“I am not born to do maths”,
“I am not a maths’ person”, “I will fail so no need to try”. These are words that we all have already heard. I personally have met many students in this situation and the purpose of this article is to show to what extent these speeches can be self-destructive. It also aims to help some students unlock their minds in order to do better in mathematics and in school more generally.
What do science and research say about that?
Let’s be clear from the beginning, until today, there is no official correlation between the human brain and the ability to perform at math. In other words, from a pure scientific standpoint, everyone can perform well at math. The problem is that some students strongly believe that they are bad, so they truly become bad. This is the topic of the two studies carried out in 2007 by psychologists Lisa Blackwell (Columbia University), Kali Trzesniewski (University of California) and Carol Dweck (Stanford University). The first study was done with 373 7th graders (12/13 years old), divided into two groups: the first one believed that intelligence can increase with time if it is stimulated (incremental theory of intelligence). The second group believed that intelligence is a stable quality which remains the same even if it is possible to learn new things (entity theory of intelligence).
The results showed that the first group got much better grades. Students felt more accountable about their performances in school which pushed them to work more. The second study gives a more optimistic view by showing that it is possible to get rid of those beliefs and the limits that they create. Indeed, during this study, a group of 48 7th graders had been convinced that their intelligence can be increased, which led to more motivation and higher grades.
Idriss Aberkane, a French neuroscientist, lecturer and essayist, speaks about a similar phenomenon in his book « Libérez votre cerveau » published in 2016. He explains that some people are so convinced that they are bad at something that they do not even try. Their brain sends a message warning them to stay away from that. This is frequently the case with mathematics and this is the reason why some people get completely stuck as soon as they see a simple mathematical equation. All their life, they grew up with the idea that math is not made for them. According to Idriss Aberkane, the origin of this problem comes mainly from school and its old teaching methods.
Indeed, students who consider themselves bad at math hate the subject and have generally a really traumatic experience with it. This is something abnormal as human beings have a natural tendency to do math. Many researches have shown for example that babies have a great logical intuition. The true problem comes from school methods which have to be less rigid and more fun. Humans, like all mammals, learn by playing and it is rarely the case in school. Matthew Peterson has begun to change this since early 2000 by teaching math via visual video games. The results are spectacular: all students who use Peterson’s methods have seen their level doubled or tripled. These students not only get better results, they also have more fun.
My own experience with students:
I have helped hundreds of high school students in math during the last years and the conclusion has been always the same. It’s always a problem of self-confidence, never something related to intellectual limits. This is why I make sure all my students get convinced about this point from the beginning. “If you want to become excellent in math, you will. There is no intelligence which comes into play.” I think it is the role of every teacher to have this psychological role, as everything starts there. Indeed, as I said before, someone who thinks that it is impossible will never succeed.
All the pupils that I tutored with this mindset and who put the required amount of hard work have become truly excellent. They largely exceeded the results they were expecting. Some decided to continue in engineering or in prestigious preparatory classes, something that was unbelievable for them months or years ago.
That being said, it can’t be denied that there are few people in this world who are truly gifted. Not everyone could for example become a fields medal as not everyone could become as good at Messi or Michael Jordan. But every person can excel at mathematics and this is the purpose of this article.
To all students who are reading this article, stop limiting yourself by creating imaginary boundaries.
A special thanks to Hamid for this interesting article.
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