Six steps for a positive mindset in the maths classroom

Written by: Alexandra Riley | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

If a student believes they are not good at maths it can have a negative impact on their attitude and confidence. Alexandra Riley offers six tips to help shift young people’s mindset and make a positive difference to their outcomes

Earlier this year, thousands of families, communities, organisations and schools joined forces to celebrate National Numeracy Day. Amid the many wonderful virtual sessions, a theme kept recurring: How can we boost number confidence?

You will have all heard the exclamation “I can’t do maths!” echo around the classroom. But how can we help young people to stop believing this and to positively engage with their maths education?

One answer lies in changing students’ perceptions of their ability or, to use another phrase, mindset. According to Professor Carol Dweck (2007), everyone has a mindset – an idea about their own potential which determines their beliefs and behaviours. Many of you will be familiar with her theory:

  • Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that qualities such as intelligence, talent and ability to learn are pre-determined (“I can’t do maths!).
  • Those with a “growth mindset” believe that hard work, effort and commitment contribute towards success – it is within everyone’s power to improve and to succeed. The studies have repeatedly shown that students with a growth mindset achieve more in school and later in life.

Below, I outline six practical steps and tools to help young people establish a growth mindset and build towards greater mathematical confidence.

1, Understanding current mindsets

To change mindsets, we first need to understand them. By considering what informs both students' and our own perceptions of maths, we can model a growth mindset that can positively influence young people. Start by encouraging both adults and young people to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

For staff, consider conducting a mindset audit together in a staff meeting. Often people do not recognise that they have a specific mindset and exploring this together is a great first step towards change. It may also highlight areas for further professional development.

For parents and carers, encourage adults to think about their own attitudes towards maths by sharing questions for personal reflection – for instance: “Which words do you associate with maths?” Or encourage them to complete the National Numeracy Challenge to see how they feel about maths (see further information).

For students, consider questionnaires that probe students' attitudes and thoughts towards maths. Carry out the first questionnaire when students enter year 7, as research shows that there is a large dip in attitudes towards maths as children move from primary to secondary (Henderson et al, 2017). Repeating the questionnaire periodically allows you to gather a snapshot of student attitudes, as well as monitor changing attitudes over time.

2, Talking positively about maths

Our mindsets are shaped by those around us. It is not uncommon for adults to reinforce a fixed mindset by unconsciously using negative language when talking about maths. Therefore, modelling positive language is essential to building a growth mindset.

Sam Sims, chief executive of National Numeracy, has said: “We know that one of the most effective ways for parents and carers to encourage their young people to be confident with numbers is to be confident themselves.”

Teachers, adults (and even a student’s peers) can use simple phrases to help build maths positivity. Consider these fixed mindset phrases:

  • I’m not good at maths. I’ve never been good at maths
  • I give up. I can’t do this any better!
  • If I fail, I am a failure.
  • I can’t do this, I keep making mistakes.

Now consider how you might give a growth mindset response:

  • Everyone can do maths. You might be finding maths hard now, but you can improve if you keep working at it.
  • It’s okay to find it hard, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad at maths. You can improve if you keep working at it.
  • Most successful people fail along the way. Just try a little longer.
  • Mistakes can help you learn. You’ve got part of it right, so let’s have another go and we might get to the answer.

Schools and parents/carers can also help young people embrace the power of “yet”, for example by turning “I can’t do fractions” into “I can’t do fractions, yet”. This can encourage young people to take risks and not be frightened to fail.

Many teachers refer to a “learning pit”, where the struggle in the middle forms a key part of the learning journey. However, this is also where young people may feel like they want to give up. Using “yet” can help young people persevere towards success.

3, Showing that everyone can do maths

It is important to reinforce positive language by making a growth mindset part of the culture in the classroom.

A study by UCL Institute of Education, Queen’s University Belfast and Lancaster University and involving 9,000 12 to 13-year-olds, revealed that students in the bottom set in maths show significantly lower self-confidence over time, compared with students in the top set (Francis et al, 2020). Worryingly, as disadvantaged students are over-represented in lower sets it could be that they are suffering more acutely with a lack of confidence in maths.

If you do not set in maths, try mixing up table groupings to see the difference this can make to both attainment and attitudes. You may be surprised by richer mathematical discussions and peer learning.

If you do set students, pay attention to attitudes in the lower sets. Consider carrying out a “mindset audit”. If fixed or negative mindsets are particularly common among lower attainers, work as a department to develop a plan to mitigate against these attitudes.

Within your plan, you may wish to consider adjusting how you pace learning. Students often equate answering quickly with being "good" at maths. However, many learners need time to grasp a new concept. Provide additional modelling to show young people how to break difficult tasks down into manageable steps and introduce activities that value thinking processes over speed.

4, Celebrate mistakes

When time is short, it can be tempting to look for correct answers. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for students to feel as though they have failed at maths when they make a mistake. However, mistakes should be encouraged, explored and celebrated. Research shows that mistakes actually increase the capacity to learn and “grow the brain” (Boaler, 2016).

Part of developing a growth mindset involves seeing mathematics as a creative, abstract and relevant subject, instead of a subject focused on “right” and “wrong” answers. This attitude can be fostered in class by providing tasks which involve more than one method or solution and making connections across mathematics. Switching from binary thinking and a focus on procedures, to open questions and discussion, provides valuable opportunities to explore and understand maths more deeply and without fear of failure.

5, Praise carefully

It is important to think about how we reward not only the destination, answer or grade in maths, but also the journey to get there. Praise motivates students, but applying a growth mindset approach may prompt you to do this in new ways.

By praising the effort that went in to doing well, you can highlight that it is possible for young people to succeed through hard work. This will encourage them to take risks, to try harder and to persist with problems. This shift in praise can also translate into the staffroom and parents’ evenings too, marking a small but impactful shift from discussing “ability” to discussing “effort” and “attainment”.

6, Talk about learning

We all know that metacognition and self-regulation approaches help young people to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning (Quigley et al, 2019). In doing so, they also support a growth mindset by ensuring that they notice their progress and build confidence through different learning strategies.
It is therefore important to continue to embed reflective activities into lessons, independent study or conversations at home. Use questions such as:

  • What mistake did you make that taught you something?
  • What will you do to improve your work?
  • Is there another way to do this?
  • Are there any other strategies you would try next time?
This can be done at the end of each week, or at the end of each topic. You can also ask students to think about one question they would like answered, two things they are not sure about, and three things they understand well enough to explain to someone else.

  • Alexandra Riley is senior strategy manager at Pearson and part of the team behind the #PowerOfMaths campaign.

Further information & resources

  • Boaler: Mathematical Mindsets, Jossey-Bass, 2016.
  • Boosting Number Confidence: A free resource created by National Numeracy and Pearson. It offers practical activities, videos and tips, and helps adults who support young people’s maths learning:
  • Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety: Offers practical tips, guidance and reflections for every age and stage to help tackle maths anxiety and forge more confident and resilient learners, teachers and communities:
  • Francis et al: The impact of tracking by attainment on pupil self-confidence over time: demonstrating the accumulative impact of self-fulfilling prophecy, British Journal of Sociology of Education, June 2020:
  • Henderson et al: Improving mathematics in key stages 2 and 3: Guidance report, Education Endowment Foundation, 2017:
  • National Numeracy Challenge: A free tool to help “maths-anxious” people improve their numeracy confidence and skills:
  • Quigley et al: Metacognition and self-regulated learning, Education Endowment Foundation, September 2019:


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