“This is too hard.” “I don’t get it.” “I will never know how to do this.”
Having been a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher for 18 years and a math teacher at GDS for the last 12, these are not unfamiliar phrases to me, and I am confident that families have heard similar pronouncements at home as well. There seems to be something about mathematics that makes people uneasy and feel like it is beyond them.
A few years ago, the faculty at GDS was asked to read a book by Carol Dweck called Mindset. She focused on how the power of your mindset can impact your “success in school, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor.” People with a “fixed” mindset see their abilities as something that cannot be changed while those with a “growth” mindset understand that abilities can be developed.
Jo Bolar, a mathematics professor at Stanford University, took Carol Dweck’s ideas and applied them to mathematics. She developed four math boosting messages to help students engage in mathematics in a new and more productive way. The first is that everyone can learn math at a high level and there is no such thing as a “math person.” The second is that you have to believe in yourself. The third is “mistakes are important,” because that is when you are learning the most. And finally, “speed is not important” as we want students to think about mathematics deeply and creatively.
Each fall, as we delve into the new school year, we spend a great deal of time in the 5th grade math classroom helping our students better understand and internalize these ideas. This includes students sitting together to figure out what types of phrases will help them switch their mindsets from “fixed” to “growth.” For example, instead of saying “I can’t do this,” students were asked to reframe that narrative. Students suggested the following as alternatives: “I can try something else” or “I just can’t do this yet.”
The payoff has been very encouraging. Putting in the time and effort at the beginning of the year to help students create a growth mindset has helped them to be more likely to engage in challenging mathematics as they better understand that is where real learning takes place. Struggling with a concept or skill and sitting with the uncomfortableness that goes along with not knowing is key to being a more accomplished student. This message continues to be an integral part of our everyday math lessons.
Parents play a very important role when it comes to helping their children develop more of a growth mindset in mathematics. At home, parents can help their child(ren) be more patient with themselves when they are working on something that may be a little challenging initially. We want students to persevere when something is difficult at first and know that answers don’t always have to come quickly. Parents can encourage their child(ren) to give themselves time to process the material, talk about what they do understand, share potential strategies, and then dive deeply into the work. That is what real mathematicians do. My hope is that students continue to understand that they are mathematicians and that they have an opportunity to achieve at high levels if they believe that they can. If you want to learn more, check out YouCubed.