I bet you’ve heard the following, maybe even said it to yourself. “I’m bad at math;” “I just can’t get it;” “I’ll never be able to get it.” There are so many things wrong with this approach to math, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, it’s negative self-talk; we all know where that gets us. But it also presupposes a static, fixed math ability.
We don’t think this about anything else (or if we do, we need therapy). Imagine saying, “I know I’ll be bad at basketball; I tried it when I was 10 and I was horrible at it.” Well, at 10 you were what? 5 feet tall; now, you’re over 6 feet tall. That could make a difference. Just a little.
Similarly, we go through developmental stages in learning. Piaget thought we couldn’t do abstract learning until adolescence. Yes, about the time our physical skills are flourishing, so are our mental skills. It is no coincidence that you try out for the football team or the cheer leading squad at the same time that you learn Algebra I.
Teachers are beginning to understand this. (Finally.) The idea of growth mindsets is catching on in many schools. This is accompanied by encouraging individual development and evaluating according to where the student starts, and the progress he or she has made from that starting point. My first trophy in target shooting was for “most improved shooter.” At least I had hit the target. Now, I rarely miss the 9 or 10 ring.
The idea that math skills grow makes learning math more like learning a physical skill. Any good coach will tell you that you have to “normalize failure.” In other words, as my kung-fu instructor repeatedly told me, “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly at first.” My first day in karate, I put my pants on backwards. Now, I can defeat Black Belts in sparring. Failure is to be expected; it is part of learning; in fact, learning presupposes it. As Socrates observed millennia ago, if you already knew the answer, you wouldn’t bother looking for it.
I read one lesson plan which said that you should love mistakes, as it’s how you learn.
Remember, there was only one perfect human being, and I bet even he had problems in learning math. I mean five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 10,000 people? That would take a miracle. All math learning takes is perseverance and the right help.