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Becoming a Math Person

Why students develop an aversion to mathematics — and how teachers can help change their minds
boy resting head on number-covered blackboard

We’ve all seen it happen to a child confronting long division, or a teenager grappling with geometry. We’ve even done it ourselves. The frustrated pencil drop, the defeated shoulder slump, and finally, the resigned proclamation: “I just can’t get this. I’m not a math person.”

But what does being a “math person” really mean? And more important, how can teachers help every student feel prepared and excited to tackle new concepts in mathematics?

According to HGSE Lecturer Noah Heller, the idea that there are “math people” and “not math people” is a social construct and not based on inherent characteristics. It stems from the belief that math intelligence is a fixed trait, rather than something that grows and develops with hard work and opportunities to learn. But the notion of a “math person” is still a useful one for math teachers to consider when trying to develop lessons and classroom norms that foster perseverance in all students.

“If there’s a threat of being wrong every time I raise my hand, and being wrong is a bad thing, then very quickly I decide math isn’t for me, I don’t like this, I’m not a smart person."

Forced into Mathematics

When students proclaim that they’re “not ‘math persons,’ that’s an indication that they feel outside of mathematics, that math doesn’t belong to them,” explains Heller, the master teacher in residence for mathematics at the Harvard Teachers Fellows Program. “They feel like the math learning expected of them is something that they’re forced to do and memorize, or a way in which they’re asked to conform their thinking or cram for examinations. When students say they’re not ‘math persons,’ they mean that they don’t see mathematics as a useful practice that can help them interpret and navigate the world.”

Developing a Mind for Math

Math intelligence — and therefore the traits of a “math person” — can be nurtured and enhanced, Heller says. Teachers can take steps to help students develop a growth mindset — the view, popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, that it takes determination and persistence to achieve success (in math, in this case), not innate talent. Heller outlines some of those mindset-changing steps here:

  1. Create opportunities for cooperative learning. When students learn from each other by discussing problem-solving strategies, they discover new techniques for approaching problems and new attitudes that help them persevere.
  2. Give students the chance to productively struggle. Math lessons are often set up to value outcomes, which are either right or wrong. But rich problems take time to figure out. Teachers should give students the chance to interpret complex problems in their own way, and they should encourage students to try a new approach if they’ve hit a dead end.
  3. Encourage participation, even if the student doesn’t have the right answer yet. “If there’s a threat of being wrong every time I raise my hand, and being wrong is a bad thing, then very quickly I decide math isn’t for me, I don’t like this, I’m not a smart person,” Heller explains. Teachers need to frame wrong answers as opportunities for learning, rather than as summative assessments of ability. When a student participates, he doesn’t have to feel sure he has the right answer — just confident that sharing his work will help move him in the right direction.
  4. Re-envision math as a language. Math teachers, says Heller, can work to “create classrooms where learners are situated as insiders, where they have opportunities to construct knowledge so that they feel it belongs to them and is useful in their world.” To foster that environment, Heller likens math class to a language class. Math students should feel that they can claim ownership over mathematics in the same way English language learners learn to claim ownership over English.

Above all, to succeed in math classes and to feel motivated to pursue mathematics-related careers, students need to feel comfortable with and excited about mathematics — they need to feel like they, too, are math persons.

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