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Getting my students to be positive is key to their academic success

Posted Oct. 06, 2016, at 6:25 a.m.

You may know someone who is a tinkerer. They spend hours and hours working on their latest project, finding ways to perfect it. Teachers are perpetual tinkerers, too. We look at our craft of teaching and see what can be adjusted and shifted to make our teaching stronger and more effective.

My biggest tinker this school year was to put a focus on the growth mindset. I’d first learned of this concept a couple of years ago when I read the book, “Mindset,” by psychologist Carol Dweck. According to Dweck, in a growth mindset, “people believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point.”

In recent years, I put this message out there to students, with bulletin boards showing growth mindset phrases and positive messages in my interactions with students. I understood the power behind the growth mindset, but I didn’t have the buy-in from my students yet. Time to keep tinkering.

This past summer, I came across Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University. She created an online course for students, “How to Learn Math,” and put an incredible focus on growth mindset in the study of mathematics. As I consider myself a lifelong student, I took the course and made some powerful mindset shifts. She also had a resource-rich website, youcubed.org, supporting growth mindset in the classroom. After exploring this for hours, I was hooked. I knew I needed to have a clear focus on the growth mindset with my students.

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The school year began, and my tinkering continued. I started the year by sharing pieces of the course with my students. We learned about neuroscience research that showed the power of having a growth mindset. We saw that speed doesn’t necessarily equate to deep learning in math. Journal writing and discussions ensued.

Is everyone capable of learning math at high levels? Absolutely! Are mistakes a great, important step in learning? Of course! Does the way you think about your learning impact what you will achieve? Yes! We also discussed the incredible power of the word “yet.” When added to students’ statements of frustration, it completely changed the message. “I’m not good at fractions … yet.”

The culture in my classroom started to shift. There was positivity in the air and students were taking on learning challenges with grit like I hadn’t seen before.

The positive impact of the growth mindset in math was clearly apparent. I wanted to show students that the growth mindset applied outside the math classroom, too. In writing class, we dug into the research on growth mindset, and students compiled what they learned. For some students, coming up with a thesis and supporting it with research was a turning point for them. The students made the claim that a growth mindset could help them achieve their goals in any facet of their lives. I saw more positive changes in mindset after these essays were created.

As I look back on my school year, I see the power of the growth mindset. Students made dramatic changes in their attitudes and in their learning. Whether they are masters of the Pythagorean Theorem … yet … doesn’t matter as much to me as whether or not the mindset they take with them will support growth and change.

I am sure this growth mindset tinker is a keeper. I will continue to work with students on having a growth mindset and realizing they are all capable of great things.

Becky Tapley teaches math to grades four through eight and writing to grades six through eight at the Brooklin School and is the 2016 Hancock County Teacher of the Year.

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