“I’m not good at math.”

“I’m not a math person.”

As educators, we’ve all heard this before. At the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference earlier this year, we conducted a focus group of math teachers and discussed a number of topics, including their thoughts on why students might struggle in math. Among the reasons discussed was students self-categorizing themselves as ‘math people’ and ‘non-math people.’ You either get it or you don’t. You like math or you don’t.

While that wasn’t surprising, what was surprising was how often parents also echoed this sentiment to teachers. Teachers told stories of how some parents would say “I was never a math person” or “I was never good at math,” almost as if they were making excuses for why their child was struggling in math. A recent blog by Sarah D. Sparks titled “How Parents Contribute to Math Anxiety” for Education Week discusses how parents may hinder their child’s progress in math, simply by sharing their own anxiety around solving math problems.

So it got me thinking, if you think you’re not a math person, that you’re not good at math, how are you ever going to succeed in math? And more importantly, how do we get students to believe that they can do math?

Last fall, we wrote about Algebra I being the gateway course. Algebra introduces students to the language of math and develops students’ abstract reasoning and problem solving skills. These skills are critical in higher-level math classes, college, and the workplace. Furthermore, according to a study by Florida International University, students who failed Algebra 1 are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who passed the course.

Students may grumble about why they need math when they will not use math in the “real world” or when calculators are everywhere. But math teaches us more than how to add, subtract, divide and multiply. Math teaches us to think critically, to apply concepts and to solve problems. And we use math all the time – yes, we might use the calculator on our phones to compute, but the process of knowing what numbers to add and multiply, knowing what questions to ask to finish figuring something out is what math teaches us.

Miles Kimball and Noah Smith wrote an article for Quartz where they state that categorizing oneself as a math person or a non-math person is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their article titled “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t” discusses how convincing students that intelligence is malleable, that they have the power to change it, and that they can get smarter with hard work, actually led students to work harder and get better grades.

We, as educators, can’t be complicit and accept this explanation from our students. We must all work together to help students build confidence, to persevere and give them the tools they need to believe that they can do math.

So how do we get students to believe they can do math? Here are some strategies:

- Teach students that intelligence is malleable, that with hard work, they can do well in math. Emphasize hard work and perseverance over innate ability. Read our blog about what grit is and why it matters.
- Get students to do more math! With more practice, students will build confidence, and with more confidence, students can overcome their fear of math.

Have other strategies on getting students to believe they can be good at math? Please share them with us on Twitter @Knowre.

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