Judging, Labeling, & Mathematics: An Unfortunately Common Practice

Every year, I come across students that say one of the following phrases in the beginning of the year and I work hard all year to change the beliefs behind such statements:

  • “I used to be good at math but these problems make me feel like I’m bad at math.”
  • “I’ve never been good at math and never will be.”
  • “I’m just not a math person.”
  • “I’m good at math – I like it”
  • “I am a math person”
  • “Oh no…this is not going to be fun.” (as soon as we begin a new topic).

At the surface level, these comments show that students believe that they are either good or bad at mathematics. Finding a substantial middle ground is rare. Underlying the labels of oneself as fitting into either a “good at math” or “bad at math” category is the unhealthy belief that one’s mind is fixed (I recommend reading Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs. growth mindset). Rather than having the ability to learn and grow and change, the mind is somehow incapable of stretching and expanding to build pattern-recognition skills, develop creativity, and hone visuo-spatial abilities. What an insult to both ourselves and the the powers of our minds!

Hand in hand with these self-limiting beliefs comes the tendency of our minds to constantly judge our actions and their results, further pushing us into categories (slow/fast, dull/creative, failing/promising, etc):

  • If I see a classmate moving ahead on practice problems, then I must be slow.
  • If I answer a question in correctly in class, then I probably looked and/or sounded dumb.
  • If my teacher challenges me to think deeper, then he/she must be out to get me. (Teachers push students beyond what they think they could do in order to promote growth, not to test them.)
  • I got a bad grade. Therefore, I must be bad at math.
  • I have gotten bad grades in math for the last 3 years, so I’m probably not cut out for math.
  • I am good at math but now it feels challenging – so I must be bad at math.
  • I got all the problems right on my last homework, so now I am good at math.

All of these thoughts lead to more judgemental thoughts and before you know it, you have become an expert on judging yourself (often, quite negatively)! While we could list many reasons for why we, as a society, have a tendency to label our mathematical abilities, I choose to move myself and my students beyond the “why”s and into action. We learn to “un-condition” a mind that is so used to thinking in a black and white manner about mathematical abilities.

But how? One of the answers lies in a simple yet profound meditation on non-judgement. At the core of meditation is the idea that the mind is capable of profound growth and change through active effort. In the “Non-Judgement Meditation” (which will be posted in the next article!), we specifically train our minds to break links between subsequent thoughts AND replace judgemental thoughts with non-judgemental thoughts. For example, instead of reacting to being slower than a classmate as an indicator of being incapable at math, the mind stops all analysis after recognizing the characteristics of the situation as follows:

  1. My classmate finished the 3 problems we were assigned.
  2. I am working on these 3 problems.
  3. Instead of giving time for the mind to wander, you direct your mind to work on the task in present moment.
  4. If labels or judgement arise, let them pass by as unimportant thoughts.

Let’s look at another example:

A challenging math problem is put on the board. Instead of thinking “I can’t get this”, “this is going to be too hard”, or “I never get challenges”, we train the mind to think:

  1. Challenge problem.
  2. You read the problem.
  3. That’s it! And now, the mind is actively directed to the task of tinkering, finding patterns, and collaborating on the task in the present moment.

Now, does this mean that one should never judge a situation to see how things are going? Definitely not! However, space for non judgement needs to be made if judgemental thoughts have taken center stage – especially in places like the mathematics classroom where labels and judgements are unfortunately plentiful.

Action for this post:

For the next few days, notice the judgments your mind forms during the day.

  • What labels do you apply to yourself?
  • How do these thoughts help or harm your progress and growth as a student (this counts for adults too because we are learning everyday in our classroom, the real world!).
  • How do you react to mistakes?
  • How often do you label yourself as good/bad for not getting everything right the first time around?
  • How do you perceive your abilities in different situations?

NOTE: I will be posting the “Non-Judgement Meditation” very soon, so stay tuned to practice after reflecting! The meditation will be most effective if you are familiar with the judgements that arise in your mind!


This entry was posted in Anxiety, Math Anxiety, Metacognition, Non-Judgement, Preparing the Mind and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Judging, Labeling, & Mathematics: An Unfortunately Common Practice

  1. Ranjitrai says:

    I am a retired Math Teacher and would like to learn from your efforts how to teach particular topic in the class to encourage and inspire the students


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