Friday, February 17, 2017

The Power of Mistakes and Struggle

Welcome to week 1 of our book study of Mathematical Mindsets

Chapter 1: The Brain and Mathematics Learning

Big Ideas

-Folks who have a fixed mindset can develop a growth mindset.  Their learning approach can become much more positive and successful.
-The students who show the highest achievement in mathematics around the world have a growth mindset.  This can put them a full year ahead of other students. 
-Folks with a growth mindset are more likely to do something perceived as hard. They see mistakes as a way to grow their brain and motivation to keep going.
-Fixed mindsets can develop as a result of praise given by parents and teachers

Impact in the Classroom

Teach kids about brain research.  

Research about the brain and growth mindset has come a long way over the last few years.  I have found Jo Boaler's Week of Insiprational Math to be a fantastic (and free!) way to show kids about how the brain works and get them excited about math.  We started our school year with the week of inspirational math in grades 3-6 and have recently re-watched some of the videos included in the lessons to refresh ourselves on brain research.  We have plans to do a week of inspirational math in our K-2 classes in the near future.  
     Another excellent resource for helping your students understand brain research is a series of short cartoon videos produced by Class Dojo. Recently, we started k/1 math each day with one of these videos which led to some great conversations about how the brain works.  Even if you don't use Class Dojo, these videos are a great resource!  It looks like you can check out the first one on YouTube and the rest are available on their site.  It is free to use and only takes a minute to sign up.

 Change praise

 Praise from teachers can help kids develop a fixed or a growth mindset, it all comes down to the type of praise they receive. Praise has such a strong impact, it can affect their behavior right away.  The praise kids receive in the classroom needs to switch from  you are so smart to you are working really hard. This has been a challenging switch for me because despite good intentions, it is so easy to fall back on the old reliable praise.  Like most things, it is something teachers need to practice.  We spent some time at a staff meeting brainstorming different things that fit into the category of praise and then classifying it as praise that would develop a growth or a fixed mindset.  This is an area where it is so important for kids to get a consistent message and it is definitely worth discussing as an entire staff.  A colleague also shared this Growth Mindset poster with us and posted it in several prominent teacher areas. It has been a helpful reminder and has continued the discussion about changing our praise.

Educate Families

If students are really going to change their mindset than both teachers and parents need to be aware of this research and have practical strategies to help them.  Since our entire school has been working on kids developing a growth mindset, we have communicated with families in several ways.  We started the year by showing a few of the videos from the Week of Inspirational Math at our back to school open house.  This was after we had used these videos with kids so many families had already heard parts and pieces of this.  We also use our school wide newsletter to communicate what we are doing and share growth mindset tips.  The topic has also come up during parent teacher conferences, especially with those kids who need the most work on their mindset.  We have also shared this great little parent handout with families.   It is still a work in progress to educate families about growth mindset but we have made a start and are now developing a common language for kids at school and at home.  

Chapter 2: The Power of Mistakes and Struggle 

Big Ideas

- Mistakes grow student's brains
- When a student makes a mistake, there is increased electrical activity in their brain.  
- Even if you don't know that you made a mistake, it still grows your brain
- After a mistake, brain activity is greater for those who have a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. 
- Successful people are the ones who make more mistakes than non-successful people

Impact in the Classroom

Give students the chance to make mistakes

Giving students a chance to make mistakes is one of the best things you can do to develop their understanding of mathematics.  If they make no mistakes day after day, then the math you are giving them is not challenging enough.  Kids come to believe that being smart means getting the answer right on the first try and with a bit of speed.  I love this video from the Teaching Channel where Carol Dweck author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success talks about personalized learning and how important it is for kids to make mistakes. 

Teach students that mistakes are positive

I am a big fan of this routine called My Favorite No.  I do a lot of formative assessment in my classroom and doing My Favorite No is a great way to directly address misconceptions with the class.

A few weeks ago, I found these growth mindset posters and put them up on a bulletin board.  In my fifth grade class, I have many kids struggling with growth mindset so I decided to really use these posters with them.  I decided to have them place a sticker on the poster each time they used the "think" bubble.  It struck us very quickly that we make mistakes all the time.  The mistake poster became full of stickers while the others just had a few.  This has been a great way to show how common mistakes are and how important they are to learning.

Test and Grade Less

Our school uses standards based grading for our report cards which means I test and grade a lot less than I used to.  However, there still are times when folks want percent grades, particularly for Special Education Evaluations.  We also have added several "screeners" and other forms of testing as we have moved toward an MTSS model in our district.  I do a lot of formative assessments so I have a really good handle on where kids are.  I am on board with less grading and testing but I am not sure my school/district is ready to change much more in that direction right now.  I am excited that chapter 8 is all about assessment and hope to be able to try some new ideas.

Your turn!  In the comments below, let us know what you thought of these 2 chapters.  If you have a blog and want to post there, just share the link in the comments below. Haven't read the chapters?  Share your ideas about mistakes, struggle, brain research or anything else related to growth mindset!  I look forward to some great discussions! 


  1. I absolutely agree with teaching kids about the brain research. As I have started reading this book, I've been talking with my students (Title One urban, at risk) about their brain and how it works. I've noticed - just in a span of 2 weeks- the difference in their thinking about learning and their struggles. They're more willing to struggle because now it's not about success or failure but about growing their brains.

    1. Hi Kelley! Thanks for stopping by! It is very exciting to hear that your students are already changing their thinking after 2 weeks! You should try out the week of inspirational math from

  2. I am an intermediate math teacher at a DAEP (Daily Alternative Education Placement) School. I have been working in conjunction with my colleague who teaches Science to incorporate more STEM activities into our curriculum. Last week before beginning our activity, I shared what I had read about the brain research. We both talked about how we saw the students more willing to struggle. They were more willing to go out on a limb in regards to their learning, creativity and team work. Which to me is a huge win for the students.

    1. That is a huge win! We are always working on incorporating more STEM activities. Lately, our schedule has been pushing some of this to the back burner. It is a great reminder about how important these experiences are!

  3. I think brain research is so interesting and I am trying to share some of that information with my middle school enrichment groups. I believe some of my students have started to shift from a completely fixed mindset to believing that they are capable of learning and looking at challenges in a different way. I also like to use my enrichment times as opportunities for students to engage in math challenges. I occasionally have push back from students, as they are uncomfortable with completing something that may require them to make mistakes and try again. I am hopeful that repeated practice and reminders that it is ok to make mistakes will help alleviate some of the negative views I see from my students.

    1. I think it is great to make students uncomfortable if it means a better mindset. It is so important for them to learn what productive struggle looks like.

    2. I also think brain research in very interesting. I also feel as though we should work with students not only in academics with the growth mindset, but also with everyday life challenges. The students I work with are sent to my campus for "mistakes." As teachers we try to help the students academically but also with the "mistake" they made. We always talk about what they learned or are learning.

  4. He will rest for a few days and attempt the mountain via normal route.

  5. I was thinking of giving the unit test as a pretest to see what my students don't understand, then letting them know we'll work on each concept until they understand it. We'll take the test, or parts of the test, as we learn more. My struggling learners will be relieved to know that we'll keep working on the test until they understand it, not just when the unit is over. What are your thoughts on this?