When I was in primary school, I got picked out for a special breakaway class for maths. There was something like 6 or 8 of us and we got set a special project to work on. I can’t remember very well what it was, but it was something to do with fitting combinations of kids into a coach. Anyway, the brightest person in my year was there (Hi Louise!) so I thought that this was a great sign that I was a brainy kid and who doesn’t want to be one of those? (Well I know not everyone did, but I was definitely not the cool one so my options were limited in the primary school world)
We got paired off after having this special problem explained to us. But then I hit a snag. The problem was really hard. I had a few ideas on what to do, but none of them seemed to be working. I got frustrated and upset. I thought I was stupid. A lot of stuff at school had come pretty easily to me. I’m a smart kid, why can’t I do this? Maybe they made a mistake by putting me in this group? Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought I was?
It was a few years ago now – try 20 – so I can’t remember if it worked out OK or not. But what I do remember is the feeling of frustration and of not belonging in this group of ‘intelligent’ kids. Feeling as though my identity as one of the ‘smart’ ones was being threatened. Feeling pretty crappy about myself.
What does my story about a fall from grace as a brainy kid in school have to do with you and your Everyday Maths? Isn’t it a bit insensitive of me to start babbling on about me and my fancy-pants school friends? Well the point I’m trying to get across is this: No matter what your current level of attainment in something like maths, there’s always somewhere else to go. While getting good at something is great, we must be careful not to get too much of ourselves tied up with how good we are at something. Being smart was part of my identity and when something made me look less than smart I felt crushed. In the same way, it’s also not helpful for you to think of yourself as ‘not good at maths’, ‘not a maths person’ or worse ‘stupid’. If you think people are either good at maths or they aren’t then you might close yourself off to opportunities to learn more or expand your skills. You might think, “what’s the point in teaching someone that can’t be taught?” You also might not value the skills you do have, and not take opportunity to pass them onto others. These kinds of thoughts are all linked to something called the “Fixed Mindset”.
A fixed mindset is one where the following things might cross your mind, either consciously or unconsciously. See how many of them make sense to you or sound familiar:
- Some people can do certain things, and some can’t. There’s not much you can do to change that.
- If you’re good at things you don’t make mistakes and shouldn’t have to ask questions.
- Success is the most important thing. If you don’t get the grade/qualification/job that you wanted it’s because you’re not good enough.
- Learning should be easy, if you’re having to work too hard then this is not for you.
This is a very common view to hold, but in the end it can have quite a dramatic effect on what you learn and how you feel about yourself. No one wins.
A growth mindset maintains:
- Success comes from effort not in-born talent. Great abilities can be developed over time.
- Mistakes are useful. You can learn from mistakes, especially the painful ones.
- In order to learn we must be challenged and not avoid difficulty.
- Growth and progress is more important than where you end up. We all learn at different rates and will end up in different places but we can all improve what we do and what we know.
If this sounds a bit namby pamby to you, then I sympathise. Concentrating on effort not attainment sounds like an excuse for poor performance, or a get-out clause. The trouble is, concentrating on results doesn’t always work. If you praise results you end up with people who are so scared to fail that they won’t try more challenging stuff and therefore learn more. Fear of failure is counter-productive. No mistakes equals no learning.
If you’d like to learn more about how to implement a growth mindset in your maths journey, look out for a future post about Using the Growth Mindset.
If you’d like to learn more about the growth mindset you watch this TED talk from Carol Dweck
I’d love to hear about your experiences using either the Fixed or Growth mindsets. What kind of things to you tell yourself about improving your maths? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.