We are all born with math brains

Math, more than any other subject, is associated with innate ability.

I just didn’t get the math gene.

I have always struggled with numbers.

These phrases suggest that the sacred “math brain” is a gift that a small percentage of children receive at birth.

However, research over the past few decades has revealed that our brains are plastic. This means that instead of being born with a fixed amount of intelligence, our brains change as we learn and experience new things. Whenever we learn something deeply, we create new connections and pathways – we literally grow our brain. These findings prove that experience and learning create intelligence. Thus, everyone is capable of learning new things (like math) if they are provided the right set of experiences.

The belief that you can grow your intelligence is called a growth mindset. Carol Dweck developed this term, and in her research she found that about 40% of students have a growth mindset. Another 40% believe that intelligence is predetermined or fixed, and the last 20% fluctuate between the two. She also found that the beliefs you hold about your intelligence have a direct connection to your actions. People with a growth mindset are more likely to value hard work and see challenges as opportunities. People with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up and shy away from challenges.

So how do we use these findings to support math learning?

First, neural connections and pathways are built when we experience rich and stimulating experiences. When those experiences happen repeatedly and often, the connections and pathways get stronger. In order to grow your children’s math brain, you must provide them with an engaging environment that promotes mathematical thinking.

Second, you must support your children in developing a growth mindset. The experiences that grow our brains the most tend to be the most challenging. Your child must be able to embrace the mistakes and failures that are integral to the learning process.

We’ll dive deeper into activities you can do at home to build your child’s math brain in later blog posts. For today, I want to focus on some specific things you can do to foster a growth mindset in your child.

Praise for a Growth Mindset

The praise you give your child lays the foundation for whether or not they grow up with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Let’s zoom in on the impact of two common phrases:

You are so smart.

You are such a hard worker.

When a child internalizes that they are smart, they expect to overcome challenges easily. They confidently get the right answer and understand topics quickly – until one fateful day, they come across a challenge that they don’t immediately grasp. Maybe it’s fractions in elementary school, or quadratic equations in high school, or even matrices in college. As they struggle to make sense of the problem, a thought creeps into their head: does this mean that I’m not smart anymore?

On the other hand, when a child internalizes that they are hardworking, they come to value persistence. They know that a lot of the time, it takes multiple attempts to get to the answer or understand a topic. So, when they come across a challenge, they work through it, ask questions, and learn from their mistakes.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, telling your child that they’re smart does more harm than good. Being smart implies an innate ability, a fixed characteristic. This leads children to shy away from challenges because failure means they are no longer smart. Being a hard worker implies that ability is developed. This leads children to seek out challenges because mistakes are simply part of the learning process.

Additional Growth Mindset Messages

In addition to praise, all of the messages we tell children can have a tremendous impact. The key to building a grown mindset is to focus on the process instead of the outcome. Then, connect the process to brain growth.

Take a look at the difference between these growth mindset and fixed mindset messages below:

I know the brain growth messages may sound cheesy, but imagine the impact these messages can have if your child hears them regularly. The more often your child hears about learning from mistakes and growing their brain, the more likely they are to believe it.

Your child will, and should, experience challenges as they learn concepts in math, and these messages will set the foundation for them to approach each challenge with confidence.


Take Action

  1. Reflect on your own beliefs about math ability. If you struggle to wrap your head around the idea that all children are born with a math brain, check out the resources below about growth mindset and brain plasticity.
  2. Actively practice giving your child growth mindset praise. Ask yourself: does that message build a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?
  3. Choose one brain growth message you want to start incorporating into your vocabulary. If you don’t like any of my examples, that’s fine – make your own! If you develop one you really like, share it with me and I’ll add it to this post.

Growth Mindset Resources


Caveat

Before you go off changing your entire vocabulary, I have one caveat that Carol Dweck has brought up over the past few years. The goal of building a growth mindset is learning and achievement. Praising effort is essential, but that doesn’t mean effort alone matters. We still want children to be able to master new ideas and concepts.

Be wary of phrases like Just do your best – it’s important that our children are actually doing their best – or It’s ok, just keep trying – a lot of the time, trying alone won’t solve a problem. Instead, encourage students to try different strategies and emphasize the importance of learning from mistakes.


References

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. (2015 September 22). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html.

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