Historically, people have either identified as a “Math Person” or “Not a Math Person”. The idea that a person is born either being good at math or not couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there is a plethora of research that has been collected to debunk this idea, most recently in the domain of neuroscience.
So, let’s go back to the idea of what math is. While math certainly contains computations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, those things are really such a small part of mathematics. Mathematics is a science that explores the logic of shapes, quantities, and patterns. Math is everywhere and in everything we do. It’s the building block for everything in our daily lives, such as architecture, computers, software, art, money, cooking, music, and even sports! So how can we as educators transform the idea of what math is in our classrooms? Dan Finkel, who holds a PhD in mathematics, has made it his mission to address these misunderstandings starting in the classroom. Learn more about Finkel’s Five Extraordinary Principles of Math Teaching in this video: Dan Finkle-Five Extraordinary Principles of Math Teaching.
These days, it’s almost impossible to talk about math identity without mentioning Jo Boaler. Her book, Mathematical Mindsets, is an excellent resource to learn more about how understanding the neuroplasticity of the brain can help to overcome the idea that people are either born with or without a math brain. Research on mindset shows that when people change their ideas about the malleability of their potential from “fixed” (my ability is not changeable) to “growth” (my ability changes as I learn) their learning and achievement improves (Dweck, 2006). Different studies, pioneered by Carol Dweck, have shown that students with a growth mindset achieve at higher levels than those with a fixed mindset (Blackwell et al., 2007; Claro et al., 2016) and that when students - and educators - change their mindset, their achievement changes as well (Aronson et al., 2002; Good et al., 2003).
What can educators do to foster a positive math identity in their students? First and foremost, view themselves as mathematicians and embrace a positive math mindset. Next, have fun with math and incorporate various games, puzzles, and riddles into instruction. Embrace the idea that math is a collaborative subject where noticings, wonderings, and connections should be a daily part of instruction. Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Therefore, consider embedding gamification and play into your math class or block. Here are just a few sites with low floor, high ceiling activities to help you achieve this in your classroom:
So, go ahead and give yourself permission to have fun and play with mathematics! As Dan Finkel says, “Math has the potential to be our greatest asset in teaching the next generation to meet the future with courage, curiosity, and creativity.”