Last week Sara brought up growth mindset as an important part of talking to students dealing math anxiety and insecurity. When I first heard the phrase a few months ago, I thought it was maybe some hokey visualization mantra for aspiring CEOSs. However, I am now convinced that growth mindset is not hokey at all—it is a non-trivial concept that can really affect our students’ chances of success in mathematics, especially students from underrepresented groups. The idea is simply this: our mathematical abilities, and more generally other qualities like intelligence or character, are not fixed but may instead be developed through effort. If we believe this, we will be more successful at math (and other things) than if we don’t.

Dr. Carol Dweck is a former Stanford researcher who has done a lot of work in this area. Dweck’s research shows that a person’s mindset can have a huge impact on their success, particularly in mathematics. She and her collaborators found that a growth or fixed mindset was a predictor of math grades for 7^{th} graders, and that achievement was greater if students were taught that their abilities are not fixed and could be increased with hard work. There are important social justice implications for this research. Women and other underrepresented groups in math and science may have the mindset that their abilities in math are inherently lower because of gender or other predetermined factors. Researchers have now shown that even that idea can undermine the performance of these individuals and make them less likely to succeed in math. Those of us who care about diversity and equal opportunity in math, science, economics, and all other areas need to pay attention to these studies.

Recent research shows that math anxiety is contagious; in particular that it can be passed from parents to children, not genetically but when anxious parents help their children with homework. The fact that math anxiety is learned is incredibly hopeful news, because it means there are ways to break this cycle and release people from math anxiety. A recent study about bedtime math makes me excited that there are tools for parents to engage with their children about math in a positive, anxiety-free way, that actually help kids do better at math. Growth mindset, the theory goes, is another part of the equation. This mindset reduces anxiety because making mistakes does not reflect upon your underlying fixed qualities as a person—it is just part of the learning process.

I learned about growth mindset this fall, talking with a colleague, and then in a little more depth at a great workshop I attended on Math Circles. Once again, I’m a bit late to the party—growth mindset has been in the news for several years. In any case, after coming into contact with these studies, I felt an actual responsibility to present the idea to my students. If I hadn’t heard anything about the implications of growth mindset, I certainly couldn’t expect that they had. And if just being told that abilities were not fixed could help them succeed, how could I not tell them that? Plus I am selfish—I want to teach students who feel that they can take responsibility for their own learning, and are less afraid of making mistakes! Who are less defensive and like to be challenged. Yes! Sign me up.

The day that I returned from the Math Circles conference, I had a talk with both of my classes about the question of fixed versus plastic intelligence and mathematical abilities. I asked them to vote on whether intelligence was fixed or could be changed through effort. Most thought it was fixed. Then I asked them the same question about mathematical ability. Even more of them thought that mathematical ability was fixed.

This disparity was weird to me: how can math ability be fixed if intelligence is not? But nobody reading this blog will be surprised to hear about people putting mathematics in a special, frightening, alien category. How this math fear began I have no idea. It could be related to our culture’s entwining of mathematics and genius, and then to our weird ideas about genius. That is a whole different blog post, though.

After the vote, I talked to my students about the abilities of our brains to form new connections and the implications of growth mindset. I posted links to Dr. Dweck’s TED talk and two written pieces on the class website. The students were engaged in the discussion, asking me many questions I couldn’t answer. My current students are mostly Biology majors (I teach two sections of Biocalculus), so they were really interested in how the studies were designed, and different types of intelligence. Despite my lack of full knowledge on the subject, I had the sense that attitudes shifted that day. A student sent me an email that night thanking me. Later, when we talked about it in my office, she said nobody had ever discussed with her with the possibility that intelligence or mathematical ability could be changed. She was struggling, but this gave her the sense that if she worked hard, she would get it. Damn. Exactly what Dr. Dweck claimed! Awesome.

I am thoroughly convinced that a growth mindset is helpful to students. What else can I be doing to foster this attitude in my classroom? Is talking about it once enough? What parts of my teaching are already in line with this philosophy, and what should I be on the look out for? One important aspect of encouraging growth mindset seems to be praising effort instead of intelligence. This is something I’m really trying to keep in mind this semester. Of course, I always encouraged students who asked questions in class, whatever they asked, but now I make a point that this is part of the hard work of learning. Another great idea from Maricela Montoy-Wilson is to “normalize the struggle”. Make it clear that struggling is not failure–it’s the right way to learn. This semester I have made a special effort to discuss what a credit hour means and how much time they should expect to put in to the class to succeed. I also point out that they shouldn’t be discouraged if they can’t breeze through the homework—that work is really how they are learning. You’re supposed to struggle, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb or doing something wrong. Struggle is learning.

Another recommendation I read for bringing growth mindset into the classroom was to explicitly welcome mistakes, and to share your own mistakes and experiences with developing your abilities through effort. Mistakes, got that covered. I will also tell my students about my lengthy and ongoing battle to learn to play the accordion. I had what might be called “music anxiety” for many years: although I really love music, for a long time I thought that I was inherently unable to play an instrument or sing. Like, I would panic if I was pressured to sing along with something or do anything remotely musical in public. About 5 years ago I decided that fear was major dead weight in my life and I resolved to learn to play at least a little, no matter how long it took. I got an accordion and took some lessons and it was really slow going at first, but now I can play some songs pretty well. I even sing along. I love it! Now I can’t believe I waited until I was 30? Why don’t we really talk about this earlier in life?

In fact, my accordion story is something that I already tell—I talk about how math is like sports, or like music, something you have to practice, and tell them that I know it is hard. I tell my students the same thing my best professors told me: You can do this, you just have to challenge yourself, put in the effort, and work through the discomfort of confusion. The research on growth mindset is really just a supplement to what many math teachers and professors have been saying all along. Now there is science saying the same thing, and that believing in this possibility alone can make a big difference.

I’m really curious to hear from people who have also been thinking about this. Have you incorporated growth mindset into your courses or thinking about your own math life? Did you already know a lot about it, or is it relatively new to you, too? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.