Erica Warren, York, PA
Motivation is a much sought after commodity in mathematics classrooms today. Engagement with learning is essential because it leads to sustained interaction and practice. For the last two years, I have focused on improving student motivation and engagement by incorporating the findings of Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, into my classroom. Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University. Her book’s premise is that there are some people who have fixed mindsets while others have growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets believe their basic intelligence or talent are simply fixed traits. On the other hand, individuals who embrace a growth mindset understand that intelligence and talents are just a starting point. Through focused practice and productive effort, they can fundamentally change their brain, intelligence, and abilities. Since Dweck’s book was published, numerous research groups ran studies to test the idea that if students understand that they can grow their brain and improve in any area, they will improve in their motivation, engagement and therefore academic performance. In these studies, students who were taught that intelligence is something they could grow earned higher grades (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) or test scores (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003) compared to randomly assigned control groups. Below are six ways to encourage a growth mindset in your students.
Expose Students to Current Neuroscience Research. Scientist in several studies have seen that the brain functions more like a muscle growing and developing through focused practice. For example, in the London cabdriver study, a group of trainee taxi drivers and individuals not training to become cab drivers (the control group) were examined. To become a cab driver in London, drivers need to study for between two and four years and at the end of that time take a test called The Knowledge. To pass The Knowledge, drivers must memorize over 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in Central London. Over time, the scientists took MRI snapshots of the taxi drivers’ and control group’s brain structure. At the start of the study, the participants showed no visible differences in brain structure. However, scientists found that after this complex spatial training, the hippocampus of the taxi drivers had grown significantly. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that specializes in acquiring and using complex spatial information. (Read more studies at https://www.perts.net/)
Show Students the Power of Yet. Consider something in your life that you struggle with. For me, it is spelling. I battle with the spell check as I struggle to get my thoughts out. This is an example of a fixed mindset. Now consider how one word –“yet” – can change my mindset. I am not a good speller YET. This one word creates hope and endless possibilities. I often hear my students say, “I’m not good at this” or “I’m just not a math person.” My response to their frustration is typically a challenge: “Add a YET onto the end of that statement.” Another way I teach students about the power of this word is by making all my assessments cumulative. In class, I make public that it takes time, effort, and support to master a concept. When concepts from previous chapters show up on a future assessment, students have the opportunity to show growth over time. Give students the task, and repeat the task several times through the course to allow students to see their growth overtime. Next compile all these tasks into a portfolio where students reflect on a problem and how their understanding grows over time. For example, in my eighth grade course I present a systems of equations problem several times throughout the year. In the beginning of year, most students construct a table to complete the task. Later in the course, students will then be able to graph it. Finally, students will write a system of equations and solve it a variety of ways. Students begin to see that no test can define them. Anyone can always significantly change his or her intelligence with focused practice.
Do Not Say “Try Hard.” Students are told from an early age to just keep trying. However, a student struggling with a math concept may respond with “But why should I keep trying when I’m just not good at this?” This is an opportunity to connect their thinking back to the neuroscience research. In conversations with students, remember to not just tell them to “try hard” but rather ask them to try hard because this practice will make their brain grow. Working hard is not something that makes you vulnerable; it is something that makes you smarter.
Celebrate Learning from Mistakes. Traditionally, pencils are the writing utensils of choice in mathematics classroom. However, some days in my classroom we do all work in pen, then students work in pairs to review their mistakes. We discuss what mistakes occurred during a particular lesson and what learning took place from those mistakes. Mistakes promote team discussion about what we can learn from them. When I was observed by an assistant principal a few years into my teaching career she said not to focus on mistakes. Rather she suggested I ask students what they did well on and what they remember. She said this would create a more positive classroom climate. This seems like a great strategy, yet it is somewhat opposite to the thinking of the growth mindset. It has been tricky weaving these approaches into my conversations with students. Nevertheless, with a climate of celebrating mistakes, students are more open to admitting they made a mistake. Oftentimes, I will pull the class together to share a mistake that a student made. I will ask the class, “What do I like about this mistake? What can we learn from this mistake?” After a few weeks of this, several students in the class with raise their hand and share with the whole class when they make a mistake. Consider how comfortable these students feel that they can admit to 29 of their peers that they made a mistake! This has an impact on the classroom climate.
Be Mindful of Fixed Mindset Talk. Every year during parent teacher conference I have at least one parent tell me that he or she is not good at math so I should not expect their child to be a math person, or the parent says the child does not have the “math gene.” This type of parental talk is very destructive to students’ perceptions of their abilities. During parent teacher conferences, I communicate that anyone can be successful in math. Success in math depends on the amount of focus practice and productive effort the learner applies. I often recount this story from my childhood. In third grade, I struggled with timed multiplication tests. My best friend Amanda was always a wiz at these tests. I felt that she was just good at multiplication and I was not. Then, one day I was riding in the car with Amanda and her mom. For the majority of the car ride, Amanda’s mother fired multiplication facts at her. My memory illustrates an important point about practice: it is not always visible. Share this point with students, parents and all stake holders in education.
Show Short Video Clips. Another option to reinforce Growth Mindset is to show short video clips. I have complied several video clips that I have used in 7th and 8th grade. A colleague who teaches calculus at the high school also reported the positive effects these clips had on his classes. Check out my growth mindset playlist at: https://tinyurl.com/GMPlaylist