Six Strategies to
Foster a Positive Math Mindset
How often have you started your year with students who have a negative math mindset? They say they hate math.
I don’t know about you, but I find that it happens every year…and when I ask student why, students often can’t say….so, I don’t necessarily believe math is what students “hate” (though they think so).
Instead, I believe it’s something that happens or has happened in math classes that they dislike.
My goal is always to help students like math class enough that they’ll open their minds to the possibility that math can be fun, interesting, and even helpful. Developing this positive math mindset can be a challenge when some of them have had a negative math mindset for years.
I’ve found that a few simple actions/habits on my part seem to lead to improved student attitudes and the mindset that math might actually be a “likeable” subject.
It’s not necessarily the way I explain concepts (although I like to think I do that well:-), but more my attitude of acceptance that I think helps to change their mindsets.
In this math mindset post, you’ll find a few strategies I believe have helped my students develop a like (if not a love) of math.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 1:
1) Encourage students to ask questions and then be willing to take the time to answer them.
The more they ask, the more they learn. Yes, it takes extra time sometimes, but it’s worth it….I want them to develop deeper understanding, (which helps develop a positive math mindset), and that happens through questioning.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 2:
2) Allow students to talk to each other about math.
- What were the answers?
- How did they solve?
- Why do they have different answers?
Other times they work on problem solving together….
- What do they know?
- How will they approach the problem?
- Where are they stuck?
Talking about math is so important to developing a positive math mindset, and they come understand that they can share their ideas freely.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 3:
The more I ask them to justify their thinking, the more able they are to do so, and the more they like to explain….even if it’s not “right”- they know I’m not judging, I’m just listening. I love having them go to the board to illustrate their “whys.” Some students are super willing to do so at the start of the year, while others take a while. But by the end of the year, they feel comfortable explaining their whys….a little proof of the positive math mindset they’re developing.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 4:
4) Tell stories about math in real life.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 5:
5) Be accepting of students’ thinking, explanations, and mistakes.
Sometimes students are on the right track, and sometimes they aren’t….but making mistakes helps to grow the brain, so it’s ok if they aren’t on the right track. Yes, some math problems have one right answer, but when students are simply told, “No, that’s not right,” they may shut down and tune out….feeling embarrassed about making a mistake or sharing “wrong” thinking.
Peter Sims, writer for the New York Times, says that successful people “feel comfortable being wrong.” Students need to realize that they ARE doing some correct, valid thinking, even if it leads them to the wrong answer.
It can sometimes be challenging to take time in class to find the parts of student thinking that can be built on, to lead to the right answer. But as a math teacher, that’s part of my purpose…take students from where they are, ask them questions, share thoughts, accept their mistakes, understand what they’re thinking….and expand it or redirect it to help grow the concept in their minds.
According to Jo Boaler, “One of the most powerful moves a teacher or parent can make is in changing the message they give about mistakes and wrong answers in mathematics.” When students observe you accepting and building from others’ mistakes, they become comfortable sharing their own ideas.
Fostering a Positive Math Mindset, Strategy 6:
6) Let them explore math concepts!
But, letting students explore math and play with math is so valuable! In Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, she references brain research and the idea that, “If you learn something deeply, the synaptic activity will create lasting connections in your brain, forming structural pathways, but if you visit an idea only once or in a superficial way, the synaptic connections can “wash away” like pathways made in the sand.” She also references a Park & Brannon study that found, “…the most powerful learning occurs when we use different pathways in the brain…”
Giving students time to explore math allows them to explore those pathways and think more deeply. This can only benefit them, build their foundation for the topics you’ll teach, and foster a positive, growth math mindset.