3 ways to foster positive math mindsets in students

Math mindsets are a daily challenge for many students and adults, from negative self-perceptions to shadows cast by “star” math students.
Tim Hudson
Tim Hudson
Tim Hudson serves as chief learning officer at Discovery Education, where he supports partner districts and internal teams as they develop and implement research-based, innovative, and effective resources for teachers and students. Prior to joining Discovery Education, Hudson spent 10 years in public education.

Math mindsets are a daily challenge for many students and adults. Whether it’s negative self-perceptions about their own identity and capability in math or an intimidating shadow cast by “star” math students at school, it’s common for students to doubt whether they belong in math class, let alone believe they can be successful in it.

Fortunately, administrators, teachers, instructional coaches, parents, caregivers and curriculum developers have the power to change this narrative. Here are three steps to help schools achieve these goals:

Step 1: Provide educators with strong resources and support

Teachers are the most effective professionals in developing students’ math confidence and identity. Each day, they affirm and support students’ mindsets in math. To empower students, district leaders must first empower teachers with resources that both improve achievement and cultivate a positive math mindset.

While printed curricular materials and digital programs need to be aligned with state standards and research-based pedagogical principles, districts should also evaluate resources based on how well they support students’ confidence and sense of belonging in math. After materials have been adopted, districts should focus on successful implementation and professional learning to ensure consistency across classrooms that will lead to these outcomes.

To that end, districts should offer relevant resources for ongoing professional development to help teachers stay current on best practices that create dynamic and inclusive learning environments where all students feel like they belong and can be successful.

Step 2: Incorporate the right tools to focus on critical thinking

Many students who have difficulty learning the computation aspects and “basics” of mathematics are often wrongly forced to just keep working on computation until they “get it.” As Wiggins and McTighe noted in Schooling by Design: “Because they are less likely to have acquired the basics on the same schedule as more advanced learners, struggling learners are often confined to an educational regimen of low-level activities, rote memorization of discrete facts, and mind-numbing skill-drill worksheets. The unfortunate reality is that many of these students will never get beyond the first rung of the ladder and, therefore, have minimal opportunities to use what they are learning meaningfully. Who wouldn’t be inclined to drop out under such conditions?” (p. 45)

Unfortunately, most supplemental online math programs have simply digitized this skill-drill work. We should want and expect more for our students. Technology should be used to free teachers to engage students in more critical thinking experiences where they focus on ideas and skills that AI and calculators can’t do.

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Without putting a burden on teachers’ time for assessment and grading, truly adaptive education technologies can use real-time strategy and error analysis to identify areas where a student may be struggling or excelling. Teachers can use these insights about student thinking to provide personalized support and interventions that improve students’ confidence by addressing their specific needs soon after they surface.

Step 3: Measure what matters—critical thinking, confidence and curiosity

While test scores are one metric used to measure the proficiency of students and evaluate curricular resources, we also need to reduce math anxiety, improve students’ confidence, and reframe how we define and engage with math, so students are inspired and curious in class.

Some technology tools can also improve critical thinking and confidence because they allow for the creation of interactive visualizations and simulations that help students more deeply understand and make sense of mathematical concepts. In some cases, digital visualizations and animations will provide insights about math concepts that can’t be gleaned from physical manipulatives.

As districts work to empower the next generation of students with confidence and skills in all subjects, we need to change math education by replacing students’ fear and uncertainty with confidence and success. This means all of us belong in mathematics and can experience success under the right conditions. We’ll know we’ve achieved our goal when neither students nor adults ever say, “I’m not a math person.”

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