To Up Students’ Math Ability, Try Working on Their Teachers’ Growth Mindset

By Sarah Schwartz — July 19, 2018 4 min read
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The idea that math is a natural-born talent—that some people just “get it,” and others won’t no matter the time and effort put in—is a mentality that researchers and schools have been challenging for years.

Many schools have adopted a “growth mindset” philosophy, a term coined by researcher Carol Dweck, that teaches students to view success as the result of effort rather than innate ability.

Despite enthusiasm for the concept, recent research has demonstrated that growth mindset is far from a silver bullet: Two meta-analyses of growth mindset from Case Western Reserve University found that while there is a positive correlation between growth mindset and academic achievement, growth-mindset interventions only have a small effect.

But what if schools focused on changing the teachers’ mindset, rather than the students’?

That’s the idea behind a new study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. The study participants—40 5th grade teachers across eight districts—signed up for a three-year blended professional-development program, designed to challenge what the researchers call the “myth of the math person.”

Students whose teachers participated in the program saw higher math acheivement, with English-language learners, girls, and students from economically disadvantaged households seeing the greatest gains.

Previous research has shown that teachers’ feelings about math have an effect on their students’ mindset and success in math courses. Students in classes where teachers have a “multi-dimensional” approach to problem-solving that allows for multiple strategies are more likely to have a growth mindset at the end of the course than students of teachers who value speed or memorization.

This effect can be more pronounced for some students than others. For example, separate research has found that when female teachers had more anxiety around doing math, the girls in their classes had lower achievement. The boys in their classes didn’t see these same negative effects.

“You can’t transmit growth ideas unless you believe them yourself,” said Jo Boaler, one of the new study’s co-authors and a professor of math education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, in an interview.

Student Achievement Gains

But Boaler and her co-authors weren’t just aiming to change the way these educators thought about math—they also wanted to change the way participants taught the subject.

Boaler is well-known for her research on math instruction and her contributions to the controversial debate over procedural versus conceptual teaching of the subject. She has argued that K-12 math classes in the U.S. overemphasize memorization at the expense of problem-solving and creative thinking.

The online component of the program, a math education course through Stanford OpenEdX, an platform hosted by the university, introduced math teaching strategies that emphasized this more open-ended approach.

Math is often taught “in a very fixed way,” said Boaler. Generally, the teacher introduces a method for solving a particular kind of problem, poses a question, and then looks for one specific response. “For kids, there’s no access to learning, she said. “They don’t see how to get the answers.”

The course that participants took promoted a more inquiry-based approach, in which the teachers encouraged students to discuss math problems and use multiple strategies to solve them. This allows “kids start to see maths as a growth subject,” said Boaler.

Teachers also participated in periodic in-person group meetings with math instructional leaders from a consortium of school districts to discuss integrating new teaching practices, and county instructional coaches met with teachers separately once a month.

On average, students who were in these teachers’ classes scored about eight points higher on the Smarter Balanced assessment for California than similar students in other teachers’ classes, which the researchers calculated was equivalent to about 3.5 extra months of instruction.

The effect was especially strong for English-language learners, girls, and economically disadvantaged students: ELLs gained nine months of instructions, girls gained six months, and economically disadvantaged students gained five months.

Change in Practice and Perspective

In interviews and surveys with the researchers, the teachers in the study reported that they felt differently about math teaching and learning. One teacher talked about embracing the new methods she learned: “I tell parents I go home now and I study and I practice and I figure it out,” she wrote. “If I’d learned math this way I wouldn’t have cried every night in math going through school.”

And their teaching practices evolved, too: From the beginning of the school year to the end, teachers were better at facilitating exploratory learning, maintaining a level of challenge in the class, and valuing mistakes and risk-taking, as measured by instructional coaches’ observations.

Because the study introduced several different interventions—confronting teachers’ math mindsets, introducing new teaching strategies, and providing professional-development support—it’s hard to isolate one factor responsible for the change in students’ test scores.

But mindset interventions should aim to affect instruction, as well as teachers’ beliefs, said Boaler, in a statement from Stanford. “Mindset interventions will never achieve their full impact if they remain only as words.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.