1: Fostering positive mathematical identities

A student says, “I can’t do maths.” Another says, “Maths is boring.” A parent says, “I could never get maths”; a colleague explains, “I’m not a maths person.”

Underlying such statements is mathematical identity. A person with a positive mathematical identity sees mathematics as interesting and worthwhile. They are confident in their capacity to make sense of it and accept that effort is part of the process. Such a person approaches mathematical challenges with a sense of power: “I’ve been stuck like this before. I know I’ll find a way to move forward.”

Many students in ALiM groups have a negative mathematical identity. These students dismiss mathematics as either irrelevant or boring and feel inadequate when faced with challenging problems: “I’m never going to get there, so why should I even try?”

This resource explores possible contributors to a negative mathematical identity and suggests ways to turn a negative identity around.

Why is this important?

A student’s understanding of what mathematics is and their self-perception as a learner of mathematics powerfully influences their engagement and participation. In numeracy, as in literacy, some students decide early on that the rewards do not justify the effort. It is as if they have encountered a learning or confidence “hump”. They will only get over it when they have picked up enough skills to tackle simple challenges and have begun to experience the intrinsic rewards of understanding and achievement. Once they are over the hump, they have no need to look back. The teacher’s job is to support them to get to that point.

When a student’s experience of mathematics has been negative, they can become fatalistic about their chances of ever enjoying it. If their mathematical identity goes unchallenged, it may become set in concrete, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recognising that a student has a negative mathematical identity, and probing the factors that may have formed it, can be the first step in addressing underachievement. Supporting students to develop a positive mathematical identity is essential for their long-term enjoyment of, and success in, mathematics.

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