Following the success of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, many people, including educators, started to take a deeper look at intelligence. Are we born with a fixed amount of ability? Are we limited in how much we can learn and grow? Are some people just doomed to be less intelligent than others? Nowhere in education is this more prevalent than in the mathematics classroom. This idea that either you have the “math gene” or you don’t has prevented many students from reaching their mathematical potential. Students believe that if they struggle with math, they must not be a “math person.” They feel they will never be good at math, so why even try. As educators we have the opportunity and charge to empower students with the idea that they are capable of more.
I remember one of the years I taught fourth grade, I was warned about the upcoming class. A lot of the information I was given belabored how low performing and unmotivated the students were in math. Failing test scores, lists of interventions and discipline issues filled the pages of these students’ records. As their soon to be fourth grade teacher, I could have easily written many of them off as lacking the “math gene” or not being a “math person.” One student in particular stands out among the rest. Test failures and retentions had made him really doubt his abilities in math. He often misbehaved during math time because of these insecurities. I soon realized that my attitudes and behaviors greatly affected his attitudes and behaviors. In order for him to believe he could be successful in math, I had to believe he could be successful in math. Although overwhelmed by the task ahead, I knew I could help him grow his mathematical mind. Mistakes had to turn from a time of failure to a time of learning. Struggles had to be met with persistence and encouragement. Successes, no matter how small, had to be acknowledged and built upon. Past efforts would not dictate current achievement.
By the end of the year, that fourth grade student had changed. I had changed. For both of us, math ability was no longer something you have or you don’t. It became something that can grow and change if only given the chance.