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Addressing the “I Can’t Do Math” Mindset in Your Classroom

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frustrated boy

One of the most difficult tasks for math teachers is helping frustrated students overcome their negative feelings about learning math. The reasons for these feelings are varied, but the end result is all too often the same. They contribute to low achievement in mathematics.  

The Math Myth

Unfortunately, society does little to help dispel the myth that some people can’t do math. For example, girls have traditionally been told that boys do better in math and science than girls do. Parents often, whether intentionally or unintentionally, pass their own negative feelings about mathematics on to their children. Much attention has been given to terms like math anxiety and math phobia. Stereotypes have developed, and when a student experiences difficulty with math, it has become far too common to blame it on being one of those people who just can’t do math.

Why This Mindset?

One of the major reasons people develop the mindset that they can’t do math has to do with the cumulative structure of mathematics. Each concept serves as a building block of a foundation upon which future concepts are built. Missing out on just one or two basic ideas can cause a student to have difficulty with further learning. This can happen at any point in the curriculum, but when it happens in the elementary grades, the helpless feelings begin early and often continue into high school and beyond.

So how can a teacher eliminate the “I can’t do math” barriers to learning? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Variables such as personality, work ethic, and how many gaps in learning have occurred all come into play. Teachers must experiment and find what works best for each situation.

Strategic Intervention Ideas

  •  I won’t go so far as to say that attitude is everything, but almost. If you can get a student to really believe that success in math is possible, you’ve won a big battle. Most people won’t believe it until they actually experience some measure of achievement, but constantly convey the notion that everyone can be successful in math given the right tools and circumstances. Yes, it’s easier for some than others, just as in many other aspects of life. I love Henry Ford’s quote “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” I often had that saying displayed prominently in my classroom and talked about how it applied to learning mathematics.

  • Help learners understand that mathematics is something you learn by doing. The football coach conducts practice sessions in which he presents plays and teaches strategies. He demonstrates, illustrates, and explains, but wouldn’t dare play someone in a game that hadn’t actually practiced the techniques. Much of the same concept is transferrable to learning mathematics, and for many it takes hard work and perseverance.

  • Success breeds success, so grab every opportunity to acknowledge and highlight achievements, no matter how small. I’ve seen students who felt so lost and frustrated make great strides after mastering a concept or technique. In my private tutoring sessions, I often work with learners who have very little confidence in their math abilities. When the light bulb finally comes on, their confidence begins to build and eventually carries over into the classroom.

  • Encourage those who need it to seek extra help. Depending on the number and severity of the gaps in learning, reversing the “I can’t do math” mindset may require more time and effort than a normal classroom setting provides. Convey the idea that needing extra help is not a bad thing, and that it can quickly make a huge difference in understanding concepts and mastering techniques.    

Additional Resources to Support Your Mathematicians:

Encourage Hesitant Students to Love Math

Use the ideas and suggestions in this article to enhance learning and minimize negative feelings about math in your classroom. Included are several strategies to help boost confidence in hesitant learners.

Math Anxiety Scavenger Hunt

An online scavenger hunt to help participants learn about math anxiety and how to overcome it. It is geared for learners in high school and college, but could easily be adapted for other age groups.

Math History Can Help Students Overcome Learning Difficulties

Knowing the history behind concepts and symbols can sometimes help facilitate understanding. This article presents some fun and fascinating history of mathematics that you can share with your class.

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