“Students tend to have more of a fixed view of maths skills than of other intellectual skills” – Carol Dweck
We have heard Carol Dweck’s assertion about how our students view their lack of natural maths ability and this is echoed by their teachers up and down the country. It seems like no other subject drives such a strong reaction from students as maths. Why is this the case? What can we do about it?
There are a number of separate factors that combine to explain why students believe they are not a ‘maths person’. This includes:
- The nature of the subject
- Students confuse speed with ability
- Parents view on Maths
Nature of the Subject - Maths is arguably the most complex, abstract, hypothetical subjects that require an absolutely definitive answer. This is different to subjects such as English, Geography and Art. With maths there is a clear right or wrong answer. With no middle ground, it is easy to see how getting a question wrong can lead to some students believing they have a lack of natural ability. The binary nature of the subject can lead to an equally black or white view of one’s talent.
Speed v Ability - Maths is also a subject where many students confuse speed with ability. They think the faster they can answer a question means the smarter they are. This goes hand in hand with not wanting to show their workings out (as surely naturally clever people can do it in their head).
Parental Influence – It is amazing how often parents let their stories become their child’s stories. Upon seeing their child struggle at maths, it is easy for many to say something along the lines of ‘I wasn’t good at maths either. No-one in our family is’. This subtly but powerfully tells the child that their efforts will make no difference, so there is no point in trying. Indeed, research suggests that the type of comments children aged even as young as 1-3 years old hear from their parents predict their growth or fixed mindset up to 5 years later. Much like the fleas in the video below, students often follow their parents’ example:
So, What Can Be Done?
So how do we best help these students develop a growth mindset in maths? The following 5 strategies should help:
- Focus on strategies
- Explicitly and repeatedly talk about showing their working out
- Emphasise quality over speed
- Use Powerful Psychological Strategies (Mindset, Metacognition and Sense of Purpose)
- Educate Parents
Focus on Strategies – Maths seems daunting if you don’t know where to start or what to do next. If students don’t know or don’t understand the step-by-step process, then no amount of comforting or self-belief will overcome this barrier. These sort of strategies only help once a base level of knowledge and understanding of how to solve maths problems is acquired. Nothing makes someone more confident or motivated to tackle maths challenges like knowing how they go about doing so.
A recent study also found that within maths, teachers who taught using multiple methods (i.e. showing different ways to work out the correct answer) helped nurture a growth mindset in their students. This suggests that multiple strategies > single strategy > comforting when it comes to fostering a growth culture.
Show Working Out – If students assume that not showing their working out equates to intelligence than we need to clearly and repeatedly educate them that this is not the case. Showing your working out is not an indication of lack of intelligence. Instead, we need to help them see that a) that is what good mathematicians do, b) it increases the chances of getting the answer correct (which will ultimately make you look smarter) and c) It is a way of picking up easy marks.
Quality Over Speed – Similar to the point above we need to educate students than in maths (and indeed life) it is more important to do something right then it is do it quickly. Conversations about this, or activities that reward quality over quantity are good starting points here.
Powerful Psychological Strategies – Three psychological strategies can help students improve their maths ability. They are developing a growth mindset, improving metacognition and having a sense of purpose.
Growth Mindset - Carol Dweck conducted an interesting study on the relationship between maths attainment and growth mindset. Dweck studied a group of 12-13 year olds’ maths progress over two years. Although they all started with similar levels of attainment, she found that the students with a growth mindset went on to achieve much higher grades, had a far greater belief in the power of effort, and a very positive attitude towards setbacks.
It is worth noting that not all growth mindset interventions offer a guarantee of success. The Education Endowment Fund found that although young students receiving a brief growth mindset intervention made 2 months progress in English and Maths, these results were not statistically significant, meaning that the authors couldn't rule out that this improvement wasn't due to chance. It seems that with all psychological strategies, the devil in the detail of how you implement it.
Metacognition – Is the ability to be aware of your thoughts and choose the most effective thought process. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching students these skills (more of which you can read about here) added on average 4 months progress to Year 5 maths students.
Sense of Purpose - Recent research suggests combining growth mindset and a 'sense of purpose' intervention may be particularly effective for underachieving students. A sense of purpose is essentially helping people identify what their motivation is and why doing well at this task will help them in the future. Combining growth mindset and a sense of purpose was found to help improve students’ performance in maths.
Educate Parents – If your school is working hard to educate students on how to develop a growth mindset, it makes sense to convey these messages to parents as well. It can be confusing if students hear one message at home and a different one at school. There really is no need for the parent’s story to become their child’s one as well. There is some interesting research on to which parent interventions are likely to work with growth mindset – something that we will be blogging about soon (so be sure to keep an eye out for them).
For many students, maths is the marmite subject. One way or the other, they have a very strong opinion about it (and their abilities at it). For those with a fixed mindset, it is likely that they are doomed to years of stress, frustration and unfulfilled potential. It does not have to be this way. With every research paper we get one tiny step closer to working out how we can best help, support, develop, nurture and improve how students view maths and as a result, develop a love of learning and passion for an undoubtedly fascinating and powerfully important subject.
For even more info take a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset, where you'll find links to blogs and research.