The importance of establishing a growth mindset is clearly critical for students who think they aren’t good at math. Helping those students to see that perseverance pays off can change their outlook and their outcomes. How much does it matter, though, for those students who believe they are good at math? This is a question that I have been pondering for the last year or so.
In considering this question, I have to acknowledge that I do think there are varying levels of ability when it comes to math. That does not in any way mean that I think some people can’t “get math”. Quite the opposite. I think everyone can and should be “good” at math. I think there are a lot of different ways to see and do math. Often, when someone thinks they aren’t good at math it is because they haven’t had the chance to see and do it in a way that is meaningful to them. Given the right opportunity and the right environment, I think everyone can be very successful at math. I just think math comes more easily for some people than for others, just as is true of all things in life. This seems to be counter to a lot of the conversation that I am hearing. I’m not trying to debate anything here, just pondering ideas and trying to make meaning out of them in the context of my work, which currently is teaching math to students who have been identified as gifted.
This brings me back to my question of how much it matters to establish a growth mindset in kids who already think they are good at something. Most of these kids come into my class with a very fixed mindset that they are “smart”. Most of them also come having had an experience in which everything has always come pretty easily to them. They just “get it” without really having had to work very hard. I know that is not going to last forever, though. I wonder how they will cope when they have to really work to figure something out for the first time. I worry that they will just quit because they have not developed coping skills, they have not learned how to study, they have not learned how to persevere. I worry that they will decide they are not “smart” because in their minds “smart” means things comes easily.
I talk to my students a lot about the importance of perseverance in the face of challenge and try to make sure that I stretch the content far enough that they all experience the need for perseverance. I would rather that they face it for the first time now when the stakes are low rather than later when the stakes become much higher.
This year, I tried using a self-assessment with my students to measure their perceived growth. I wanted to give them something concrete to help them see the value of perseverance. I made up a simple triple bar graph structure with categories for each of the broad topics we would address over the year. I had students complete a bar graph showing their perceived level of mastery in each category in September. They then added a second group of bars for each category in December and a final group of bars for each category at the end of April. In September, I wanted them to see that no one was “good” at everything, that each one of them had strengths and weaknesses. In December, I wanted them to see some growth in whatever area they found challenging. In April, I wanted them to each see that they had gained mastery of all the material.
As I look back on how this played out, I think helping these “smart” kids shift to a growth mindset has been equally as important as if they were kids who struggle. It was good for kids to see that no one was “perfect” during those early days. It was good for kids who were used to getting an A and were suddenly getting a B to see the growth in their understanding in December. They got to see that learning is so much more important than a grade. It was good for kids to see that perseverance paid off in April.
I’m not done pondering these ideas, but I am feeling a little “growth”.