Do you believe that some people are simply born with a talent in maths, while others will never become really good at it? If you do, it’s important for you to read this, because your attitude can actually affect your abilities!

Are kids born intelligent?

And more importantly, do they believe that themselves?

These were the questions that psychological researchers asked themselves while investigating the performance of students in mathematics. In their experiment, they tried to see how they could improve the performance of children who scored poorly at maths. They distinguished two types of beliefs people can have with regards to intelligence:

An entity belief: “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.”

An incremental belief: “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.”

Here’s what was found. Over a two-year period, students who held incremental beliefs on mathematics saw their grades going up, while students with entity beliefs received the same grades, on average.

The researchers also tested the efficacy of an intervention for students who scored poorly at maths. A group of students that scored bad at mathematics was split up into two. Both groups received eight lectures of 25 minutes on the brain and how to improve study skills. For group 1, these lectures were focused on improving memory. For group 2, these lectures were focused on why intelligence is flexible and how students are in charge of developing it themselves (an incremental belief).

What happened? During the semester of receiving the intervention, the average maths grade of group 1 went down (as they had done in the semester before). But for group 2, the average maths grades went up during the period of receiving the intervention.

Teacher’s influence

Scores in mathematics can be arbitrary. Due to a variety of reasons, a child may perform badly at mathematics during a semester. Attribute this to a lack of talent, and the child may live with the idea “I’m bad at math and I can’t become better at it anyway” for the rest of its life.

Teachers with entity beliefs will often encourage these kids to focus on their other talents. “It’s okay if you’re bad at maths — you’re so good at language and history!” These things are said with the best intentions. But they will implicitly tell the child that it has no talent in mathematics, and that studying for it won’t make a difference.

Paradoxically, kids who believe in an “innate talent in maths” will thus be more likely to under-develop their maths skills. The popular belief that “people are born with or without a talent for maths” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, harming those who already perform poorly.

The coding revolution

Coding is often compared to mathematics, and is also often seen as being very difficult. Currently, coding is making its way into classrooms around the world, being compulsory at primary schools in the UK and Finland and taught at approximately 25% of US schools.

When we teach our children to code, let’s not make the same mistake as is made too often with mathematics.

If you believe you can develop your talent at mathematics, you will grow to be better at it. If you believe that as you “don’t have a talent for mathematics”, you can’t code, your chances are constrained before you’ve even tried. Let’s spread the incremental beliefs on intelligence. Everyone can learn how to code, except those who don’t believe this themselves.

Source: Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.