Mathematical Mindsets

Mathematical Mindsets

By Karen Archer, Educational Psychologist at Bellavista SHARE

When you think about intelligence, do you believe it is fixed from birth or do you think intelligence can change over one’s lifetime? And when it comes to Mathematics, do you believe there is such a thing as a ‘Maths Brain’?

Let’s explore some of the findings: Firstly, did you know that cab (taxi) drivers in London, United Kingdom, have to undergo complex spatial training, to prepare them for the routes and roads of London? At the end of such training, brain images show a significantly larger hippocampus. This is the area of the brain which plays a major role in learning and memory. Once retired, or when the drivers stop working, researchers found that the hippocampus shrinks back down again. This finding led to the term ‘brain plasticity’- the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. 

The idea that some people are born with a ‘Maths brain’ and some people are not, is a damaging myth. And that single idea is the reason we have so many Maths-traumatized and underachieving students. Think about your own journey with Maths as a student. What kind of feelings does this memory provoke in you? Judy Hornigold, an independent education consultant specialising in Dyslexia and Dyscalculia in the United Kingdom, speaks of a 75-year-old woman who enrolled in the college’s functional Maths course. This lady explained that at age 11 her teacher had told her she was too stupid to learn Maths. The woman remembered every detail about that day: the weather; what she wore; where she sat, and what she could see from the window. She had spent her life believing that teacher, but she was determined not to die without proving her wrong (Hornigold, 2015).

Dr Jo Boaler is a Professor of Education at Stanford University. She speaks of a study conducted by neuroscientists where they brought 7 to 9-year-old children into the labs at Stanford, and half of them had been diagnosed as having Mathematics learning disabilities, and half of them hadn’t. The children worked on Maths under brain scans. They found that the children diagnosed with learning disabilities actually had more brain activity than the other children – more areas of their brain were lighting up when they worked on Maths – which isn’t necessarily a good thing, as we really only want the Maths-related areas of the brain to light up. The team gave all the children eight weeks of tutoring, and they worked in different ways with them, with number visuals and number lines and Math facts. And at the end of that eight-week period, not only did the two groups of students have the same achievement, but they had the same brain functioning. The brain studies show clearly that anyone can learn Maths to high levels with the right teaching, right messages, and the right attitude. 

Dr Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset

In the early 1970s, psychologist Dr Carol Dweck studied how children responded to failure. Dweck and her research team devised an experiment involving difficult Maths problems that would allow them to gather data on how the children responded to failing a challenge. They discovered that some students had huge difficulty coping with their failures. Other students approached the challenging task with the distinct attitude of wanting to learn from it, and to challenge and grow their intellect. Dweck wondered what might cause these different reactions in children faced with challenges. This experiment was the beginning of Dweck’s research into the mindsets leading her to coin the phrases “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” that describe the way some students avoided challenges and others approached them head-on. The fixed mindset is simply a belief that one’s skills, abilities, and talents cannot be meaningfully developed – the belief that you are born with a set skill or ability in certain areas, and there isn’t much you can do to change that. The growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that with hard work, effort, and perseverance, one can develop skills, talents, and abilities over time. Over decades of research, Dweck and her team gathered data that clearly showed that people who possessed a growth mindset had better outcomes in academics, careers, relationships, and other facets of life (Dweck, 2017).

Perhaps the most compelling study of all on the way our beliefs change our brains and our learning, comes from Jason Moser and his colleagues. They found that when people took tests and made mistakes, synapses fired in their brains, but that there is no growth when the answer is correct. It is the struggle to get the right answer that fosters growth, even if the mistake is not rectified. In terms of Mathematical development, mistakes are valuable. 

Ultimately, classrooms and the home environment, need to foster a risk-taking ethos, where children feel proud of their struggle, knowing that by making mistakes, their brain has the ability to change and adapt. 

Sign up for the Bellavista SHARE 2022 Online Conference. Teaching our children to be critical, independent thinkers is an essential component of educating for the future. Cognitive education is key to securing a better future for our youth. Join the Bellavista SHARE team as they explore the power of cognitive education with international and local experts from May to June 2022. The conference will run for five consecutive weeks, beginning on Wednesday 11 May 2022, and ending on Wednesday 8 June 2022. Each week a 1-hour live webinar will be held with a specific expert exploring their topic of interest.

Attendees can book for the full line-up, or individual webinars. Visit : 


  • Chinn, Steve. (2020). The Trouble with Maths (4th ed.) Taylor & Francis Ltd. London, United Kingdom.
  • Chinn, Steve. (2019). Myth buster: The biggest misconceptions about dyscalculia. 
  • Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset (revised edition). Robinson. London, United Kingdom
  • Hornigold, Judy. (2015). Dyscalculia Pocketbook (1st ed.). Pocketbooks. Alresford, United Kingdom  
  • YouCubed website: (accessed on 15/01/22)
  • YouTube: Jo Boaler’s “How you can be good at Maths and other surprising facts” Ted Talk (May 2016).
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