I presented yesterday at NCTM Phoenix. It was titled Growth Mindset: From Rhetoric to Action. The ideas come largely from this post from last year and the thoughtful responses in the comments. My slides are here, and here is some fascinating further reading on academic tenacity.

My thesis is that promoting a growth mindset is hard, and is particularly hard for a subset of students who are most disaffected and have had the most negative experiences with mathematics. In my experience, most of the interventions that are commonly talked about — praising effort rather than ability, encouraging students to try new strategies when they are struggling, creating space for collaborative work — are ineffective for these students.

I see a student’s mindset as a function of two variables:

If I am telling a student to have a growth mindset, but those words don’t match the experiences that student is having in my class, they’re unlikely to think of themselves differently.

I do think there are a few things we have control over that can influence this function. We can

- Carefully define what success looks like in math class
- Build relationships so that students are willing to take risks
- Pay particular attention to students who have a history of failure
- Have scaffolds and supports ready to move struggling students toward success

None of these ideas are groundbreaking. I asked the group at the start of the presentation to think about and discuss some possible negative consequences of growth mindset, and folks in the room named pretty much everything I shared. If there’s one idea I hope people took away, it’s that this work is both extremely hard and absolutely worth doing.

I got to spend some time with Henri Picciotto, and he said something smart at dinner last night. “When you grade, you help one child at a time. When you plan, you help all kids. Spend your time accordingly.” I’d love to add a corollary — in the same way that our time planning lessons is valuable, we can spend extraordinarily valuable time planning for how we create a classroom that makes students feel like they belong and that they can be mathematical thinkers. It’s relatively easy to spend some time puzzling over how I want to introduce polynomial division next week. It’s much harder to spend some time trying to figure out how I can define success in my class so that every student is able to feel like they can be a math person.

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