cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Friday, April 3, 2015

If it is in the way, it is the way: the only true path to a growth mindset

I believe that helping our students to find their way a growth mindset is so important it must become one of the pillars of our math teaching, but I also believe that the primary ways our leading experts are pushing right now are so misguided I can no longer stay quiet.

The bottom line is this: if you believe that a learner can simply let go of their fixed mindset just because you tell them to, then I have a bridge to sell you. I believe that the positive intentions behind this initiative are leading students to develop new ways of hiding their true selves in math class, and I can already see this approach leading to even worse forms of self-abandonment and closed-off-ness that are only going to make the whole situation much worse.

So this is my plea for us to all stop trying to coerce students into a growth mindset and instead to start developing a more mindful approach to helping students engage with a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler have done more than anyone else to popularize the idea that adopting a growth mindset is the way to go in math, but I believe that the ways they are trying to spread the gospel of a growth mindset are both harmful to students and doomed before they begin.

They are doomed because they amount to lecturing and shaming students about their defense mechanisms — an approach they would never take in the actual teaching of mathematics. A fixed mindset is a set of conditioned habits, and you can't change a habit just by force of will.

The reality is that a fixed mindset is a defense mechanism — an unconscious set of adaptive survival behaviors that evolve within a person's sense of self as a defense against what it perceives to be a threat from the outside. In the math classroom, that threat is often the threat of failure, of annihilation, of humiliation. It doesn't matter what you or I perceive the threat to be. It doesn't matter whether you or I perceive the threat to be real or not. Simply put, a fixed mindset about math — as is a self-identification as a "non-math person" —is a defense mechanism. It's not about you.

Please repeat that last part after me: a student's own personal fixed mindset about math is NOT about you.

It's the psyche's way of protecting the soft, vulnerable center of the student's own self from what it perceives to be a threat to the continued existence of its organism.

The only thing that matters in all of this is how the learner perceives the threat for him- or herself. And a fixed mindset in the learning of mathematics is a (misdirected) protective function that has arisen inside the learner as a way of keeping that learner safe from harm — often harm that you or I, as a teacher, represent.

About 40 years ago, Eugene Gendlin (the great psychotherapist from the University of Chicago) teamed up with psychologist Carl Rogers (who pioneered the humanistic or client-centered approach to psychotherapy) to investigate the question of why some people are able to make permanent and lasting change through therapy while others cannot. What Gendlin discovered was that those who make progress are the ones who are able to direct their inner "focusing" on their own subtle, internal bodily awareness or "felt sense" — a felt sense that opens the door to finding their own self-directed resolution of the problem about which they felt stuck. In his books starting with Focusing, Gendlin documented and popularized a simple yet powerful six-step process which could be taught to individuals to help them access their inner felt sense, and to work with it to bring about a "felt shift" out of their stuck place and into a freer and more authentic relationship with their triggering situations.

This process takes time and patience and psychological and emotional maturity and generosity of spirit that few of us get trained in via the usual teacher training and professional development pathways. But this is the only truly non-coercive way to support students in developing an authentic growth mindset about mathematics.

The only successful way to work with defense mechanisms — the only way that has been shown to bring about long-term inner change, either in a therapeutic or in an inner development context, such as mindfulness — involves empowering learners to gently and non-coercively notice their own defense mechanisms when they pop up.

The choice to leave behind a self-identification as a "non-math person" MUST come from inside the learner him- or herself. It cannot be imposed from the outside, no matter how well-intentioned that coercion might be.

This is what my Ignite talk at CMC-North Asilomar 2015 was about this past December. I hope this will help others to make sense of how we can best support our students on this inner development path.


  1. I love this. Our students' fears and masks serve a very real purpose and unless we can help them find another way to meet those needs, they will not abandon them. I had not thought about 'growth mindset' instruction as a possible shaming mechanism. Thank you so much for sharing and giving me some good things to think about.

    1. Thank you for reading and engaging, MaryAnn. I hope we can continue to explore non-coercive pathways toward a growth mindset in the months and years to come.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. Some of my students at university had fixed mindset problems that were rooted in deep-seated convictions that would prevent them from “getting” the math. (I have related two incidents in ). I once naively thought that one could fix the problem by “giving alternate proofs”. Regrettably, this would sometimes slide into a debate rather than a conversation. It may have enlightened the rest of the class, but for the student(s) with the problem, it was a form of brow-beating or shaming and it didn’t work.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  3. Or... how about having a teaching and learning environment set up so that those defense mechanisms aren't necessary? Yes, I also imagine "Growth mindset exercises" being one more assignment to Respond Appropriately And Try TO Get Points For.
    I can work with students on getting a healthier mindset -- but if the content is being thrown at them at warp speed, then their "I just have to memorize 'cause I can't do what they want" is the honest truth that feeds directly into "if I were smarter, I could, but I'm not."

  4. I tried to use growth mindset as a touchstone in my 8th grade math classes last year (after reading Dweck's book and feeling excited). I had some success but it didn't feel natural in my classroom most days. You have helped me to understand why. Thanks.

  5. MaryAnn posted about Elizabeth's piece on Dylan Kane's Five Twelve Thirteen blog where he wrote about growth mindset yesterday. I left the following comment (actually, I had already left a long one about my own teaching experiences which the second comment references, so you might want to browse that one first):

    @MaryAnn Moore: thank you for the link to Elizabeth’s post. Very close to my own heart, beliefs, and classroom (and personal) experiences. She does slip once or twice into a little absolutism herself (when describing the Rogerian approach, she says that this is THE ONLY way that works, when it makes more sense to say that it is A way that has been shown to work). But in general, her post is well-informed by therapeutic and meditative practices that can be effective in helping people change their mindsets.

    I agree that what she attributes to Boaler and Dweck is unlikely to work for a lot of students and, in fact, to drive them further away from self-reflection and engagement. I’m reminded of the students I had at that alternative school I mentioned previously here when I put the well-known poster of Einstein on my wall. He says, “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” I took that to be motivating, saying that even brilliant physicists and mathematicians hit walls and have to struggle to understand the problems they’re working on (interestingly, when I just searched for the exact quotation, I found pages where people come up with many interpretations that differ dramatically from mine and have Einstein saying many things that, from what I’ve read about him, I can’t picture him ever saying.) But my students took it as a put-down: from Einstein, from me, saying, in a nutshell, that they were stupid. I was really shocked by that viewpoint, as I was certain that Einstein wouldn’t ever intend anything of the sort. And I was certain that I didn’t. But thinking about that take in the context of what Elizabeth has written, it’s a perfectly CONSISTENT misinterpretation, and of course what matters is what they perceived, not what I (or Albert) intended.

    I wonder a couple of things: has anyone tried to communicate Elizabeth’s criticism to Boaler or Dweck. If so, what was the reaction? And in keeping with this notion I’ve had for the last decade or so about math teaching – everything we figure out about student difficulties with mathematical learning and our teaching thereof has a dual in the difficulties teachers have teaching mathematics and efforts on the part of teacher educators and professional developers to reach teachers about that area of struggle – so what is the dual here for those of us who want to help teachers be more adept at helping their students with fixed v. growth mindsets?

  6. Just coming across this. Thanks for the thoughts.
    I have always believed that growth mindset won't work without a strong socio/emotional component in the classroom and a very strong community. I am wondering how a strong classroom community support system between students might play a roll in students changing their self-identification.
    Also, side note, I think there might be a typo in the fist sentence.
    Thanks for the read!