Teaching and Learning

Academic Mindset: We Can All Succeed

Public domain image by John Hain from Pixabay

Every semester I walk into my classroom and already I can smell the fear on my students.  It is the fear of failure, the fear of getting a wrong answer, the fear of not receiving the grade they want. It is my goal that by the end of the semester, they have replaced this fear with enjoyment. I want them to open their eyes every morning and realize that the world has many layers, one of them being the mathematical world, the world in which water fountains are parabolas, elevators are linear functions, and music is trigonometric. Each layer of the world is why we as teachers exist. The ability to function in and recognize the need for these worlds, in part, means our students must develop a growth mindset. They have to see their struggles as learning opportunities. They have to recognize that their need for more time to work on a problem is not indicative of their lack of intelligence. They have to become comfortable with hearing the word no if they answer a question incorrectly. They have to stop using “I am bad at math” as an excuse for not putting in effort. They have to be persistent and resilient and realize they have already done great things.

In her book, Mindset: The new psychology of success, Carol Dweck (2006) introduced the growth mindset and argued that intelligence is malleable. We can cultivate our abilities with hard work and support. Angela Duckworth (2016) extensively researched grit, which she defined as perseverance for long term goals. It is having the resolve to succeed despite the challenges we face. In essence, these are two sides of the same coin; a growth mindset is the belief that you can reach these goals while grit is the act of working to achieve them. Jo Boaler (2016) applied these concepts to mathematics. She looked at strategies that could be used in the classroom to make every student realize they could succeed. As an educator of 19 years, I was inspired by all three of these women. People, including students, ask me on a regular basis what I do in my classroom that makes me a good teacher. I have put a lot of thought into this question, and I found it is extremely difficult to answer. It is extraordinary to think how much we can do with mathematical concepts to develop new ideas, to explore what has never been discovered, and even to create literary masterpieces. We can do the same extraordinary things in every subject, and I want to show my students how we can do this, but I also believe my success as an educator is contingent on whether my students want to explore the subject further and if they enjoy coming to class. My and my students’ growth mindset and grit can help make this happen.

I believe we all have a growth mindset in at least one area of our lives, and we just need to be reminded of that mindset so we can apply it to other areas. My students and I share personal experiences in which we have shown grit in any aspect of our lives. Over the years students have told me they show grit when they put on makeup, take the two hour train ride to classes, don’t punch someone, immigrate to this country, learn a new language, choose a career in an area that challenges them, try to convince teachers at the beginning of every year that they are not troublemakers, or just get out of bed in the morning. Their stories are inspiring, and when I struggle, I remember them. After our discussion, I help them demonstrate their grit when I take away their chairs and tell them they must earn them back by completing a series of challenging tasks, first as a class, then as a pair, and finally as an individual. These tasks are mathematical, asking students to determine how they can use exactly four 4s and the four basic operations including square root to get the number 10; another task is to determine how many squares of all sizes are in an 8×8 checkerboard. The moment a student earns back their chair, I can hear the sense of accomplishment in their yelp of excitement, and I can see the pride on their faces.

Throughout the semester, as students hesitate to raise their hands or struggle with a problem at the board, I remind them that mistakes connect synapses in their brain, something I learned from Jo Boaler, Judy Willis, and many other researchers. Eventually, students’ classmates are the ones to provide the encouragement and tell each other to have grit. From the first day, I make many small changes in my classroom to help promote growth mindset and help my students see themselves as capable. I have a long wait time, allowing students to process ideas and making them aware that they all have a voice in the classroom, not just the ones who raise their hands the fastest. I learn their names on the first day and have them work in groups on an activity requiring them to listen and speak to each other. I always use the words “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “you”.  In each of these instances, students understand they belong to a community of learners, something Ewa Barnes highlighted in her blog post, Academic Mindset: We Belong Here. I praise their work based on effort not intelligence, but I am also careful not to over praise mediocre work so they do not think that is all I feel they are capable of doing. I grade homework based upon completion not correctness, but I still let them know if they achieved mastery. I am careful about my own language. I will not say “I am a bad speller” or “I am a bad artist”; I say “Art is something I am struggling with, be patient with me, I’m working to improve.” If I make a mistake, I will say it’s okay because I just got smarter. There are so many ways we can promote changes in mindset; this is just the beginning.

To be clear, the possession of a growth mindset is not a guarantee of success; students must partake in all aspects of the class. A growth mindset is not a panacea. My effort to change mindset works in tandem with many other support systems, but if my students enjoy coming to class even when they struggle and when they say they are excited for the next challenge and believe they are capable of rising to the occasion, I am confident they are on the path to success.

Further Reading

Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages, and innovative teaching (ebook) by Jo Boaler

Grit: The power of passion and perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Mindset: The new psychology of success by Carold Dweck  New York: Ballantine Books.

Mind, brain & education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom (ebook). Sousa, David (Ed.).  by Judy Willis


2 Responses to Academic Mindset: We Can All Succeed

  1. koffenholley September 13, 2019 at 7:27 pm #

    Great post! Thanks for sharing these ideas, Elisabeth. I’m going to try to reframe how I talk about my spelling — “Spelling correctly is something I’m still working on” sounds so much better! 🙂

  2. Glenn Miller September 17, 2019 at 8:17 am #

    Excellent! So often “growth mindset” is just jargon, but here are practical ways to implement this philosophy in our classrooms. Much appreciated.

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