I can if I have the Time

I stink at math. Or at least that’s the story I’ve been feeding myself for the last 30 years or so. I feel like I’ve “Pavloved” myself. I see or hear some math that I perceive to be difficult and my brain starts to freeze up. I feel dazed and my head starts to ache. This is the way I’ve felt since I first started having trouble with math back in my early teens. In grade ten I was made to enrol in all year (AY) math. It was the same academic math content as the regular one semester math the rest of my friends took but it was covered over the entire school year. So I had more time to cover the topics thoroughly and at a slower pace. In that class, my marks went from 50 to 60’s to high 80 to 90’s. All of a sudden I felt smart at math again. My math mojo had returned. In grade eleven I went back into regular one semester math. My marks went back into the 50’s to 60’s and my thinking shifted back to how dumb I was at math.

Years later, two things stand out to me. First, given good instruction and enough time to practice, learning can and will happen. I feel I’m living proof of that. Second, I am fascinated with the flip flop — the rope-a-dope — that I allowed myself to experience regarding my intelligence. How could I be smart again, then dumb again?

The typical experience for a student in my generation was to cover the same material in the same amount of time as all the other students. Some of us got it and some of us didn’t. Some of us knew the material better and some of us less well. Regardless, at a certain point, we all moved on to the next thing. Typically because the calendar or curriculum said so. I assume that is still mostly the case today although there may be more attempts to treat individual student differences by providing personalized learning strategies. Educational psychologist and researcher Benjamin Bloom suggested it should be approached in the opposite way. That is, the instructional focus should be the time required for different students to reach the same level of proficiency. With instruction equalized across the board the key variable for successful learning is time, not individual learner differences. This became the foundation of Bloom’s Learning for Mastery or Mastery Learning as we know it today.

Where does an ability, like intelligence, come from? From the heavens? Earth? Both? What you believe becomes know as your mindset. If we put this belief system about ability on a continuum then at one end would be those that feel abilities are God-given or genetic — you’re just born with them and there is nothing you can do to change who you are or what you have. At the other end of the spectrum would be those who believe abilities are pliable — we have a capacity for growth and with the right environmental conditions most of us can be a great deal better at the things we do then we are right now. Stanford psychology professor and researcher Carol Dweck calls these two ends of the spectrum fixed and growth mindsets. There are not many topics in education hotter than mindsets right now and with good reason. With the understanding being advanced through neuroscience and cognitive psychology we are seeing that it is very possible to teach an old dog new tricks (see neuroplasticity). A long time ago, the American Industrialist Henry Ford certainly understood mindsets when he said whether you think you can do a thing or not, you’re right.

If I were to apply these two key teaching and learning pieces back to me and my journey as a learner then I’d say that mastery (learning) and (growth) mindsets are vital to learning success. If I had consistently applied a growth mindset to my schooling I don’t believe that I’d have as easily bamboozled myself into wavering about my level of ‘smarts’. And if I had been given (or taken) more time to learn math, like I had in grade ten, then I would have better mastered the subject. Finally, as an old dog neuroplasticity says I can learn new tricks so I still could get better at math.

If I wanted to.

But that’s a story of motivation and a topic for another day. Fortunately for me, my English is gooder than my math anyways.