Is there such a thing as a “maths mindset”? The answer is: Yes and no. While there is a particular way of thinking that is conducive to doing maths, this mindset is not only good for maths but for doing just about anything.

“Can you do maths with the “wrong” mindset?”, you may be wondering now.

Yes, you can. That’s what I had been doing for most of my life until I discovered Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. Can you be successful at it with the wrong mindset? Yes, you can even major in maths at university but you will find it that much harder.

So, what is this magic mindset and how can you learn it?

The mindset you need to thrive in mathematics is called a “growth mindset”. Its evil counterpart, the “fixed mindset”, is what you don’t want to have if you do mathematics. Now you may be wondering whether you have a growth or fixed mindset when it comes to mathematics. To find out the answer, ask yourself the following: Do you sometimes (or maybe even frequently ; ) ) suffer when solving maths questions? If you answer with a resounding “Yes!!” then this would point towards a fixed mindset attitude. Another indicator would be your answer to this question: What do you do when you realise that a question is so hard that you can’t just solved it off the top of your head? Do you rub your hands and think “Awwwwyeah, bring it on!” or do you want to give up and think “I can’t do it. I’m too stupid.” If your reaction is the latter then you definitely have a fixed mindset when it comes to mathematics.

But don’t worry if you have a fixed mindset at the moment: You can unlearn this false way of evaluating yourself and replace it with a growth mindset! All you need to do it is realise the following: Any skill level you achieve at anything is directly proportional to how much time you spent practicing that skill.

Here’s an example: The proficiency you have in, let’s say, French, is directly proportional to the amount of time you spent doing French, that is, memorising French words, practicing grammar rules, listening to French podcasts, watching Netflix in French, etc.

If you spent only one hour during your entire life then you will probably not be able to say much more than “Bonjour!” in French. On the other hand, if you have been doing one hour of deliberate practice of the French language for the last 10 years then you are probably pretty awesome at it.

This rule applies to anything, including mathematics: The more time you spend doing it, the better you get. There is no “magic maths gene” that you were born with or not.

Once you internalise this fact you don’t have to think of yourself as stupid anymore when you fail to solve a maths problem: The reason you can’t solve it is simply that you haven’t practiced enough mathematics yet in order to be able to solve it. There is no shame in that.

Note the important magic word: Yet. Whenever you are sitting in front of a maths question and you realise you are stuck because you tried solving it for two hours or more you can simply say: Ok, I can’t solve this yet. Then you can try solving a slightly easier problem.

I will go into more detail regarding mindsets and deliberate practice in another post but for now just remember: Whatever you can’t do, you just can’t do it YET.

If you want to read more about mindsets in connection with mathematics, here is an interesting article by Carol Deck: Mindsets and Math / Science Achievement.

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