Words matter: how we talk about math impacts how students experience it

By: Lisa Boate, Innovation Resource Teacher, Numeracy K-8

For the past few years growth mindset has been the guiding principle of our work as educators. Growth mindset is an idea based on the concept of neuroplasticity: the more we work at something, the more we grow our brains. We hear students echoing the words, “mistakes are good, I learn from them!” or, “I grew my brain today!” Yet, that enthusiasm and belief has not seemed to filter into the world of mathematics.

With colleagues and around the dinner table, I have found myself asking ‘why’? Despite all our work around growth mindset, why does there continue to be a stigma around math? Many people still believe that the myths that only ‘really smart’ people are good at math, or that you have to be born with a ‘math brain’ to get it.

Cat math meme

To understand where these misconceptions are born, I started to listen to how people talk about math. What I heard was the continuous reiteration of all the things we have believed about math but now know just aren’t true. In classrooms I heard, “I know math is hard but. . . “ from parents I heard, “I was never good at math.” From students I heard, “math sucks, it’s too hard.”

To really change our perceptions about math, we have to change the way we talk about it.

Jo Boaler has written articles about the power of language and beliefs on the way our brains function. Check out this article for more information: When You Believe in Yourself Your Brain Operates Differently. It is time that we start celebrating math learning, we need to focus on it’s curiosity and wonder, rather than its’ perceived difficulty.

Quote - MAth is the poetry of the universe. It's time to show it that way.

As educators and parents, we need to carefully consider the words we use when talking to our kids about math. It is up to us to break the cycle of fear and negativity. By framing math in new ways we can support our students as mathematicians. Point out the beauty of math in art and architecture. Play with numbers, have fun with the patterns! Point out the math your child or student is engaged in when they are building in Minecraft or when they are creating code. Let our kids know that math is all around them and it is beautiful!

Our students who are hearing these messages and internalizing them are beginning to have a positive relationship with math. The students at Innisfil Central Public School created this video to show their enthusiasm for learning mathematics.

Let’s join them in their excitement, let’s grow our brains together and embrace the role of mathematician. We can do it, let’s use the power of our words to affect real change in our beliefs!

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