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Growing Minds, Changing Math Classes

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As the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” plays out over the music video, the lyrics are a bit different:

“We will make mistakes…our method’s gonna break…not a piece of cake…we’re gonna shake it off, shake it off…”

It was in this video Stanford University Professor and author Jo Boaler says she was compelled to do something she didn’t want to do. “They made me rap,” she said. When her undergraduate students challenged whether she had a growth mindset about her rhyme skills, Boaler said to herself, “Oh my gosh. I’m gonna have to rap.”

And she did. “It was actually really bad.”

The video was used by her organization Youcubed at Stanford University to demonstrate its mission of not only helping disadvantaged grade-school students achieve higher in math, but also teaching them to develop a growth mindset.

Boaler said the concept of a “math person” is a myth that has done harm to generations of students.

“There’s no such thing as a math person, no such thing as a math brain,” she told a room of reporters at the Education Writers Association seminar on motivation in November. “But the idea that only some kids have a strong math brain is strong in our society.”

Boaler explained that new research into brain plasticity says that mistakes actually grow the brain. Boaler cited research suggesting that every time a student made a math mistake, a synapse fired. Another fired when the student then realized the mistake. As more math connections are made in the brain, the student is able to better grasp the concepts that are at the heart of mathematics. Helping a student learn from his or her mistakes increases neural connectivity, which is good for learning, Boaler said.

“Your brain grows when you make a mistake even if you don’t know you’ve made it, because it’s a time when your brain is challenged, and it’s struggling. And those are the most important times for kids,” she said. “The kids with the growth mindset, who believed they could learn and believed in the value of struggle and going forward, their brains responded with more growth than people who didn’t have that belief.”

What’s more, Boaler explained the timed math tests many of us completed in class as children are damaging.

“Working memory is the section of the brain that holds math facts. And when kids are put under pressure or feel stress, the working memory is blocked,” she explained, adding that such testing further enforces the misconception that some students just aren’t good at math. Boaler referenced a study by scholars at the University of Chicago who found that being forced to complete exercises in tight windows of time can block a person’s working memory. The scholars concluded that early detection of math anxiety could help students improve their performance.

“If we want to change students’ mindsets, it is not enough to give them mindset beliefs if we don’t change what happens in [the math] classroom. And it is very difficult to have a growth mindset and to believe that you can grow and learn if you’re constantly given short questions that you get right or wrong,” she explained.

Boaler was joined on the panel by Dave Paunesku, founder and executive director of the Stanford University Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS).

Paunesku highlighted research where students completed just 45 minutes of growth mindset training in an online program during class.

“Students who were at the most risk for dropping out of high school, students with a GPA of about 2.0 and below, they actually earned higher grades,” than before he said.

But Paunesku, like Boaler, emphasizes that these kinds of interventions must still be coupled with a renewed focus on teacher and school practices.

“We don’t think an online intervention like this would, on its own, catalyze the kind of classroom full of kids critiquing each other, being open to each other and wanting to show their mistakes to each other,” he said, referencing a classroom video where students are eager to share their learning process—mistakes, and all—to their classmates.

For teachers, simply saying the words “growth mindset” isn’t enough to inspire a growth mindset or improve achievement.

Teachers, Paunesku adds, must also recognize the impact of their feedback to students and how changing that can also influence their growth mindsets.

For example, when praising the process, teachers should avoid the pitfall of using advice such as, “Good job, you must have worked really hard,” if a student actually didn’t work that hard. Paunesku advises teachers to discuss or praise a student’s strategy to solving a problem, not just their efforts.