One particularly influential experience I had during my teacher education was a visit to a local high school while I was in college. I ended up with a small group of my classmates talking to a teacher about what we were studying.
“So, what’s the newest fad in education these days?”
We stared more or less blankly at him, not especially aware that there existed fads in education.
“You know, differentiation was really popular for a while, but now it’s lost steam. Seems like standards-based grading might be the next big thing?”
This exchange has come to mind every time I come across some new idea that’s supposed to “disrupt” education and change the way we teach. Differentiation and standards-based grading are great examples of ideas that very quickly made their way into many schools, and were the subjects of district initiatives and professional development programs. Differentiation is certainly not gone, but it’s also certainly not as widely talked about as it was a decade or two ago, and many districts have moved on to new initiatives. We may still be in the midst of the standards-based grading fad, but I’d hypothesize that we’re past “peak SBG”, and I’ve read from more and more teachers moving away from some or all of the aspects of standards-based grading.
Both movements seem to have followed a similar trajectory. An idea becomes popular because it fits with the overarching philosophy of many teachers, and promises a relatively easy way to improve student outcomes in their classrooms. Teachers implement it, or are forced to implement it, often in ways that oversimplify the complexity of the idea. Magical improvements in student outcomes don’t happen. The idea doesn’t disappear, but slowly fades as others take its place.
I saw Jo Boaler speak at CMC-South last weekend. She told us that we are in the midst of a revolution in thinking about mindset and achievement. She shared the most recent brain research around neuroplasticity and the conclusion that every student can learn math to the highest levels. She also shared the collection of resources she and her team are putting together at Youcubed, including video messages for students around their mindset toward math and a “week of inspirational math” lessons for teachers.
I might sound like a bit of a curmudgeon here, but I worry that the recent craze for growth mindset will be just another fad, falling by the wayside when the results of growth mindset interventions don’t match the rhetoric of its supporters.
From what I’ve seen, the growth mindset movement seems to focus on two big ideas:
- Tell kids that they can learn anything they want to learn, because brain science
- Praise kids for working hard, not being smart
But words mean a great deal less than experiences. If a student’s experience in math class is one continual failure, that experience will do more to create a fixed mindset than any amount of words can overcome. In particular, I’m skeptical that telling students about how the brains of black cab drivers in London grow is going to connect to their belief in their ability to learn math. I just don’t think that computes for a teacher.
The folks at Youcubed try to address student experience as well, and they’re collected a variety of low-floor, high ceiling tasks in addition to their week of inspirational math. To go with it are videos of Jo and others teaching in a way that is more conducive to growth mindset.
The catch is that the content is often either below grade level or not directly related to priority standards for that course. I believe that we can give students positive experiences in math class — the challenge is doing it every day.
I’ve argued this before, and I’m going to again: mindset is actually a very simple function. It is a rolling average of times a student feels successful after struggling with something, divided by times that student has had to try hard at something.
If a student has a high batting average here, they are likely to have a growth mindset; if they are continually unsuccessful, they are likely to have a fixed mindset.
There are other factors in play — the praise we give students, the messages we send around what it means to be good at math, and how we react to mistakes, among others. But I would argue that these factors principally act to change the ratio above.
I’m not trying to argue that this is hopeless, or that everything coming out of Youcubed is garbage. It’s not. I particularly like their messages about what it means to do math, and they’re right on with the idea of low-floor high-ceiling tasks, though I’m skeptical Youcubed is the right place to collect those. But the focus of their message is on words, and if we take the power of a growth mindset to mean that we have to be really really convincing in telling students to have a growth mindset, I think the revolution will fall short, and will be another fad in education that falls away.
Instead, I think there are four actions that impact students’ experiences and are worth putting effort into:
- Carefully define what success in math class means to students, and follow through by putting students in a situation to feel that success
- Build relationships with students so that they are willing to take a risk and persevere through struggle
- Pay careful attention to students who have a history of failure in math class
- Have scaffolds and supports ready to move struggling students toward success
These sound straightforward, but they’re incredibly hard to implement in practice on a regular basis. I think that’s a hallmark of anything worth doing in education. If we acknowledge that the challenge of fixed mindset is complex, and cannot be solved with a Youtube video and some posters on the wall, we can get into the nitty gritty of systems and structures that make implementing these practices more effective, and make a difference for students. That hard work is what will keep growth mindset around.