Six steps for a positive mindset in the maths classroom

Written by: Alexandra Riley | Published:
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If a student believes they are not good at maths it can have a negative impact on their attitude and confidence. Alexandra Riley offers six tips to help shift young people’s mindset and make a positive difference to their outcomes

Earlier this year, thousands of families, communities, organisations and schools joined forces to celebrate National Numeracy Day. Amid the many wonderful virtual sessions, a theme kept recurring: How can we boost number confidence?

You will have all heard the exclamation “I can’t do maths!” echo around the classroom. So, how can we help young people to stop believing this and to positively engage with their maths education?

One answer lies in changing students’ perceptions of their ability or, to use another phrase, mindset. According to Professor Carol Dweck (2007), everyone has a mindset – an idea about their own potential which determines their beliefs and behaviours. Many of you will be familiar with her theory:

  • Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that qualities such as intelligence, talent and ability to learn are pre-determined (“I can’t do maths!).
  • Those with a “growth mindset” believe that hard work, effort and commitment contribute towards success – it is within everyone’s power to improve and to succeed. The studies have repeatedly shown that students with a growth mindset achieve more in school and later in life.

Below, I outline six practical steps and tools to help young people establish a growth mindset and build towards greater mathematical confidence.

1, Understanding current mindsets

To change mindsets, we first need to understand them. By considering what informs both students' and our own perceptions of maths, we can model a growth mindset that can positively influence children. Start by encouraging both adults and young people to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

For staff, consider conducting a mindset audit in a staff meeting. Often people do not recognise that they have a specific mindset and exploring this together is a great first step towards change. It may also highlight areas for further professional development.

For parents and carers, encourage adults to think about their own attitudes towards maths by sharing questions for personal reflection, perhaps through the school newsletter or at a workshop. For instance, you could ask them: “Which words do you associate with maths?” Or you might encourage them to complete the National Numeracy Challenge to see how they feel about maths (see further information).

For pupils, explore their thoughts via informal conversations or provide them with simple sheets with happy, neutral and sad faces. Encourage them to colour-in the face that represents how they are feeling at the end of each maths session and think about your next teaching steps in light of their responses.

2, Talking positively about maths

Our mindsets are shaped by those around us. It is not uncommon for adults to reinforce a fixed mindset by unconsciously using negative language when talking about maths. Therefore, modelling positive language is essential to building a growth mindset.

Sam Sims, chief executive of National Numeracy, has said: “We know that one of the most effective ways for parents and carers to encourage their young people to be confident with numbers is to be confident themselves.”

Teachers, adults (and even a student’s peers) can use simple phrases to help build maths positivity. Consider these fixed mindset phrases:

  • I’m not good at maths. I’ve never been good at maths
  • I give up. I can’t do this any better!
  • If I fail, I am a failure.
  • I can’t do this, I keep making mistakes.

Now consider how you might give a growth mindset response:

  • Everyone can do maths. You might be finding maths hard now, but you can improve if you keep working at it.
  • It’s okay to find it hard, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad at maths. You can improve if you keep working at it.
  • Most successful people fail along the way. Just try a little longer.
  • Mistakes can help you learn. You’ve got part of it right, so let’s have another go and we might get to the answer.

Help young people embrace the power of “yet”, for example by turning “I can’t do fractions” into “I can’t do fractions, yet”. This can encourage young people to take risks and not be frightened to fail.

Many teachers refer to a “learning pit”, where the struggle in the middle forms a key part of the learning journey. However, this is also where young people may feel that they want to give up. Using “yet” can help young people persevere towards success.

3, Showing that everyone can do maths

It is important to reinforce positive language by making a growth mindset part of the culture, ethos and even the very fabric of the school.

Identify key growth mindset characteristics: This would include, for example, determination, creativity, curiosity and bravery. Can children come up with characters and stories to represent these traits? You could put these characters on noticeboards throughout the school.

Mix-up groupings: It is tempting to always group young people by perceived ability, but try mixing up table groupings to see the difference this can make to both attainment and attitudes. You may be surprised by richer mathematical discussions and peer learning.

Encourage young people to promote maths positivity: Ask students to imagine that they have received an email or letter from a friend who has said they can’t do maths and don’t see the point in learning anymore. How would they reply? This activity will encourage them to reflect on learning strategies, emphasise the benefits of learning mathematics, and develop their writing skills too.

Pace learning carefully: Students often equate answering quickly with being "good" at maths. However, many learners need time to grasp a new concept. Provide additional modelling to show young people how to break difficult tasks down into manageable steps and introduce activities into your teaching that value the thinking process over speed.

4, Celebrating mistakes

It is not uncommon for mistakes or misunderstandings to lead to young people feeling as though they have failed at maths. However, mistakes should be encouraged, explored and celebrated, as research shows that mistakes increase the capacity to learn and “grow the brain” (Boaler, 2016).

A useful analogy to use with children is that our brains are like muscles and mistakes help them to grow stronger by providing exercise. Mistakes are also valuable opportunities to deepen understanding for an individual and classes by, for instance, encouraging children to spot mistakes and help their peers understand how they would approach a problem differently.

Changing how we view mistakes encourages a growth mindset that stretches beyond maths and helps children in other areas of life too.

5, Praising carefully

It is important to think about rewarding not only the destination, answer or grade in maths, but also the journey to get there. Praise motivates students but applying a growth mindset approach may prompt you to do this in new ways.

By praising the effort that went into doing well, you can highlight that it is possible for children to succeed through hard work. This will encourage them to take risks, to try harder and to persist with problems. This shift in praise is something that can happen in conversation or in assemblies as part of the whole-school approach. For example, you could have an award for “most interesting mistake”! It can also translate into the staffroom and parents’ evenings too, marking a small but impactful shift from discussing “ability” to discussing “effort” and “attainment”.

6, Talking about learning

We all know that metacognition and self-regulation approaches help young people to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning (Quigley et al, 2019). In doing so, they also support a growth mindset by ensuring that children notice their progress and build confidence through different learning strategies.

It is therefore important to continue to embed reflective activities into lessons, independent study or conversations at home. This can be done at the end of each week, or at the end of each topic. Use questions such as:

  • What did you do today that made you think hard? What can you learn from this?
  • What will you do to improve your work?
  • What mistake did you make that taught you something?

  • Alexandra Riley is senior strategy manager at Pearson and part of the team behind the #PowerOfMaths campaign.

Further information & resources

  • Boaler: Mathematical Mindsets, Jossey-Bass, 2016.
  • Boosting Number Confidence: A free resource created by National Numeracy and Pearson. It offers practical activities, videos and tips, and helps adults who support young people’s maths learning:
  • Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety: Offers practical tips, guidance and reflections for every age and stage to help tackle maths anxiety and forge more confident and resilient learners, teachers and communities.
  • National Numeracy Challenge: A free tool to help “maths-anxious” people improve their numeracy confidence and skills:
  • Quigley et al: Metacognition and self-regulated learning, Education Endowment Foundation, September 2019:

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