A math teacher explains how embracing mistakes and believing in the power of perseverance helps students in her class and in life.
By Ashleigh Ziehmke
For my math students, having a growth mindset—the belief that intelligence can be developed through application—removes the idea that some students are good at math and some students never will be. This is crucial in math classrooms, especially as students progress through their academic careers. When their mindset shifts, their approach to math changes. They see a challenge or a new learning experience as an opportunity. Rather than simply giving up, students will plan out their approach and use their background knowledge to find a way to solve the problem.
It’s no secret that math can be challenging for everyone, so mistakes should be celebrated. This way, students can embrace and overcome math challenges rather than fixate on their inabilities. Just because a student is in a low-skilled small-group lesson doesn’t mean that student can’t persevere. If educators instill a growth mindset in students at an early age, they’ll use this approach for the rest of their lives. The good news is that you can start teaching a growth mindset at any point in a student’s academic career. Here are three ways I make sure my students are developing a growth mindset.
1) Establishing a Common Language and Understanding
At the beginning of each school year, I fuel a discussion with my students about the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. We talk about these differences before we even discuss a growth mindset in terms of math education. This pushes them to ask themselves which path of learning they’d rather go down: a path of growth or a path of fixating on challenges.
In the first quarter, my students learn about the power of “yet.” I tell them that even though they may not understand a math concept “yet,” with perseverance they will eventually understand and overcome. They also learn about changing their self-talk by simply adjusting words and statements. This gives them a more positive outlook on their potential.
2) Reinforcing a Growth Mindset Throughout the Year
Each week in my homeroom class, we read aloud books that have a twist on growth mindset. The books The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein and What Do You Do With A Problem by Kobe Yamada seem to really reach students’ understanding. The books spark great discussion about the differences between growth and fixed mindsets. They also talk about why making mistakes is an important step in the learning process.
We blend Standards for Mathematical Practice with growth mindset as we talk about persevering and talking through common problems. The two go hand-in-hand when it comes to emphasizing perseverance and development. From there, I give them weekly STEM-based challenges. All of the problems are open-ended, which allows students to explore different avenues to succeed in the challenge.
I also use Matific, an interactive gaming program I align with my math curriculum. It challenges students in a way that pushes them to keep moving forward. The gaming episodes help my students progress individually, no matter their level.
3) Measuring and Sharing Progress
Matific has an integrated reporting tool that shows teachers where students are excelling and where they are struggling in math, based on which math games they complete. I use this feature to track progress for my academic success groups. I can see which students understand the math concept and which ones need more practice.
From there, I can assign personalized gaming episodes and regroup my lessons accordingly. This boosts students’ motivation tremendously, because they’re assigned episodes that are at their level, so they have an opportunity to feel successful and see growth in their work.
Using assignments and tools that complement my discussions about embracing the challenge of math ensures that instilling a growth mindset in my students is an ongoing process.
Ashleigh Ziehmke is a 4th-grade math teacher at Spring Hill Elementary School in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.