I thought I was done with math. Until last week, when I sat fidgeting in my seat trying to will the sweat beads blanketing my forehead and hands to be re-absorbed into my skin. As usual, I tried to joke myself out of a potentially embarrassing situation. My colleagues will undoubtedly figure out I do not belong in a board room. (How can I be entrusted with any budget when I don’t even know my times tables?)
I had no idea when I woke up last Tuesday morning that a couple of math learning consultants would passionately share the latest approaches to math education, and that this would be the inspiration for my blog. It was truly fascinating, minus the part where they tried to get me to solve a math problem that apparently was compatible with all abilities on the learning spectrum. My math skills are likely at one —very left—end of the spectrum. Today, I happily welcome that realization. Here is why.
While learning about the latest in math research and the brain, I also became aware of the work done by psychology Professor Carol Dweck who is known for her research on the mindset psychological trait. She has written on the growth and fixed mindsets, and their effects on learning. When she published her work, I am certain Professor Dweck had no idea how profoundly ground-breaking this would be for a middle-aged woman at the end of the world grappling with a math problem in a school board room. From where I sat covered in sweat, I realized mindsets were the key to my personal evolution—and the evolution of Arab civilization as a whole. [Yes, I have been known to exaggerate and generalize.] We —or at the very least those in positions of leadership and power giving sermons atop cemented pulpits of “knowledge” — are stuck in a fixed mindset. This fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that skills and intelligence are set —not acquired or learned. You are either born a genius or you are not. You have divine gifts —or you don’t. This at its core is dis-empowering because it robs an individual of any control over abilities, and the prospect of a better life. Skills are born not grown and developed, and they are completely decided by the divine lottery of our gene pool and the circumstances we are born into to determine our path and fate in life.
I saw this clearly on display during our group yoga practice the following day after my embarrassing face-off with the math problem. One of our most committed yoginis professed —out loud— that she wanted to quit yoga because it was so “bloody hard” and she wasn’t built for it. Surely one had to be born with a yogic body to practice yoga? Flexibility, mobility, and strength were all built-in skills. Her inability to reach her toes was programmed into a chromosome most likely resident in her hamstrings that pulled and tugged at her muscles as it pleased. There was no hope and no point in continuing to show up every day. That is what Professor Dweck so brilliantly describes as the “tyranny of now.” Now, I cannot reach my toes. Now, I cannot begin to attempt to tackle this math problem, and now I cannot take steps to keep my streets clean, my education current, and my health in my hands.
At the very right end of the learning spectrum resides what Dweck calls the “power of yet.” That my friends is a sanctuary of hope and power. You see, I may not be able to answer that math riddle —yet. “Yet” is filled with promise, and inches me closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. I cannot reach my toes, yet. People who are good at something are good because they have built that skill and intelligence over time by showing up, sweat and all. They are invested and committed to the process, and not the outcome. These people have what Dweck calls the “growth mindset.”
What resonated with me most when I read about the growth mindset was the attitude toward failure. People with growth mindsets look at mistakes as opportunities that will ultimately lead to growth and evolution. They don’t take them personally. They are comfortable receiving feedback and critique because they bring them closer to solving the math problem, which incidentally has a very large number of possible answers.
I was thinking of this yesterday as I was myself receiving feedback on my latest venture Adventures of the Soul Conversations. I needed to be given that math problem to prepare me for that moment. Normally, from my cemented pulpit, I would take it personally, retreat for as long as needed to nurse my bruised ego, blame the world for not appreciating my greatness, figure out an excuse to quit, and try something else I was naturally gifted at. [Right now, this leaves eating, possibly reading, and barely braiding my girls’ hair.] Instead, thanks to two math consultants from the other end of the earth, I felt a difference in my body as I was processing the feedback. There was a skip of joy in my heart, a pause for reflection in my mind, and an excitement in my gut for the next time —for yet. Next time I am fortunate enough to have a conversation with someone, I will not interrupt as much, listen more, and think for three whole seconds before I speak.
Research suggests that if you live around a pile of rubbish, you are more likely to litter. It’s inevitable from the fixed mindset perspective. Research also suggests that mothers and female teachers are very likely to affect their daughters’ confidence and attitude toward math learning. I think it is larger than that. I believe mindsets influence our children. Now that the pulpit has been taken away from under my feet, I can confidently say it is not too late for my children. And yours.
I may not know my times tables —yet. But I hope my mindset is a productive contribution to our board room, my family, my street, my country, and the world.
Now where did I put that killer sudoku puzzle?