One of my students from last year attended Jo Boaler’s MindMath event at Stanford last Sunday, and wrote a nice account of some of what she learned there. I asked, and she agreed to let me share it – so without further ado:

*MindMath*, by Yasmeen Magaña

Seven common myths of math:

- Being good at math is a “gift.”
- Being good is about learning more knowledge
- Math is a closed procedural subject
- Being good at math means being fast at math
- Making mistakes is bad
- Math is all about learning to calculate numbers
- The best math learning occurs individually

MindMath was a workshop led by Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford, where she talked about the “myths” of math and the manner in which math is portrayed in society and media. She mentioned that people tend to think that someone is either a math person or they’re not. They are either “gifted” or not. Jo Boaler has conducted research to interpret whether this is true or not and her results truly fascinated me.

Neuroscience is changing our views on math. Advances in neuroscience are changing our approach to education and the way teachers teach math. There are many assumptions about math and those assumptions may even discourage some students from pursuing higher math because they believe that people are either a math person or they are not. “Some people can do math and others just can’t,” is a hurtful assumption that sadly is present in today’s world. Evidence against this is growing due to recent discoveries about human brain plasticity.

Myth #1: Being good at math is a “gift.” Jo Boaler’s research has shown that no one is born with a math brain and due to brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to grow, change and develop, people can acquire these skills to succeed. People may ask, “If everyone can do well in math-all the way to Calculus. Why don’t they, then?” The answer is that today, many students feel as though once they hit their wall, their math career is all over and there is just no way past it. Another myth is that people think that they can take all the math classes they’d like until they hit their personal wall and can’t go any further. Carol Dweck wrote a book in 2006 which used research to show that everyone has one of two mindsets: A fixed or growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that the harder you work the smarter you will get. People with a fixed mindset believe that you’re either smart or you’re not. More people have a fixed mindset about math than any other subject. Carol found that people with a growth mindset tend to achieve more in math because they are more willing to learn from mistakes.

The Programme for International Student Assessment team collected data on how children approach math. Another myth is that math is all about learning to calculate numbers. In reality math is very visual, and people who only memorize numbers and formulas tend to achieve less than those who see math as a subject of big ideas and more than just numbers. Teaching math with many visual examples is very important to teach that math is more than just memorizing formulas and numbers, but that there are a lot of concepts behind it and is very visual.

Another myth is that making mistakes is bad in math. Sure someone may not have gotten the correct answer in that moment to that one problem when they made the mistake, but MRI research shows that making math mistakes grows your brain. Whenever someone makes a math mistake when taking a test a synapse fires in their brain. There was an MRI test done and the results showed that people who made math mistakes with fixed mindsets didn’t show signs of brain growth. Those with a growth mindset had brain growth whenever they had made a mistake. People with a growth mindset may believe that mistakes are good, and will have an enhanced response to making mistakes.

Another myth is that math is associated with speed. Laurent Schwartz was a French mathematician who considered himself a slow mathematician. He felt inferior to his class because he was one of the slowest math thinkers but went on to win the fields medal in mathematics. The reality is that the greatest mathematicians are actually pretty slow. Sometimes it takes someone longer to understand a math concept but it doesn’t mean that person doesn’t understand it as equally. All of this new research has been very helpful in understanding the way students learn math and the manner in which math should be taught.