide students with more concrete strategies for improvement. When teachers believe intelligence and ability are fixed, only the students that they view as having high ability do well in their classes. With a growth mindset a broader range of students succeed (Dweck, 2008). In order to bring the growth mindset into your math classroom, you must first model it!
- Change the dialogue in your class.
Students base their mindsets largely on the feedback and praise that they receive from caregivers, including parents and teachers. Praising a student’s effort instead of their intelligence will challenge a fixed mindset and reinforce a growth mindset. As Jo Boaler describes in Mathematical Mindsets, “when students hear they are smart, they feel good at first, but when they struggle and fail – and everyone does – they start to believe they are not so smart” (2016, pp 178). When the goal is to be smart in the eyes of the teacher, students have to prove their intelligence over and over again.
Focus your praise on the process NOT the product or the person. Instead of telling students that they are smart for getting the right answer, compliment the logic in their thinking, their ability to switch approaches when one doesn’t work, their perseverance, or their improvement. By giving growth-oriented feedback that praises the process, you can lead students to thrive on challenges.
- Resist the urge to console students when they make mistakes or face setbacks.
While it may seem to be comforting for your students to hear that “not everyone is good at math” when upset by a bad mark on a test, this attitude will hurt them in the end. It sends the message that some students, the smart ones, will always do well at math and that those who struggle will never succeed. These types of statements give students permission to stop trying and lower students’ expectations of themselves. Rather than giving the student an empty consolation, focus your feedback on what the student can do differently in the future or even allow them to correct their mistakes for extra marks.
- Do not avoid mistakes
Math is a challenging subject where students are bound to make mistakes – lots of them. However, for students with a fixed mindset, making mistakes can be so deterring that they end up giving up rather than persisting. Therefore, it is important to make mistakes a normal part of the learning process in math to encourage students to persist and show value in the learning process. Emphasize to students that mistakes mean they are learning and that they are actively changing their brain. Let them know that the goal of math class is not to get every answer correct but rather to grow and deepen their understanding step by step.
Another way to normalize mistakes in the math classroom is to share YOUR mistakes with students. This will demonstrate to students that even someone with higher mathematical academic achievements is also capable of making mistakes, and that is okay. You may also want to make an activity out of an error that you have made – get students to detect the error, find an alternative solution, have a class discussion to discuss their process of detecting and correcting the mistake, and what they learned from this exercise.
- Accept multiple ways of solving problems
Although there is often only one correct answer for a question in math, there are many pathways that can lead to that answer. Encourage students to find multiple ways to solve math problems. Allow them to visualize, draw, use manipulatives, and share their strategies with the class through number talks. Seeing that diverse thinking can still lead to the correct answer shows students that there are many ways to be good at math and encourages creativity.
- Value depth over speed
Being good at math is often seen as equivalent to being fast. Pressure to recall math facts quickly can lead to math anxiety, which has now been recorded in students as young as five years old (Boaler, 2016). Additionally, speeding through a math worksheet to meet time constraints or rushing to recall facts when put on the spot discourages students from engaging in deep thinking. Students may have memorized the necessary formulas without understanding their meaning or being able to explain why their answers made sense. Rather than giving students a worksheet full of equations to solve in a given time period consider giving one or two challenging problems that require deeper thinking.
Mindsets can effect learning across all subjects, however, math is an area of study both students and teachers are prone to viewing through the lens of a fixed mindset. Though this may seem negative, it also means that math is an area of study where adopting a growth mindset can have the most impact. By shifting the focus during math instruction, from intelligence and natural ability to the student’s improvement, perseverance and thinking ability, you alter how students view themselves as learners, which plays a key role in their motivation and achievement. If you want students who see their role in the math class as thinking deeply and making sense of the world around them, growth mindset is a step in the right direction. With the right mindset, instruction, and support all students can learn and grow their abilities in the math classroom.
Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints.
Dweck, C.S. (1999). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis/Psychology Press.
Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement. [online] Growthmindsetmaths.com. Available at: https://www.growthmindsetmaths.com/uploads/2/3/7/7/23776169/mindset_and_math_science_achievement_-_nov_2013.pdf [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].
Dweck, C.S. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.
Hartmann, G. (2013). The Relationship Between Mindset and Students with Specific Learning Disabilities (Masters Thesis). Humboldt State University. USA.
Kersey, A. J. Braham, E.J., Csumitta, K.D. et al. (2018). No intrinsic gender differences in children’s earliest numerical abilities. Npj Science of Learning, 3(12). doi: 10.1038/s41539-018-0028-7
Lindberg, S. M., Hyde, J. S., Petersen, J. L., & Linn, M. C. (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6), 1123–1135. doi: 10.1037/a0021276
Sainio, P., Eklund, K., Ahonen, T., & Kiuru, N. (2019). The Role of Learning Difficulities in Adolescents’ Academic Emotions and Academic Acheivement. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 52(4). 288-298.
Tugend, Alina. (2007, November 24). The Many Errors in Thinking About Mistakes. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/business/24shortcuts.html
Witzel, B. S., & Little, M. E. (2016). Teaching Elementary Mathematics to Struggling Learners. New York: The Guilford Press.
Susanna Miller is the Producer of Educational Content for LD@school. She received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics from Queen’s University and a Master of Arts degree in Early Childhood Studies from Ryerson University. Susanna enjoys connecting with innovative educators across the province and accessing and sharing cutting-edge research on LDs. Her favourite part of her job is hearing student success stories.