Numeracy for all (VSO)

Marilyn Leask, Emma Goto, Mary Watkins, Richard Procter | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Fixed mindsets, gender and ability

The Problem with Fixed Mindset and Mathematics by Emma Goto, University of Winchester, UK

Over the last few decades, work by Carole Dweck (See more of her work on fixed mindsets on YouCubed Growth Mindset has highlighted that viewing intelligence and abilities as something that is fixed, something that you are either born with or without, can be limiting.  Rather than viewing challenges as something unachievable, successful learners view these challenges as something that they cannot yet do. They recognise that with persistence and practice, they can achieve. This recognition that we can develop our abilities by working through a problem, is called a growth mindset. Learners who have this growth mindset and believe attainment in a given area is possible, if they persevere and practice, remain motivated and maintain their interest. Those with growth mindsets go on to achieve more highly than those with fixed mindsets. Dweck (2007) shows that where females have a fixed mindset they are particularly susceptible to loss of confidence and are more likely to give up studying mathematics and STEM subjects. This may, in part, account for the low numbers of women studying mathematics, and other STEM subjects, in some countries. One key way to help learners develop a growth mindset, is through the feedback and praise given. If teachers praise the process, the learners’ efforts, persistency etc, rather than their abilities, this can help the learner to view ability as something you can develop.

Mathematics has been found to be a subject in which messages about fixed ability are particularly notable in some cultures (Boaler, 2013).  Boaler (2013) argues that messages suggesting a fixed ability within mathematics are reinforced in the classroom in many ways. For example, short mathematical questions in which work is marked either correct or incorrect, reinforce this fixed mindset. Whereas, more open-ended mathematical challenges, that support learning throughout, display a less fixed view of mathematical ability. In some cultures ability grouping is used in mathematics. Boaler (2013) highlights that this practice is based upon a fixed view of ability and therefore the practice should be avoided.

If we are to help learners to develop a growth mindset in mathematics, it is important that we consider how we speak about mathematics. For example, in the UK, there seems to be a tendency for people to state that they are ‘no good at maths’. It seems almost culturally acceptable to say this in a way that it would not be acceptable to speak about other subjects. This kind of message reinforces a fixed mindset, so should be avoided. The message that everyone can do maths is an important one. Equally, any teacher can learn to be an outstanding maths teacher.


Reference List:

Boaler, J. (2013) Ability and mathematics: The mindset revolution that is reshaping education. Forum, 55, (1) 143-152. Available at:  [Accessed 01 July 2019].

Dweck, C. S. (2007) Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk. In Ceci, S. J. & Williams, W. M. (eds.), Why aren't more women in science?: Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 47-55.