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Perseverance, Not "Math Brain," Determines Success in Math

There is exciting new research about how we learn math. Scientists at Stanford University now believe there is no such thing as having a “math brain.” In other words, their research suggests that everyone can learn math! This is contrary to common belief and supports my efforts through the years to encourage kids to say, “I’m not good at math—yet!” (instead of just stating they cannot learn math). This research suggests some interesting things about how we learn.

First of all, we learn math by doing it. The most interesting thing, though, is how it happens. When we are working on a math problem and make a mistake, synapses in the brain fire even if we are not aware that we made a mistake. Then, when we discover the mistake and correct it, the synapses fire again. The new pathways created when the synapses fire are learning. So, it is by doing math and making mistakes that we learn. Encourage your child to keep trying to figure out his math homework and let him know that mistakes are not only OK, they are also necessary!

Second, the world’s best mathematicians do math slowly. Your child should realize that it is OK to spend time thinking about the problems she is working on. She should not expect to finish her work quickly. Encourage her to slow down and to think about how she is working her math problems. Ask her if there might be another way to do the same problem. Talk about math with her. Ask her to explain to you how she is doing the problems so you will also know how to do them.

Finally, failure (making lots of mistakes) is necessary when learning math. Your child needs to have the mindset that working hard is what makes the difference in math, not necessarily getting every problem correct. He should learn to persevere; he should talk with other students about how they did the problems and not give up quickly. He should refer to his textbook and notes.  After all that effort, if he still cannot do the work, he needs to be encouraged to seek his teacher’s help. Even so, he should be thinking, “If I keep trying, I will eventually figure out how to do this.” It is important that he believes in himself when learning math.

Dr. Jo Boaler and her students at Stanford have produced an online course for students that will help them become good math learners. Check out this free course at the YouCubed website. Each lesson takes only about 15 minutes to complete, and it is well worth the effort. I recommend that parents take the course with their children. Remember, someone doesn’t have to be a “math person” to learn math. We can all be good math learners if we take our time, believe in ourselves, persevere, and make lots of mistakes along the way.

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