Practical tips for maths teachers: the growth mindset (TER Podcast follow-up #2)

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Last time I wrote some thoughts I had after completing my interview for the TER Podcast about maths education. You can go back and read that if you’re interested in thinking through some of the big-picture issues surrounding the problematic state of maths education in Australia. Following on from that post, I want to share some more practical pointers that I’ve observed to be helpful in a variety of different classes and contexts. Each one is its own idea, so I’m going to devote a few posts to unpacking them in a bit of detail.

What are some of the effective approaches you’ve seen people use? Answer number one: adopting a growth mindset.

First things first. It’s vital that teachers regard their students with a real growth mindset. This is a phrase familiar to anyone who has read the work of psychology professor Carol Dweck, who gives the best summary of what the idea is about:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

You can see why this is such a big deal to maths education. Maths, perhaps more than any other subject in school, is dominated by a fixed mindset. There are people who are good at maths and then there are the rest of us. In fact, the phrase, “I’m no good at maths” has entered into our cultural vernacular and sadly become an acceptable response to anything encountered in everyday life that involves numbers or numerical thought.

The problem here is that this kind of thinking becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. When we think of ourselves as unable to do mathematics, we don’t bother trying – and hence deprive ourselves of the very experience that will allow us to develop mathematical skill (namely, struggling to grasp numerical concepts and master the tools necessary to solve problems that require their application).

It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise that our self-concept when it comes to our mathematical ability isn’t just self-generated. It is formed, in large part, by those we trust to nurture and develop us as mathematicians – our maths teachers. What kind of an effect do we as maths teachers expect to have if we consistently communicate that “This is too hard for you, and you will never be able to succeed at it no matter how hard you try”?

And sadly, whether it’s through the bevy of tests that end in failure, or the advice to children to take the mathematics course that will maximise their ATAR rather than challenge and enrich them, or even just the little interactions with students every lesson that erode their self-confidence – this is the message that students often pick up from us, their maths teachers. Some students survive this process, but many don’t. They aren’t just disempowered – they’re paralysed. No wonder “maths anxiety” is a thing (who ever heard of any other subject that has its own psychological malady associated with it?). What a tragedy.

It’s obvious that people can take the growth mindset too far. One of the most enduring characteristics of truth in all spheres is that it will always be abused by someone with the wrong idea about how it should be interpreted, and this is no exception. If you’re curious about this and want to know how to avoid that particular trap, you can watch a vlog I recorded about it a few months ago.

But that isn’t most of us. For most of us, the growth mindset is a breath of fresh air. Yes, anyone can master maths! Sure, it takes some more time than others – but who is surprised by that given that every human being is unique and brings a new perspective and set of skills to the table? Rather than view those differences as a cage locking us into a certain level of achievement, let’s embrace them and see how they can be brought to bear on the pursuit of mathematical understanding that we should all be a part of.

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