Growth Mindset – Normalizing Mistakes
My first year teaching, I remember one of the elder, wiser, experienced teachers at my school looking at my first week plan and telling me that I think more deeply about setting routines in the class and creating a good class atmosphere. I kind of brushed this off as a sort of silly – I was there to teach Physics, and that’s what I would do. The other stuff would happen automatically. Well, luckily, I wasn’t totally wrong – I think that I inadvertently did a decent job of setting good routines, though I don’t think I did a great job of creating an atmosphere where mistakes were not only encouraged but celebrated. I realized by the end of the year that the hardest part of teaching Physics was not Physics at all, and tried to focus a bit more on all the “other stuff.”
This year, my third year teaching, one of my main goals is to really get my students to buy into the idea of a “Growth Mindset,” especially in my non-AP Calculus class. I started well with an awesome discussion, which was based on Dweck’s original mindset survey (which John Burk over at Quantum Progress turned into a cool data driven exploration of his students’ mindsets, which then he turned into a collaborative mindset data collection experiment in which you can participate). As my beginning of the year review rolled on though, I kind of ruined what I had started through my frustration with my non-AP Calc students. For some reason, they are incredibly weak, far weaker than the students I had going into the same class last year. Many don’t know the basic shapes of parent function graphs, don’t know how to correctly simplify rational or radical expressions
( right??), have never seen a piecewise function, can’t find the domain of a rational function, can’t recognize a basic vertical shift etc. Sigh. I guess my surprise and confusion that they were at this level was pretty obvious, and both of my classes seemed embarrassed by not knowing things that I thought they “should have” and, yeah, worried that they were “dumb.” I sort of realized that I hadn’t bought into the growth mindset as much as I had thought – They’re weak? No. I was comparing them to the students from last year instead of just assessing their level of math and working from there.
The worst side effect of our really rough week of review is that the class started to get really, really quiet. I could only get a few students to respond to questions and take risks. I couldn’t tell when they didn’t understand something, even instructions, because they would just be silent – I have never had that happen in the classroom before. I decided to take some action and remind them (and remind myself) that we are a classroom committed to the Growth Mindset. Using PollEverywhere.com, a wonderful interactive polling website where students can vote and immediately see the results at the front of the classroom, I carved out 10 minutes from mathematics and took them through a series of questions that I designed to help normalize mistakes. We looked at the results of each question before moving on to the next. The results…
Observations: Though some of the questions were certainly leading, the students seem to really buy into the ideas and remember our growth mindset conversation. The questions were ordered perfectly, because after everyone realized that no one else judges other people for making mistakes, they were forced to think about really why they were having a hard time participating in class. We went through each of the statements for the last question and talked about if we believed that statement, how the results from the previous two polls might help us participate more. It was a really nice conversation and seemed effective. I saw that look that the students get when their gears are turning and stuff is clicking. Side note: I was a little surprised that students voted for the “Mr. B, you are intimidating option” but I used that as a spring-board to remind them that I buy into the growth mindset idea too. (Also, sra7a means “honestly” in Arabic).
We wrapped up with a PollEverywhere open-ended question, where they type things into the poll and they show up on the screen. I thought this might be a nice, low pressure way to share some thoughts with the class so that we could all be supportive of each other:
How do I know this was a wonderful use of 10 minutes? The first response to the question above was “Thank You” which was surprising and actually pretty touching. And theeeen, it quickly devolved into things like “Bring lasagna to class” and “apple juice breaks.” Really senior-in-high-school? Apple juice? Thanks for ruining a rare sentimental math moment.
Next step: Now that I have them a bit more prepped to be okay with mistakes, I want to find ways to go one step further and celebrate mistakes. I really love the Mistake Game , from Kelly over at Physics! Blog!, to use with Whiteboarding in Physics. Basically, students work in groups and present the solution to a problem that contains a mistake hidden in it. Students are encouraged to find the mistake through asking thoughtful questions instead of just saying “HA! I FOUND THE MISTAKE.” I love this because it is not only instructional, but teaches students how to constructively criticize each other’s work. The math department plans on getting mini-whiteboards any day now, so I am excited to experiment with this. Also, Kate over at f(t) has some great tips from the Virtual Conference on Core Values from this past summer where she describes the center of her classroom as being “We Make Mistakes.”
Moral of the Story? Growth Mindset takes more than a description and a survey to create buy-in. I will remember that teachers can unintentionally send subtle signals through their behavior. I’ve learned from my mistakes with this, which, paradoxically, will lead me to encourage lots more mistakes. I’ll certainly be coming back to this throughout the rest of the year.