Published May 2018.

Later in this article we will discuss the growth zone model which helps learners understand their feelings as they move from comfortable tried and tested ways of working in mathematics into learning, reasoning, connecting and developing more efficient ways of enjoying mathematical activity, such as are offered by NRICH activities. Sometimes learners when they are challenged can get ‘out of their depth’ and start to panic, and it may be concerns about this happening that stop learners wanting to jump in and enjoy the feelings of success when challenges are overcome. The symptoms of this panic may not always be easy to read by teachers and other adults working to support learning, as learners develop ways to hide them. Hence one of the characteristics of the mathematically resilient learner is that they have the language both to express any feelings of being out of control and to request the support they need so that they can stay in their growth zone longer.

Panic or feelings of anxiety seem to happen very quickly in some learners when they encounter challenge in mathematics. This may be because many learners have had a previous diet of mathematics that they have found easy, or possibly they are used to mathematics learning requiring them to “learn this algorithm” or “remember this way”. When they are offered something that is challenging and requires connecting ideas, thinking and reasoning, as NRICH activities do, they cannot use their standard approaches in mathematics, which leads to the obvious conclusion that “I can’t do it!” This article is about how learners can be helped to move from expecting “doing maths” to mean the teacher smoothing the path, explaining every step and the learner remembering to apply all the steps, towards expecting to engage in mathematics for themselves, and more importantly feel involved, safe and that they enjoy doing mathematics.

Mathematics is often worked on in isolation and often involves rote learning of “number facts” that they are required to manipulate and articulate with speed. These and many other common ways of working in mathematics seem to start to lead some learners, and we think many learners, to begin to become mathematically anxious and to panic. However because they are working on mathematics rather than for example swimming, the panic may not be obvious to mathematics teachers. The learner may feel ashamed and feel they “ought to be able to do it” or may feel that they have no hope of being able to come up with any ideas as they are sure they are not part of the elite few that can do mathematics. If they frequently feel they may be humiliated when they simply “can’t do it”, as confirmed by feeling stuck and making mistakes, they may go on to develop mathematics anxiety and/or avoidance. So the next belief that needs challenging is the idea that mathematics is something that you have to work on by yourself and that you keep quiet if you cannot keep up. Rather collaboration should be the expected way to work and the idea that everyone needs support from the community, peers, adults or texts or internet, as they struggle with the complexities of learning and using mathematics, should be part of classroom culture.

The last negative belief that we want to highlight here, is the belief that many learners hold that they are not part of the elite few who can “do” mathematics. This belief is evident in many of the ways that society reacts, for example, it is OK to give a little shudder when faced with some simple multiplicative reasoning and to say “I can’t do maths”, in way that saying “I can’t read” is not and in the way that qualitative data is presented as fact and only questioned by few in society. NRICH tasks are generally accessible to all and extendable as far as the learners want to go. Therefore they are inclusive and suitable for teachers to use to include everyone, no matter what their current experience, in doing mathematics. Using such tasks can help to convince students that they can in fact “do maths” and are part of the community who can learn and do mathematics. However, in order to work in resilient ways and to be part of those who “can do mathematics”, who enjoy using their ideas and what they do know to overcome barriers and feel successful in mathematics, learners first have to be able to get into their growth zone and then, to stay there for a while. In other words, they have to develop ‘mathematical resilience’.

So there are some important principles of such an environment that first need discussing:

- their mind is like a muscle, in that it grows stronger with exercise,
- it is never that you cannot do it, it’s just that you “can’t do it YET!”,
- getting stuck is ‘an honourable state‘ as it shows that you are on the verge of learning something new

The growth zone model consists of three concentric zones. The growth zone can be thought of as sitting between a comfort zone and an anxiety or danger zone, as in Figure 1.

In the

In the

In the

The growth zone model helps learners remember that when they are learning, problem solving or engaging in a new mathematical way of working they will feel challenged, uncertain and that their self-concept as someone who is able to cope in mathematics is at risk. If they do not experience something of these feelings, they will not be learning as much as they might, and they will not experience the good feelings associated with a challenge overcome. Teachers can use the language of the growth zone model to help learners to become aware of when the challenge is too much and they are moving into the red zone and can help each learner to plan their own ways for moving back into the growth or comfort zones. Currently, learners are often left to cope alone, and it can seem to them that feelings of uncertainty or risk are unusual, rather than a normal result of pushing yourself to learn more. If students become aware that they are panicking, anxiety management approaches such as breathing exercises, especially slightly longer out breaths or breathing with the diaphragm, talking to someone and learning to step away until calm, or taking physical exercise such as a walk, can be suggested, allowing the learner to take back control of their thinking.

Getting into your growth zone requires first that you know that you have one, which is why a discussion of Dweck’s (2000) mindset theories was suggested as a good place to start. It may be that you have to talk to other adults in the school and to parents and guardians in order to make a significant change in learners’ beliefs that they really can grow their mathematical capability, and that the only ceiling on what they can do and understand is one that they put on themselves, if they are willing to put in the time and effort and recruit appropriate support. There may be structures within school which confirm the fixed mindset idea that each learner has a fixed and measurable potential beyond which they cannot go, such as setting and other classifications of learners, so these may need thinking about first. Think about it the other way, if it were true that people can only learn or attain so much why do we teach at all? The one thing that makes a huge difference to attainment is the teacher (Hattie 2012)), not background or previous experience; teaching makes a difference because everyone can grow with appropriate experience.

Getting into your growth zone needs you to feel confident that it is safe to do so. This requires each learner to know that if they get stuck or feel uncertain of what to do next, help will be at hand. That help has to be the right help, we found that even where “Buddies” were well established in a school and that every learner had someone to go to and talk to about any difficulties, the help that was given in mathematics tended to be to simply provide the answer. In mathematics they felt the right answer to be what was needed. Following some in depth exploration and discussions, inclusive of the learners, this school developed “helpful questions to ask when discussing mathematics” so that the learners could help one another experience the good feelings of successfully overcoming barriers and engaging in and learning mathematics.

Sometimes learners have not developed any approaches that may help them to get “unstuck” once they are stuck, other than to ask a teacher. Although getting “stuck” may be a sign that you are in your growth zone, not being able to get “unstuck” will mean that you move straight to the red zone, try to disguise your feelings and start to make trouble or just say “I can’t do it!”. One teacher used a “stuck poster” that was specific to each class. Each class suggested ways that they might get “unstuck”, at first it was just “ask the teacher” but once it was pointed out that there was one teacher and 30 students, other ideas were suggested, “look over your notes”, “ask a friend”, “team up with someone else who is at the same point” and so on, appeared on the poster over time as the ideas occurred to the learners. The poster was always displayed and the teacher pointed to it whenever anyone said “I’m stuck”.

A learning environment where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes, because you do when you are making progress with your learning, will help people feel safer getting into and staying in their growth zone. One teacher went as far as to celebrate mistakes, asking in the plenary at the end of the lesson for “today’s big mistake” and always asking “so what did you learn from that mistake?” Sometimes learners are very frightened of making mistakes, as they can result in feelings of humiliation, so this teacher turned it on its head and celebrated the mistakes and emphasised what was learned from them.

Find out how Mathematical Resilience can be measured

Watch Dan Siegel’s video on Youtube

Read about Carol Dweck’s theories

Dweck, C. (2000) Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, London: Routledge

Lee, C. and Johnston-Wilder, S. (2014). Mathematical resilience: what is it and why is it important? In: Chinn, Steve ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Dyscalculia and Mathematical Learning Difficulties. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 337–345.

Ward-Penny, R.; Johnston-Wilder, S. & Lee, C. (2011). Exit interviews: undergraduates who leave mathematics behind. For the Learning of Mathematics, 31(2), 21-26.

Williams, G. (2014) Optimistic problem-solving activity: enacting confidence, persistence, and perseverance, ZDM, 46(3), 407-422