Growth Mindset and Making Mistakes

Peters, Jenny. “The ‘Smart’ Myth and Making Mistakes: Key Elements in Mathematics Learning.”

Consider how often well-intentioned teachers encourage math students by praising their smart work when they get the right answers. In “The ‘Smart’ Myth and Making Mistakes,” Jenny Peters argues that such praise, which she often used herself, reinforces the myth that mathematicians are born smart, unlike the rest of us, who . . . aren’t. Every time a student is praised for being smart, other students without a correct solution glean yet more proof that they lack mathematical ability. Two key findings from brain research suggest otherwise.

First, brains adapt and rewire during learning and can do so in short periods of time. For educators, this entails that intelligence can be learned and is not fixed.

Second, brains actively form new connections in response to mistakes. Suddenly, being “wrong” facilitates learning rather than simply indicating its absence.

These two critical findings of brain research enjoin teachers to change how we speak to students about their work and the process of learning math. Teachers should create classrooms where mistakes are an expected and natural part of learning. Rather than fearing errors, students should be encouraged to discover what mistakes reveal, because learning is generative of aptitudes and potential. In these classrooms, students may not trip so often into negative self-perceptions reinforced by the “smart” myth. Instead, they can pour their energy and focus into actively rewiring their brains to cultivate math “smarts.”

Peters, Jenny. “The ‘Smart’ Myth and Making Mistakes: Key Elements in Mathematics Learning.” RCML Intersection Points: The Newsletter of the Research Council on Mathematics Learning, vol. 42, no. 2, Oct. 2017, pp. 8-9. RCML-Math,