Using ‘growth mindset’ to learn from mistakes

Teachers in San Francisco schools are using a “growth mindset” approach to engaging students in math that encourages students to collaborate and embrace mistakes.

Lizzy Hull Barnes explained how teachers in the San Francisco Unified School District are working to change students’ view of and approach to math in a recent column for EdSource.

In an effort to add depth to mathematics instruction in the United States that Barnes describes as “an inch deep and a mile wide,” teachers, professors, and psychologists are pushing for a new approach that goes beyond memorizing steps to involve reasoning and common sense, she wrote.

In the SFUSD, teachers are heading the call with a relatively new curriculum that’s encouraging students to take risks and speak up in a supportive environment, and to learn to make mistakes and work through them together.

Barnes wrote:

Our PreK-12 math curriculum is taught using principles of “growth mindset,” a concept developed by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Taught with this framework, students learn mathematical reasoning; embrace mistakes as learning opportunities; and work together to build the flexibility and resiliency required for success in math. The goal is to help students stay motivated in the face of challenging work. We’re working to reframe the question, “What does it mean to be good at math?”

Barnes explained that the approach fits well with the district’s focus on social and emotional learning, and a curriculum that promotes group problem-solving and risk-taking in the classroom.

The revamp of the district’s Math Core Curriculum started about four years ago, and officials have continued to refine it using teacher feedback, but so far the results are encouraging.

“Data from a 2016 report by SRI Education show that our students are developing stronger math skills, particularly in their ability to apply concepts and explain their thinking,” Barnes wrote. “Teachers report that students are cooperating more as they discuss tasks and compare solutions. They also see higher levels of student engagement and confidence in math.

“As a district, we are happy to report that more students are gaining access to rigorous math courses.”

The growth mindset, particularly the embrace of mistakes as learning opportunities, is certainly an improvement over a feeling of helplessness in math. There’s more to it than that, however.

Students should also learn how to determine the goals that are worth their effort and persistence, or the purpose behind their work. Essentially, students must understand how they are working toward the “good life,” and what that is.

James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia sociologist and founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, weighed in on the role of psychology in understanding how young people develop character in his book The Death of Character.

Hunter shows that “psychology is in a position to specify the conditions that permit or impede the full realization of a person’s natural creativity, productivity, and well-being.”

Yet despite the clear insights into how children develop—including the growth mindset—the primary question of “what are, in fact, the constituting elements of ‘the good life’” are beyond the reach of many of the current curricula.

The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues offers the lesson The Tools of Virtue to help educators move beyond the how of learning to the what of virtue.