Here’s a quick note from the field.
Class today was largely about some fraction arithmetic, and one student was having trouble with it. In class, a couple times, this student said “I’m just not good at this” or “This doesn’t make sense” and “I’m bad at calculating stuff.”
But, all through class, the student stuck with it — I mean that they tried problems on their own and asked questions. And there was definite progress. The student was becoming able to handle this type of question on their own, and starting to make sense of things.
At the end of class I told this student that I thought they were getting the hang of this. I saw a sort of relief pass over this student. Then the student told me:
- They had a hard time with this topic
- But this student sort of blames previous teachers
- This student recently signed up for extra math that is more like our class’
- The math of our class is the “only math they’re good at”
So what did this student mean when they said “I’m not good at this” etc. in class? In retrospect, it was a statement of fear and anxiety precisely because it was the exception to the rule, at least the rule in our class. This student feels generally competent in our class, so much so that they’ve signed up for similar, optional math next year, and was feeling nervous that this good thing was in danger.
This doesn’t contradict the standard story that people tell about kids saying that they’re “bad at math.” (Especially because this student’s statements weren’t that they were bad at math, in general. It was more specifically about arithmetic and algebra.) But I do think that it illustrates one way that these statements can be an attempt to express something subtler than what they’re usually credited for.
Three things seem important to me about this case:
- The student clearly didn’t think that “being bad at arithmetic” was a fixed quality, as this student was simultaneously asking for help. This goes against the “fixed mindset” interpretation, I think.
- The student clearly doesn’t, in general, think that they’re bad at all math. These expressions of frustration can be about anxiety that a student’s good thing is under threat. So while it’s never a good thing to hear a kid say that they’re bad at something, it can be a local, specific issue rather than a global one about their status in math class.
- The student didn’t think that it was socially OK to be bad at arithmetic or bad at math. This wasn’t a student being proud of being bad at math, and it wasn’t a sign of anything but their own frustration.
I’d be curious to hear other people’s stories about students who make “I’m bad at…” statement in class, to learn more about the different contexts in which kids say this. I’m sure, at the end, we’ll find that they always come at moments of frustration. But I suspect that if a kid is saying that they’re bad at math in class, there’s more to that story, and maybe it’s a sign that (paradoxically) some fundamental things are working for that student in class.