Growth Mindset: Math Approach

One of the major principles that we work with in and strive towards with our students and faculty is to help everyone develop and maintain a growth mindset. This principle is outlined by Author and Psychologist Daniel Seigel in many of his writings, but most notably in The Whole-Brain Child, although the work is first attributed to Carol Dweck. The gist of the principle is that we need to work with our children to help them understand that we have the capacity to change our ideas and understanding (having a growth mindset) vs. holding the belief that our ideas and understandings are fixed and unchanging (having a fixed mindset). The former allows us to apply effort to grow and change in our lives, while the latter leaves us set in unchanging attributes about the self (such as intelligence).

This, as we all know, can be a challenging topic with adolescents. I myself often reflect on myself at 16-18 and remember that is sure was nice when I knew everything there was to know about everything. But in that nugget is the crux when working with students as they move along their journey. Often it is easy in life to get set in our ways/fixed in our mindset, but true introspection and growth occurs when we strive to push for an open mindset- and push ourselves past the “I don’t get it moments”.

An anecdotal, but helpful, example of this is how we have reshaped our math program over the last several years. Traditionally math is a very fixed subject. Problems are presented by the teacher. The formula to solve them is noted and memorized. One’s inherent ability is ‘proven’ and ‘checked’ on a written test. Students refer to themselves, in this setting, as either ‘good’ at math or ‘bad’ at it- the very definition of fixing their mindset around something. This method, we have found, does not allow for the most advancement in student understanding or depth of growth in their math abilities. And, even more damaging, it allows them to remain in the belief they are ‘bad’ at math- a notion which may linger for years (and may resonate with some adults still), and a lost opportunity at teaching them that some things require more effort than others (growth mindset).

So, on the ground, what did we do? We redesigned the system to integrate a program which is more likely to help students develop a growth mindset within our math program. We did this by making the process of learning math a lot more messy: we work with students to grapple with the concepts themselves as opposed to just presenting the concepts to them; we have diversified the ways students have to demonstrate understanding of math topics; we have students embrace the fact that failure will allow growth and have a system that reinforces rather than gives lip service to the importance of failure; and we are there as teachers to act as guides instead of mere pushers of information. This has been a journey for all of us, but with the aid of patience and programs like YOUCUBED, we have had some interesting results. Students are owning their understanding of math and being excited by the project of enhancing their own understanding. And students are showing better retention of information when we assess their understanding of topics.

By looking to move our program towards being centered around helping students develop a growth mindset, we have been able to accomplish some goals that we would all desire for our students and children- that they be self-reflective critical thinkers who understand the value of effort as the path to success. This is another example of how we continue to look to refine our system, while still holding to the center of our value system.

Nathan Twichell