Growth Mindset: my journey with math
In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck (2006) recounts an experience that cemented her fixed mindset—a teacher in elementary school organised her entire class around IQ scores. She doesn’t mention exactly where she fit in among her peers, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that by lining up the students according to IQ, the teacher made one thing very clear: your intelligence as measured by an IQ test is how I define you.
I have to admit that I had never heard about fixed or growth mindset before beginning the UBC Teacher Education Program. And perhaps you as a reader have also not heard of it, so for your sake, I’ll briefly explain.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
Someone with a fixed mindset is otherwise known as a perfectionist. It’s the belief that appearing ‘correct’ or ‘right’ or ‘capable’ is paramount. It’s the idea that some people are born with innate talents and that they do not have to try as hard as other people to achieve success in those areas because of their talent.
A growth mindset, on the other hand is the belief that challenges and difficulties, and even failing, are things to embrace and be excited by. Looking good or proving yourself to other people is not as important as overcoming an obstacle to achieve something. It’s the idea that it takes a lot of practice and hard work to learn how to do anything very well, and people succeed because they put in the effort.
I can remember the moment when Miriam Miller, the instructor for my EPSE 308 course on Human Development, described fixed vs. growth mindset in class. I had a lightbulb moment: I have a fixed mindset.
My entire life I’ve been fixated on the idea that if something is easy, it must mean I’m talented and if something is difficult, it must mean that I’m not talented.
In hunting down the genesis of my own fixed mindset, I tried to think of a similar experience to Dweck’s teacher lining her up according to IQ.
I failed grade 1
For starters, I failed grade one, and that left its mark on me. I became driven to prove to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t ‘stupid.’ I was obsessed with my grades from then on, and remember poring over my report cards, euphoric from positive comments and devastated by anything that approached criticism.
In her research, Dweck (1999) has seen “over and over that children who had maladaptive achievement patterns were obsessed with their intelligence—and with proving it to others.” Reading this, I felt exposed, dismayed and… curious. Could a life’s worth of academic pursuits be chocked up to ‘maladaptive achievement patterns?’ In other words, a need to prove myself? I have to admit, it could very well be possible. I grew up in low income housing with a single mom. The rest of my larger extended family wasn’t much better off, and neither were my neighbours. I knew that to escape I needed to go to university and become a scientist. That was the plan.
The problem was, I wasn’t good at math. By grade 5 I still didn’t know basic multiplication (everyone knew their multiplication tables by grade 5 back in the 1980s).
One summer my grandmother spent hours drilling me in my multiplication tables, and although I resisted, I was proud when I was able to recite them. Thank you, Grandma! However, that one positive experience didn’t magically unlock math for me. I failed grade ten math, and passed grade eleven math by the skin of my teeth. Despite this, I graduated with honours because other than math, school was ‘easy’ for me.
And there we come back again to my fixed mindset. I truly believed at the time that I wasn’t a ‘math person’ simply because it was difficult for me. According to Brock and Hundley (2016), students with a fixed mindset believe that “if you aren’t naturally gifted at something or don’t catch on to it right away, you might as well forget it” (p. 12).
That was me in a nutshell. School was easy for me, because I chose subjects I was good at, and avoided at all costs the subjects I found challenging. Math was a requirement to graduate, and therefore the thorn in my side.
Your ‘God-Given Gifts’
This idea that something should be easy if it’s a natural ability, and difficult if it’s not what you’re ‘meant’ to do is a form of magical thinking, which is a topic I’ve written on previously in my blog. It stems from this idea that our skills are given to us. Whether by God or be genetics, the person didn’t need to work as hard as others to hone their skill.
This is patently false! Someone who becomes a professional basketball player or violin player has spent their entire lives practicing, learning and improving. Of course there are bodily and intelligence attributes that incline certain people, but to say it was easy for them is just not true. To say they didn’t struggle is not true.
The difference is that they saw their struggle as part of the process of becoming the best they could be. Whereas someone like me, who believed I was simply not a ‘math person’ saw the struggle as a sign I should give up.
Mindset and mental health
Eventually, I did go to university to study psychology, but I struggled terribly with anxiety. In researching growth mindset for this paper, I discovered that the latest research has found a strong link between mindset and mental health (Schleider & Weisz, 2018, 2016). Students who have a fixed mindset have higher rates of anxiety and depression, and interventions in mindset can reduce risks of mental health problems. Did my fixed mindset contribute to my anxiety? I’m absolutely positive it did, but what caused my fixed mindset in the first place?
What caused my fixed mindset?
Was my obsession around my grades caused by a fixed mindset, or was my fixed mindset caused by the system of grading I grew up in? BC’s New Curriculum is leading the world in its approach to descriptive, strength-based assessment. At the beginning of this term, we debated the new style of assessment in one of our courses, and when I argued that I found satisfaction and pride in getting good grades as a kid, one of my cohort-mates told me point-blank, “That’s because you were brainwashed to think that way.” Honestly, I was offended at the time, but after learning about growth mindset and considering my past experience, I wonder if strength-based assessment could have made a positive difference for me.
In any case, while descriptive assessment probably would have helped, I don’t think a simple change in assessment would have been enough. I believe that growth mindset pedagogy must be embedded in the curriculum and materials to make a real impact.
A strong example of growth mindset curriculum design came to me in my current work as classroom assistant for H.U.M., a community program that offers free UBC courses to people from the Downtown Eastside.
Working there since September, I’ve been shocked by the content students are expected to read. These are street-entrenched people, some of whom have severe mental health and addiction issues, many of whom have no formal education, and we’re reading Michel Foucault and Berthold Brecht.
When I first started the job, the teacher in me was yelling, ‘What about scaffolding? What about ensuring their success to maintain their motivation?’ However, when we discuss the work in class, people are engaged, and most have done at least part of the readings. People who haven’t done the readings learn from those who have because the classroom is a safe space where people are truly accepted no matter where they come from.
When I asked Margot Butler (2019), the Director, about her choice in readings and my concern students might not understand them, she said, “We don’t do any handholding at H.U.M. We have high expectations of our students, and when we hold them to those high standards, they reach up to meet them.”
This echoes Dweck, who says that “Many educators think that lowering their standards will give students success experiences, boost their self-esteem, and raise their achievement. […] Well it doesn’t work. Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise” (p. 293).
My pedagogical stance
My experiences at H.U.M. have made me consider not only the standards I’ll set in my classroom, but what type of materials I’ll use. I want to avoid content created for kids, and find ways to adapt and incorporate real-world materials, and adult books, journals, magazines and videos for my middle school classroom.
I’m also committed to improving my own mindset, to be more growth-oriented. One good area to start is with
my nemesis: math. Earlier this year, I had to take a pre-calculus algebra math course as a prerequisite for the teacher program. I had failed the same course the year before, and deferred my entry to the teacher program as a result.
I hadn’t done math in over twenty years, and was beyond rusty. I remember telling my friend that I wasn’t good at math, and her telling me, “You’re not good, yet.” At the time I felt patronized by that statement. And when my tutor kept telling me I was a lot better than I thought, I didn’t believe him. Even when I passed that course with 80%, I attributed that to the tutor helping me study for three months.
It wasn’t until writing this about growth mindset that I started to believe that maybe they were right. Am I a math whizz? By no means! But I made great strides and I know for a fact I can use my own personal math story to inspire my students who struggle with math.
Learning about growth mindset has been a profound experience, like finding a frame within which I can see my entire life in a different way. I can see many years of struggles and issues with self-esteem and mental health suddenly making sense. Not to say that a fixed mindset caused all of my issues—absolutely not—but a growth mindset definitely feels like part of the solution, and I’m committed to and excited about implementing a growth mindset pedagogy in my classroom.
Brock, A., & Hundley, H. (2017). The growth mindset playbook: A teacher’s guide to promoting student success. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.
Butler, M. (2019, October). Personal interview conducted by Shalon Sims at H.U.M. Learn more at: https://humanities101.arts.ubc.ca/
Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London; New York; Constable & Robinson.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Caution–praise can be dangerous. American Educator, 23(1), 4.
Schleider, J., & Weisz, J. (2018). A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(2), 160-170. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12811
Schleider, J. L., & Weisz, J. R. (2016). Reducing risk for anxiety and depression in adolescents: Effects of a single-session intervention teaching that personality can change. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 87, 170-181. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2016.09.011