A stinging gust of wind darted down the mountainside and crashed against my tinted goggles. I was finally learning how to ride a snowboard at the ripe age of twenty-seven.
Well aware of the learning curve ahead of me, I embraced the challenge and the reality that I would be spending a large portion of the day on my butt.
After each wipe out, I would calmly wipe the snow from my face, take a deep breath, assess what I did wrong, and decide what I would do differently on the next attempt. I knew that the only thing that would keep me from learning how to snowboard was a lack of effort, so I put in the time, endured the falls, and, by the end of the day, was cruising down the bunny slopes with ease.
In the past, such learning opportunities would spark feelings of dread, as the fear of making mistakes and looking foolish would often prevent me from even trying in the first place. But over the years I have become aware that mistakes are the stepping-stones that line the path between beginner and expert. Though this fear of failure is absent from my current mindset, it was a large influence on me as a grade school student.
You may have a similar relationship with taking on challenges. I remember being a high school student whom would never raise his hand. At the time, the inherent risk associated with being wrong, and the perceived embarrassment that came with it, was not worth the reward of growing as a student. And I can see now that my preference for remaining invisible stunted my academic and personal growth.
As a teacher, you are surely aware that many students have similar feelings about making mistakes. Your mindset can become so controlled by fear that you constantly find yourself wrestling with thoughts of “you are never going to get this” or “you are not going to be as good as him” or “you always mess everything up.”
Different Mindsets = Different Results
The work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has sparked a recent shift in educational philosophy and the way that teachers nurture student mindsets. In her research, Dweck classifies a fixed mindset as one in which you perceive your “character, intelligence, and creative ability as static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way.” This fixed mindset views failure as something to be avoided at all costs.
Enter the growth mindset, in which learning is viewed as a process and the importance of effort and making mistakes is emphasized. “Effort is what ignites ability and turns it into accomplishment,” says Dweck, whose work has inspired learners to embrace the idea that you can improve in any area as long as you are willing to make an effort and learn from inevitable mistakes. You can learn more about Carol Dweck’s research and the difference between a fixed and growth mindset here.
Learning mindsets have a strong influence on our attitude, behavior, and our personal views on failure and success. If your students can embrace a growth mindset at an early age, then they can overcome self-imposed limitations and further reach their potential.
One way that educators are encouraging a growth mindset is refraining from labeling students as “smart.” According to Stanford professor, and growth mindset advocate, Jo Boaler, labeling students as “smart” encourages a fixed mindset. Students who are constantly told they are smart, “become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing,” says Boaler.
Instead, Boaler suggests that teachers praise students for their effort and commend them for learning from their mistakes. “When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory,” Boaler said. While the difference between these two kinds of feedback may seem subtle, research shows that the results are having an impact on gender imbalances in many STEM careers.
Fixed mindsets can be damaging, and this negative impact is felt strongly in math education. The false idea that you are or are not a “math person” is a product of a fixed mindset. In an effort to change this common attitude about understanding math, Amazon Education has recently launched the “With Math I Can” campaign, which builds upon the ideas of Dweck and Boaler . Theirwebsite allows you to pledge to stop saying "I'm not good at math" and approach math with a growth mindset. The campaign highlights the differences between a fixed and growth mindset and encourages students to embrace challenges, persist in obstacles, learn from criticism, and be inspired by the success of others.
A Growth Mindset For All
The current educational movement towards embracing a growth mindset is encouraging and gaining momentum. But the benefits of a growth mindset are not reserved for students alone. As in the case of me learning how to snowboard, having the right mindset is empowering and allows you to evolve as a learner and as a person.
Imagine the possibilities. All of those skills that you have always wanted to learn can be accessible to you, as long as you are willing to make an effort and endure the inevitable mistakes. Whether you want to learn how to ride a snowboard, speak French, or attempt your grandmother’s famous lasagna recipe, your mindset is everything.
And when you mess up, which you certainly will (and probably more than once), think on this advice from Carol Dweck: “Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.”
The goal is not to be, but to grow. Always.
by Anthony Persico
Anthony is the content crafter and head educator for MashUp Math. You can often find me happily developing animated math lessons to share on my YouTube channel. Or spending way too much time at the gym or playing on my phone.