Do We Really Promote “Growth Mindset?”

Many of us have read the trending books (i.e. Mindset, Mathematical Mindsets), attended a motivating keynote presentation, explored Jo Boaler’s, and posted the inspirational classroom posters reminding students of growth mindset language in learning mathematics. But as educators, do we really promote growth mindset in our classroom rituals, routines, and practices? It’s an attractive buzz term these days with the hopes of reversing a cultural trend of apathy toward mathematics and the notion that only “math people” are destined to understand, appreciate, and find usefulness in the subject (just like there are “reading people,” destined to be the only ones who can read and productively use literacy skills on a daily basis, right?).

Promoting a growth mindset in our mathematics classrooms cannot stop at simply putting posters on the wall or responding with “yet” immediately after a student claims, “I don’t get it” or “I can’t do this.” It’s about changing our paradigms about teaching, learning, assessment, classroom culture, rituals, routines, language, and grading. Basically, embracing a true growth mindset around student learning in mathematics means abandoning the teacher-centered and compliance-based classroom paradigm most of us experienced as students in K-12 schooling and in college lecture courses. It’s a tall order that requires great reflection and examination of core beliefs. Here are some questions for self-assessment, reflection, and conversation to gauge if growth mindset is really being promoted:  

  • Who is doing the talking, the thinking, and the mathematics in your classroom: you or your students?
  • How do adults perceive mathematics across the school? Do students interact with adults that claim they cannot do math or are not “math people?”
  • When students are chosen to present in class, how are those students chosen? For right answers, correct processes, a mistake, or an interesting idea worth discussing?
  • Is speed implicitly honored in your classroom?
  • Do students demonstrate stamina in wrestling with in-class learning tasks or do they wait for the solution after minimal effort.
  • How is praise given? For answers or for thinking and perseverance? Do you have students that identify themselves as “smart?” How does that label impact their behavior and academic habits? (See The Problem With Praise)
  • Do the phrases “This is easy” or “This is too hard” permeate your classroom? (Why might these be troublesome phrases?)
  • Are students given the opportunity to experience productive struggle to find relationships, make connections, and use multiple representations, or are the opportunities based on replicating procedures and getting correct answers?
  • How are mistakes handled in class? Are they viewed as opportunities for discourse or something to be “fixed” and admonished? How is feedback provided to students when mistakes are made or uncovered?
  • Is feedback to students asset-based or deficit-based?
  • Is student reflection part of the classroom, including opportunities for self-assessment and goal setting?
  • Do assessment practices represent a static snapshot of understanding based on a pacing guide or are students able to demonstrate their learning at any time over the course of the year, building a body of evidence?
  • Whose classroom is it? Is it teacher-centered with lots compliance-based rules, procedures, and routines or is it a student-centered, driven by their questions, ideas, and sense of empowerment?
  • Are the questions posed to students answer-driven or ideas-driven?
  • Elementary: Observe various flexible groups in your building and across a grade level. What do you notice? Describe the instruction and classroom culture in these classes. Are there implicit messages being sent to students?
  • Secondary: Observe “honors” and “regular” classes in your building. What do you notice? Describe the instruction and classroom culture in these classes. Are there implicit messages being sent to students?
  • What other questions should be added to this list?

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert here or judge other who are giving growth mindset principles a try in their classrooms. As a high school teacher, I was more fixed mindset that I wish to admit, and my classroom was much more teacher-centered than I wanted it to be. The influences and practices of my K-12 teachers, my college professors, and even my cooperating teachers when I student taught formed a strong schema about how teaching mathematics was supposed to be. Fortunately, through some professional learning opportunities early in my career, I was able to recognize that I was only teaching the students that learned like I do in my classroom and not all of the students in my classroom. That recognition and acknowledgement alone was the first step in improving my practice as a young teacher. It was challenging to give up some traditional beliefs around assessment and grades, and I didn’t make all of the progress I could have. That’s why growth mindset is more than just a buzz term, posters on the wall, or catch phrases. To do it well and for it to actively live in our classrooms, we all (teachers and students) have to challenge our schema and beliefs around mathematics, what it means to “do mathematics,” and the learning environments that best represent what mathematicians actually do.

(Want more? Mark Chubb shared some similar thoughts and resources in a blog post last year.)

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