Our “Fixed Mindset” towards Mathematics
The term “growth mindset” has become a buzzword in educational psychology over the past decade. First coined by Carol Dweck in 2007, a “growth mindset” is an attitude and perspective towards education guided by the belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are not innate, but can be developed and strengthened over time. Dweck contrasts the growth mindset with the “fixed” mindset, or guiding belief that intelligence and ultimate capabilities are set in stone and can never really be changed. Importantly, students, teachers, and parents can choose to change their mindsets at any point in life with reflection, guidance, and an openness to change.
There is perhaps no subject discussed more often in terms of reflecting “fixed mindsets” than mathematics. Adults and children tend to think of and describe themselves as either “good” or “bad” at math. Their ‘enjoyment’ of the subject is also often tied up in their black-or-white perception of their math abilities. These negative beliefs become even more dangerous when coupled with existent negative stereotypes that suggest that people of certain identities (particularly racial minorities and women) have inherently less capability and intelligence.
Math is therefore a field in which a positive growth mindset has the potential to make extraordinary change. Classroom environments conducive to supporting a positive growth mindset towards mathematics are ones in which learning (rather than grades) is prioritized; environments in which effort (rather than innate ability) is praised; environments that support a student’s self-confidence; environments where students have a real voice and feeling of purpose.
Jo Boaler has written extensively on how positive teacher-student relationships are incredibly important in instilling a positive growth mindset towards math in their students. It is important to make it clear that mistakes are valuable, questions are important, and that their teachers believe in them.
The fundamental goals of a positive math growth mindset are to encourage all students to be patient with themselves, learn from their mistakes, and keep trying. Practice, rather than inborn intelligence or skills, truly makes perfect.
Math Anxiety’s Effect on Teachers and Students
Anxiety is a common emotion experienced by students and teachers alike, particularly in math classes. “Math anxiety” is defined as an unpleasant, effective response to even the idea of learning or being tested on math concepts, and it has been proven to hinder the learning of math, diminish positive feelings towards math, hinder feelings of calm, and harm individual performance with mathematics (Akin & Kurbanoglu, 2011).
What is most surprising, though, is that math anxiety is experienced by over 50% of Americans (Picha, 2018). Anxiety over one’s performance in math affects girls in the classroom in particular. A study on 500 German students in grades 5-11 showed that girls were more anxious about their math performance and rated their math ability as lower than that of the boys, even though their actual grades were not statistically different (Goetz et al., 2013). This gender disparity extends to teachers as well. Women make up more than 90% of elementary school math teachers, and studies have shown that math teachers themselves (particularly in elementary schools) often have math anxiety.
A study on 167 pre-service elementary school teachers showed that many attributed their current math anxiety to a past negative experience or relationship with a math teacher (Bekdemir, 2010). Another study indicated that a fear of making mistakes, feeling dumb when getting a problem wrong, and having no confidence in their ability to do math was indicated by at least half of the students (of the total 53 teachers analyzed) as reasons for their current math anxiety (Harper & Daane, 1998).
This anxiety does not just affect the teacher; it affects their classroom environment, and their students’ mindsets, in often subtle ways. Research has shown that teachers’ attitudes towards math can be transmitted to their students, and higher math anxiety in teachers is related to lower math achievement in students. This relationship is due, in part, to teachers subconsciously modeling behaviors that relay their discomfort (Beilock et al., 2010).
Young students are especially prone to modeling this type of behavior/affect towards math; a study by Jackson and Leffingwell (1999) found that 16% of the students they surveyed had their first negative experience with math as early as 3rd and 4th grade, which, unsurprisingly, can influence students’ perceptions of math and their own math abilities later in their schooling (Zakaria & Nordin, 2007).
A Kinesthetic Approach to Ending Math Anxiety
Educators have come up with creative ways to implement kinesthetic learning strategies in their elementary school, middle school (and even high school) classrooms, as seen in the story below from an article by researchers Sinha and Modi (2014). The story details the experience of a teacher who sought to help her female students overcome their math anxiety by building their math confidence without them even realizing it:
“Using kinesthetic learning, girls can learn math in an environment when their mental barriers are not up. For example, algebra can be introduced through choreography. Girls can create a simple dance of three twirls followed by a jump and will write it down as “3x+y,” where “x” = twirl, and “y” = jump. Through dancing, these students ultimately came to realize that 3(x+y) = 3x+y+2y. Before they can say, “I can’t do algebra,” they already have! This begins the positive feedback loop of girls believing in themselves, and their confidence stems from knowing they have the ability to succeed.”
The observable connection between movement-based learning and the noticeable decrease in math anxiety is also evident in neuroscience research. Lyons and Beilock (2012) demonstrated that when individuals experience high math anxiety prior to taking a math test, going to math class, or even thinking about an upcoming math task, the brain regions that were activated overlapped significantly with regions of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is associated with threat detection and the sensation of physical pain. In other words, depending on the amount of anxiety that students have towards math, simply thinking about performing well on a math test can cause sensations of physical pain!
Luckily, the implementation of kinesthetic learning strategies (strategies as simple and as quick as having students stretch or do jumping jacks before a test) has been shown to increase student motivation and, at the neural level, serves as a buffer to things like math anxiety.
Kinesthetic learning strategies have the potential to be quite engaging for students, even older ones, and the simplicity and almost intuitive nature of applying movement-based exercises to classroom activities can allow for many opportunities for students to showcase their creativity and individuality. Kinesthetic learning strategies have also been shown to be associated with greater success at information processing, memory, and comprehension.
Novak (2018) demonstrated that incorporating kinesthetic movement into 8th graders’ learning of linear algebra equations helped them transition from a mere surface-level understanding of the material to a deep comprehension of it. The integration of physical activity also aided in students’ ability to comfortably use, recall, and articulate the correct mathematical vocabulary to their peers and teachers.
Similarly, in a study by Bonny, Lindberg, and Pacampara (2017), students with a deep understanding of hip-hop (music, dance, and history) were more skilled at tasks employing mental rotation (a skill linked to higher performance in STEM disciplines) and were also more skilled at identifying positive emotions in others. In turn, the development of socio-cognitive skills reinforces a positive feedback loop that supports academic achievement (Blair & Razza, 2007).
Our Goal – Ending “Mathphobia” Through Movement
Learn About The American Rescue Plan
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