Why Math Identity Matters
The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true.
This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but scientific research also finds it to be true.
In more technical terms, researchers have found that there is an empirical link between students’ academic identity and academic achievement. Quite literally how you think of yourself in terms of math — your deeply held beliefs about what you’re good at, what you’re bad at and your ability to grow and learn — all have a direct impact on how successful you’ll be in it.
Jo Boaler of Stanford University put it this way:
Many students hold damaging fixed mindsets, believing that their intelligence is unchangeable. When students shift to a growth mindset (believing that their intelligence is malleable), their achievement increases.
Danny Martin from the University of Illinois in Chicago noted that “a mathematics identity is expressed in narrative form as a negotiated self, is always under construction and results from the negotiation of our own assertions and the external ascriptions of others.”
In other words, math identity is always a work in progress and, as parents and teachers, we can help students build stronger and more positive math identities.
Michael De Sousa, teacher, school leader, leadership coach, community advocate and researcher, observed:
Fixed mindsets about mathematics are prevalent in our society. Many people believe their math ability, or inability, is a fixed trait. People often communicated these mindsets by stating, “I am not a math person.” Others explicitly state their distaste for math by saying things like, “I hate math” or “I have never liked math.” These strong negative relationships with math often denote a relationship with math that people do not see changing soon. These fixed mindsets and negative relationships to math impede an individual's math identity and normalize a narrative that suggests math is not for everyone and that not everyone can succeed at math. Furthermore, these negative relationships can lead to math anxiety, reduce an individual's persistence in developing math skills, and avoid engaging with traditional math tasks.
If you’d like more proof, just search for “math” or “math teachers” on your favorite social media app. Chances are you’ll find a lot of people expressing their discontent for math (or for their math teachers), or you’ll simply find a bunch of tricks to make math “easy,” but typically provide no conceptual understanding of why the trick works. There are some exceptions, of course.
Math Identity Is Constantly Defined or Reinforced
Research has also shown that identity formation happens in schools regardless of intention or strategic design. For example, in 2021 researchers found that girls in classes with highly math-anxious teachers learned less math during the school year, as compared to girls whose math teachers were less anxious about math.
Other decisions, conscious and unconscious, can also influence a student’s math identity. For example, how much intellectual work teachers do for students versus how much they let students do for themselves, who gets selected for advanced math courses, recommendations teachers make for students’ math track, how teachers console and encourage struggling students and more can all impact the narrative a student is building or repeating in their mind. Sometimes referred to as the “hidden curriculum,” these choices communicate implicit messages about who is intelligent, who needs help, and who is worthy of additional opportunities.
Teachers Can Disrupt Negative Narratives
De Sousa says that “developing positive math identity in schools will require teachers to disrupt common narratives and understandings about mathematics, develop supportive relationships with students and strategically address math identity formation.” Other researchers, present four pillars for developing positive math identity in schools:
KNOW AND BELIEVE IN YOUR STUDENTS
Teachers who want to build mathematics identity know their students as people, make an effort to understand students’ life circumstances, and believe unconditionally in each person’s mathematical capacity. This means vigilantly viewing student attributes as assets rather than deficits. We find it especially valuable to have students tell their individual mathematical stories at the outset of each course.
MONITOR IDENTITY FORMATION
If developing each student’s “mathematics identity” is important to us, then we must monitor it regularly. Targeted formative assessments embedded in our daily instruction, such as think warmups, index cards, and exit tickets, allow us to gather valuable data about student progress related to mathematics conceptual understanding as well as identity.
PRIORITIZE STUDENT VOICE
Who is doing the work? This is a question we ask ourselves after teaching or observing any math lesson, especially at the middle school level. We hope the answer is “the students,” but too often it is “the teacher.”
REDEFINE MATHEMATICAL SUCCESS
For students to believe in one another as capable thinkers and problem solvers, they must directly experience the positive contributions each of their peers can make. This requires moving beyond a definition of mathematical success centered on mastering algorithms or quickly generating the right answers.
While potentially useful to teachers, the framework above is incomplete. Another important area where teachers can help shape the mindsets of their students is by drawing connections between math concepts and the students themselves. They can show students how math can be a tool to help them understand their own cities and communities.
Schools should also consider how race may affect a student’s math identity. According to a study by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Black students, in particular, often face challenges to development of strong math identities, and many are forced to contend with other students perceiving them as “affirmative action” cases if they are marked as high achieving.
Schools can be a powerful tool in helping students shape positive, growth-mindset math identities. Couple that with a strong curriculum and effective math teaching and the sky’s the limit for student achievement.