Growth Mindset – How Math Focuses Students’ Minds
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
What are the words that flow through your mind when you consider a math problem? Do you wonder what will be right? Do you hear the words that say, “I have no idea. I have no clue how this could be solved.” Or do you sound out words in your head that say, “This is far beyond comprehension. It makes no sense at all. How can this possibly be solved?”
Are you a math teacher? Do you see math solving as a maze with no obvious entrance or exit points? Do you view those words that ring out in your head as being impossible to hear or to hear and understand? Do you worry about how you will ask students to think outside the box with these “unbelievable” concepts? Then you have a narrow mindset. Unfortunately for a math teacher, you are not alone.
Do we live in a world where every cognitive challenge is impossible to imagine? Our world has become crowded with information and ideas in any time and any place. So we need to embed growth mindset messages in every facet of our learning. The mind-set and belief that everyone can reach their full potential stems from a basic belief in our character that each of us is self-improving, works hard, has high potential and is worth being admired. This is the mindset that is so critical to giving students the skills that will propel them into adult life.
What can you do to incorporate growth mindset messages into every facet of learning? I teach basic algebra and geometry, so I address the growth mindset all the time in classes. When we use a growth mindset we are practicing problem solving and asking questions. We are not worrying about the exact solution to the problem. We are not calculating the formulas to find the perfect solution. We are thinking about the essential elements of a problem and deciding how to get from A to B to C. We are solving problems that most people do not even think about. When we look at a problem this way, we realize we need to put our students in the driver’s seat. Our math teachers ask students to solve problems in a collaborative way, to pull up a skills list and then draw out the steps to solving each problem. And when students do this, we are not asking students to solve the problems within a narrow box of what is possible. Instead, we are asking them to experience the facts, the formula, the theory, the theory. When we do this, we encourage them to feel as if they are a thought in the machine. What this means is that their thoughts can change the direction of the machine.
How can you bring this topic into your classroom? Here are four simple ways to incorporate growth mindset ideas into your classroom:
Use the growth mindset
Talk about growth mindset as a concept, including the phrase “growth mindset,” in your class and class discussions. Take the opportunity to talk about the principles of this mindset and set examples of how they are used in class. Students can ask questions and suggest solutions to their own problems and create their own language of progress.
Teach students to ask questions
When students ask questions in class, you are not following what they are telling you, you are allowing them to influence the course. For example, “what do we mean by approach?” if students think that approach means one solution within a narrow box of what is possible, then they can ask “aren’t there multiple approaches?” or “are there multiple approach ideas?” They can even use any language they want to describe multiple approaches. This is one of the most effective ways to tell students how to think and what is important.
Teach students to evaluate their own problem solving process
When students are asking questions in class, they are considering the impact of their actions in the instruction. This makes them think about the possibilities and prompts them to check for other ideas. This is one of the ways in which they can help others.
Provide a growth mindset reflection
Take time in each lesson to give students a growth mindset reflection at the end of the class. They will get a chance to see the thought process through the eyes of their learner. This makes them more likely to do it in class.
In this culture, every challenge seems impossible. But if we teach our students that anyone can think about a problem and determine how to solve it with no roadblock in their way, they will become problem solvers in their own right.