Encouraging a Growth Mindset

Director of Lower School Ingrid Moore discusses research regarding how teaching math as a creative process can unlock success.

On Monday, November 7, renowned Stanford professor of mathematics education, author, and noted TED speaker Jo Boaler will be visiting The Steward School as our first Visiting Innovator of the 2016-17 school year. This visit represents a unique opportunity, tremendous good fortune, and the culmination of work that began with a small group of teachers at Steward.

Last year, a group of Steward teachers took a M.O.O.C. (massive open online course) offered by Dr. Boaler. Every week the teachers would gather together to watch the video, discuss, and collaborate. Word about this course quickly made its way to all of the division directors as the teachers were bubbling over with excitement at the messages and themes the course contained.

In April, Lower School Enrichment Coordinator Suzanne Casey sent an email with a link to Dr. Boaler’s TED talk. The impact was immediate. I was blown away. Listening to Dr. Boaler speak about all the different ways a math problem could be seen and solved was inspiring. But, the most amazing part of her talk was the surprising result her research has found—something that goes against what many of us have believed about our own learning and that of our children. But, here it is: there’s no such thing as a “math brain.”

The revolutionary data that Dr. Boaler shares is that anyone can be good at math if they have the right kind of instruction combined with a growth mindset. If we as educators promote math as an opportunity for inquiry, mistakes, creativity, and flexibility, we can begin to shift the tide of how students (and their parents) view math. While possible, the task is considerable, especially since so many adults have fixed ideas about math. In fact, Dr. Boaler and her colleagues have identified something they refer to as “math trauma,” which is pervasive in our culture. To illustrate, I will share my own story.

When I was in the ninth grade, I took geometry. It is hard to admit, but I had a math teacher that year who told me I was stupid. She said I would never “get it.” What she meant by “it” is anyone’s guess, but I interpreted it as I just couldn’t do math. It is remarkable to me how that experience has stayed with me throughout my life. By all accounts, including my own, I loved going to school and enjoyed much success, but I remember vividly how I felt going into that class every day. Even when I experienced outward signs of success in the class, like a high score on a test, I still believed I couldn’t do it. How could I possibly think otherwise? The teacher had said it herself. What is even more remarkable is how common this type of experience is. The fact that many of us have similar stories goes a long way to explain the way we view math.

“Students have such strong and often negative ideas about math that they can develop a growth mindset about everything else in their life but still believe that you can either achieve highly in math or you can’t.” (from the introduction of Dr. Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets).

Dr. Boaler’s research shows that there is no such thing as a math brain. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and the greater population of this fact. We must change the way we view and teach math in order to inspire the mathematicians of tomorrow. This is particularly true for females, who disproportionately feel less able in math and are thus less likely to pursue careers in math-related fields. The importance of Dr. Boaler’s research is undeniable, and as both a parent and an educator, I feel the urgency.

Teachers and parents have the opportunity to change the way children view math. By promoting the value of making mistakes, the creativity of math, and the importance of growth mindsets, today’s teachers can help children see that anyone can be good at math. There are already wonderful examples of this kind of instruction happening at Steward.

For instance, fifth-grade teacher Bev Fox provides “math journals” for all of her fifth-grade students. These journals are filled with challenging math problems and encourage students to solve. They must both write and draw their explanations. Middle School math teacher Corbin Orgain incorporates a “flipped classroom” model into her math instruction, enabling students the time and space to work through math problems collaboratively with the teacher on hand. Upper School statistics teacher Barbara Filler’s class built a voting box—they coded it themselves and will analyze the data from the school’s mock election next week.

Whether it is by incorporating manipulatives and games or encouraging more talking and working out of mathematical challenges, our Steward teachers are committed to finding ways to engage students in math. These approaches currently exist alongside some more traditional activities and assessments in an effort to find the balance that will best serve our students and community.

I invite you to join us for Dr. Boaler’s address to our community, during which she’ll share her research and provide practical guidance on how we can encourage enthusiasm and engagement among our children about math. She’ll speak at 8 a.m. on Monday, November 7 in the Lora M. Robins Theatre. Later that afternoon, join us in the Bryan Innovation Lab for a maker fair where interactive stations and games will help us explore the creativity of math. Registration is encouraged

Recommended Reading


  • Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck






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