When my grade 9 math students ask me when they are going to use the skills of graphing lines or solving systems of equations in their daily lives, my honest answer is that, depending on what they decide to do in life, they might not. But, I explain, I hope that I am teaching them other life skills that will benefit them no matter what they decide to do.
One of my focus areas with my Algebra students this year has been working on building their belief in having a growth mindset. Fairly early in the year, it became clear to me that this work would be beneficial for my students. The grades on our first quiz were great, but many students struggled on our second quiz of the year, and I heard students say things like “I suck” as I passed them back. In reality, these students had not put in the work to prepare, and I wanted to help them realize that so much of their success in learning Algebra would be a result of their own efforts.
I was very intentional about doing this. I told students we would periodically do activities, watch videos, or have discussions about building a growth mindset. I also told them why this was important to me and why I believed that, regardless of their future career path, understanding and adopting a growth mindset really will benefit them.
Over the course of the year, we engaged in various activities, which students did seem to enjoy and appreciate. We learned about brain science, and how challenging ourselves mentally can help re-shape our brain. One of our favorites was a growth mindset focused activity where we matched quotes and information to famous people who had experienced and overcome failure in life. We also did an activity where we re-wrote statements like “I don’t get this” to “I don’t get this yet,” and talked about why the use of language can have an important impact on our mindset.
I also wanted to measure in some way what effect this work was having on my students, so I administered a growth mindset questionnaire in September and again in April. Scores on this questionnaire placed students in one of the following four categories: strong growth mindset, growth mindset with some fixed ideas, fixed mindset with some growth ideas, and strong fixed mindset. In September, the average score corresponded to a rating of “growth mindset with some fixed ideas,” and the same was true about the average score in April. However, in September I had one student whose score was “strong fixed mindset.” No students had this score in April. One student’s score did move her from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Anecdotally, students told me that, by doing these activities with them, I demonstrated that I cared about them as people. And while my students did walk in knowing what “growth mindset” means, I don’t think they really “owned” it for themselves as math students. Over the course of the school year, I saw an increase in effort and better work habits, such as keeping up with homework and asking questions, which led me to believe that students did see how these behaviors were important to their success. Term grades, which are comprised of scores on tests, homework, and retakes, did increase.
Although their growth mindset scores didn’t change, I think my students did experience benefits. They knew that I cared, and they saw how they could impact their own success. This knowledge did actually lead them to be more successful in my class. Looking forward to the next school year, I plan on having similar conversations about growth mindset in the math classroom with my future students.