Friday, August 2, 2013

Thoughts on Math 2

I did session 2 of How to Teach Math last week, and now I'm deep into session 3. (By the way, this is a free course, and you can put as much or as little time and effort into it as you please. If you have any interest in the subject -or more importantly, any fear of it- I highly recommend at least watching the videos.)

Session 2 was all about the mindset with which you approach math, and how important it is to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. Just to quickly define terms:
Fixed mindset: a mindset in which you assume your areas of giftedness and weakness are "fixed". For example, I'm good at music and grammar, but not mechanics and art. With a fixed mindset, I would tend to embrace things I'm good at, and avoid things I don't excel at. Obviously, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy (I would become better at the things I'm good at, and worse at the things I'm weak in.).
Growth mindset: a mindset that assumes that intelligence (even in weak areas) can grow. It may take effort, but your weak areas do not have to remain your weak areas, and your strong areas can be challenged to grow stronger. This mindset is actually correct based on the science regarding the plasticity of the brain. Your brain actually grows and makes more connections as you learn something new.

I found this session very interesting. It actually cleared something up for me that I've never understood before about my husband. He has a growth mindset, while I've always had a fixed one. I've often been puzzled by the fact that he believes he can do anything. He's a computer tech, and has learned it all on the job. (A lot of his job involves going into an unfamiliar situation, figuring out what's wrong on the spot, and fixing it.) He can write, he can speak, he can play music, he can do math. Car is broken? He can fix it. Plumbing? No problem.(I could go on, but I figure that's enough for now...) In contrast, I have always believed that there are things I can do, and things I can't do. I can do cooking, I can't do home renovations. I can do accounting, but I can't fix the car. When it comes down to it, I don't even try to do a lot of things, because they're just "not my thing." If Stephen doesn't try, it is usually because of time constraints, or perhaps the effort to learn it isn't worth it to him at the time. It's never because he doesn't think he could learn it and do it well. I'm starting to realize that part of the reason he's smart in so many areas is simply a result of a combination of his growth mentality and his wide-ranging interests. He was born with a good amount of natural intelligence, but that only took him so far. By contrast, I have retained many of the same gifts and weaknesses that I had as a child (with a few exceptions, but we can't all be consistent...).

So. Does it matter? I was talking to Gertrude last night, and she made the comment that in many cases it doesn't matter if something is "not your thing." You don't have to be good at everything. This was a breath of fresh air, because I'd been thinking anxiously about how I could possibly "fix" my fixed mindset after living with it for over 30 years. Which, now that I think of it, is a very "fixed mindset" way of thinking about it...of course my brain can make new connections and learn new things. Anyway, just thinking out loud here. Don't mind me.

I can think of a few ways it does matter, especially as a parent of children who are developing the habits of mind that they will take into adulthood.
1. Now I can say for sure about anything (possibly barring some specific learning disability) "I know you can do it. If you work hard and persist, you will learn it." There doesn't need to be any hesitation in the back of my mind that maybe math is not his thing, and maybe he really can't do it. I may need to find a better way to teach him, but the problem is never going to be that it's too hard for him to do.
2. I can be an example in learning new things that are difficult for me. OK, maybe that's not going to happen. But, my excuse should never be that I can't, but rather that I won't (for good this point, probably mostly time related).

Is anyone else thinking of the Charlotte Mason PNEU motto right now: "I am, I can, I ought, I will"? All this growth mindset information is just giving new meaning to the "I can" part of that motto.

One question I had going away from this session is how developmental stages fit with this information. Part of the takeaway of growth mentality thinking is that you should regularly challenge children to do things that are hard, but they can do. Now I've worked on toilet training a couple of children already, with more to come. I know that children can be trained young (lots of mistakes, lots of opportunity for brain growth, right?), but if I wait until they're a bit older I can train them in a fraction of the time, with much less frustration. I could probably say similar things about reading, or certain math concepts. How do we strike a balance? Maybe the answer is individual to each child. I think a consistent sense of frustration (either with too much challenge, or too little) could be a sign that the balance is not being struck.

How about you? Any thoughts on session 2?