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The Super Hero Strategy for Unlocking Kids' Math Potential

The Super Hero Strategy for Unlocking Kids' Math Potential

"Becoming is better than being," says growth mindset guru, Carol Dweck.

Your students believe that they can become better at reading and writing, more knowledgeable about historic events, and superior musicians and athletes. They understand that consistent effort, practice, and the ability to learn from their mistakes will allow them to grow.

Yet, this belief in one's own abilities seems to fall short in the math classroom.

Why do we fall, Master Wayne?

Bruce Wayne was not born as Batman; he became him.

It was only through years of hard work, persistence, training, and effort that he was able to grow into becoming Gotham's caped crusader.

And he had help.

Under the guidance of his butler and mentor, Alfred, Wayne learns that his mistakes should never discourage him, but only make him stronger.

In moments of discouragement, Alfred reminds Wayne of the purpose of falling down in life: so that we may learn to pick ourselves back up.

With the right mindset, Bruce Wayne is able to learn from his shortcomings and unlock his highest potential of becoming a superhero. 

But what would have happened if Bruce Wayne was never taught to believe in himself or to see value in his mistakes?

Would he still have become Batman?

Probably not.

What does mindset mean for math students?

Like Bruce Wayne and his aspirations to become a super hero, our kids have amazing potential to achieve math at high levels.

Yet, many students never come close to reaching this potential. Why? Because beliefs about learning math are often based on harmful myths and stigmas.

What you believe about your ability to learn affects how you learn new things, according to recent brain science highlighted by Stanford Professor, Jo Boaler, via

"Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up easily, whereas students with a growth mindset are persistent and keep going even when work is hard" says Boaler, who is a leading voice in supporting a growth mindset in the math classroom.

Sadly, many students believe a damaging myth that there is such thing as a "math person" and that mindset and effort do not matter when learning math.

We tell kids that only certain people have a brain for understanding mathematics. If a child believes that she is not a "math person," then she becomes stuck in a fixed mindset that will forever impede her ability.


Looking for fun ways to get your kids WRITING about math?


There is no such thing as a "math person" or a "math brain."


Anyone can learn mathematics to high levels.

"Study after study has shown the incredible capacity of brains to grow and change within a remarkably short period of time," says Boaler in a recent report on brain plasticity.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a "math person" and, with a strong effort, the right mindset, and a belief in one's own abilities, every student is capable of understanding math.

If you are not tending to your kids' beliefs about their own abilities, then you are not helping them to unlock their highest potential.

What can you do to help kids' develop a growth mindset for math?

Praise effort over outcomes.

Carol Dweck suggests that "praise should deal, not with the child's personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements." If we continue to teach mathematics as a practice in solving hard-lined right-or-wrong questions, students will continue to adopt the belief that they can never be successful.

Celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities.

Michael Jordan once said, "I've failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone reacts to them in the same way. Successful math students are persistent and resilient problem-solvers. They are not afraid of making mistakes because they value them as opportunities for growth.

Encourage students to embrace challenges.

If it doesn't challenge you, then it doesn't change you. If students are afraid to make a mistake, then they will avoid challenges out of fear of looking inferior or unintelligent. But, when students approach learning with a growth mindset, they embrace challenges and enjoy taking them on (a practice know as productive struggle).

Give students time to engage in deep mathematical thinking.

The idea that you have to be fast at math to be good at it is another component of the "math brain" myth. Emphasizing speed only leads to increased math anxiety and lower achievement for many students. In fact, speed and time actually block working memory and impede a students' ability to recall math facts, according to a recent study.

Tend to students' beliefs about themselves.

It may seem obvious that kids will perform at higher levels when they believe in themselves, but this kind of mindset is less common than you may think, especially in mathematics. Teachers must help their students to develop a growth mindset for learning math and dispel harmful myths and misconceptions.


For a library of helpful resources to promote a growth mindset in your home, your classroom, or your school, you can visit the website for Amazon Education's "With Math I Can" initiative, which aims to change students' mindsets about learning mathematics.

How else can you support a growth mindset with your kids? Join the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Never miss a Mashup Math blog--click here to get our weekly newsletter!)

By Anthony Persico

Anthony is the content crafter and head educator for YouTube's MashUp Math and an advisor to Amazon Education's 'With Math I Can' Campaign. You can often find me happily developing animated math lessons to share on myYouTube channel . Or spending way too much time at the gym or playing on my phone.



Are Timed Math Tests Harmful to Students?

Are Timed Math Tests Harmful to Students?


Question: Which of these statements best describes an exceptional math student?

 1.) She performs computations faster than her classmates.

2.) She has memorized lots of facts, formulas, and procedures.

3.) She scores high grades on exams and works well under pressure.

4.) She understands number relationships and how to solve complex problems.

If you chose one of the first three statements, then your beliefs about the essence of math understanding may be rooted in misconceptions.

People often allow the prevalence of high-stakes exams to frame mathematics education into a practice in rote memorization and uninspired computations.

As a result, many students lose interest in learning math at a young age.

Large populations of students believing that they can't understand mathematics only breeds more misconceptions, such as the idea that only certain individuals are capable of understanding math.

However, we now know that the idea that only certain people are capable of understanding math is a myth. According to a recent report, The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math', by The Atlantic, math ability can be improved through effort and learning with a growth mindset.

The truth is that, under the right conditions, anyone can develop math skills.

Where does the "math person" myth come from?

A large part of the answer lies in how schools use testing.

The demands of high-stakes exams, which often overpower curriculums, can be felt in math classrooms across the country.

According to a recent report on standardized exams by the Washington Post:

The average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade — an average of about eight a year, the study says. That eats up between 20 and 25 hours every school year.

The frequency of testing is only part of the problem.

Teachers are confined by strict curriculum schedules that force the pace of instruction and assessment.

Under these conditions, teachers are forced to give timed tests that emphasize speed and computation over deep mathematical thinking.

What are the consequences of time pressure?

Our time-bound approach to testing often leads to math anxiety.

Students with math anxiety are affected by feelings of tension, apprehension, or fear, which interfere with learning or remembering math facts and skills.

And, the problem is only becoming worse.

According to a recent study by the University of Chicago, math anxiety has now been documented in children as young as five, and timed tests are a key cause of this weakening, often lifelong condition.

Timed tests elicit such powerful emotions that students believe that being fast with math facts is the heart of the subject.

The misconception that speed and memorization are the keys to understanding math has resulted in high numbers of students dropping out of math and the depressed numbers of women in STEM-based college majors.

The negative impact of math anxiety is holding back crowds of students in the United States, which continues to be outpaced by other countries.

According to a recent report on global math and science rankings by NPR:

In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago.

Math students in the U.S. can't compete with their global counterparts until they are freed from the debilitating effects of math anxiety.

What does math anxiety do to the brain?

Stanford researcher and math education expert, Jo Boaler, has shed much-needed light on the consequences of timed testing in her reports on, a Stanford-funded organization that focuses on, according to their website, transforming the latest research on math learning into accessible and practical forms.

Boaler points to brain science research suggesting that speed and time pressure blocks working memory, which is where math facts are stored in the brain.

When the working memory is blocked, students become unable to retrieve what they already know.

This inability to recall information under pressure is the hallmark of math anxiety.

According to Boaler's Report on Time Pressure Blocking Working Memory:

Conservative estimates suggest that at least a third of students experience extreme stress related to timed tests, and these are not students from any particular achievement group or economic background. When we put students through this anxiety-provoking experience, they distance themselves from mathematics.

If we continue to assess mathematical understanding using timed tests, then we will continue to turn students away and perpetuate misconceptions.

Where do we go from here?

The best way to learn math facts is through mathematical activities that focus on understanding number relationships.

This authentic understanding is difficult to achieve in a time-bound environment.

Yet, many people believe that mathematics is only about calculating and recalling math facts -- and that the best mathematical thinkers are those who can calculate the quickest.

In truth, skilled mathematicians are often slow with performing math, because they take the time to think carefully and deeply about mathematics.

If we want our students to become powerful thinkers--ones who can make connections, think logically, and solve complex problems--then systemic changes must be made.

You can take action today by removing or, at the very least, reducing timed tests from your classroom and providing ample opportunities for students to engage in deep mathematical thinking.

You can also keep this conversation going.

In your school. In your classroom. And in your home.

Math education is evolving and the movement towards removing timed testing is building momentum, but it will take a group effort to make real change.

You can learn more about the causes of math anxiety and how to help students to overcome it in this week's Mashup Math VLOG: 

by Anthony Persico

Anthony is the content crafter and head educator for YouTube's MashUp Math and an advisor to Amazon Education's 'With Math I Can' Campaign. You can often find me happily developing animated math lessons to share on my YouTube channel . Or spending way too much time at the gym or playing on my phone.