This article was recently published in Mathbits December 30, 2015

The word “Mindset” has a nearly automatic association to many educators out there. There are probably no more successful theories put forth in education in the last 10 years than Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets put forward in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success. It has not been without its detractors, such as this article on Edutopia, but what if all along we haven’t been putting this theory in its rightful place as a facet of a larger, more important mindset, the Academic Mindset?

I first came across the idea of the Academic Mindset in a white paper from the University of Chicago by Camille A. Farrington while in an EL Education training. The white paper posits that there are four aspects to an academic mindset, of which a growth mindset is just one, and that a positive overall academic mindset is critical to success in education. The purpose of this article is to give you brief highlights of these ideas and show you how they affect the success of your students in classroom.

First I will talk about Belonging. Belonging is the belief that a student sees themselves as contributing members of the educational environment. Arguing from Maslow’s work, Farrington asserts that without a sense of belonging students don’t engage in the social construction of knowledge that takes place in our classrooms, whether it is teacher-student or peer-peer. Most teachers can think of a student or two who hasn’t felt like part of the classroom as struggled to reach their potential as a result. Maybe they transferred into an established culture that was too rigid to adapt to their needs, or they acted out because they felt like the teacher didn’t believe in them. No matter what the reason, unless basic needs are met students can rarely be successful in the classroom.

The second aspect Farrington suggests is part of an Academic Mindset is Self-Efficacy. Self-Efficacy is the idea that a student is capable of being successful at a task. Think of Self-Efficacy as “believing in oneself.” Students who don’t believe in themselves or don’t think they can do something rarely do. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t – you’re right.” One of the skills of effective teachers in mathematics is switching a student from self-doubt to self-belief through carefully crafted lessons, scaffolding, and reflection. Once a student has developed a positive view of their self-efficacy they can realize that through hard work they can solve problems for which they are properly equipped. It is here that Dweck’s work resurfaces, as students will sometimes realize that they don’t have all the tools necessary to solve a problem.

The third aspect, the Growth Mindset, has at its center the idea that a person can get better at something if they work hard at it. I have seen students get better at mathematics in my school as a result of hard work that is wholly independent of anything the staff has done. They have simply wanted to get better, and as a result they worked hard using a self-correcting software to get better because they have the growth mindset. I have seen many educators use the Effort=Growth mantra as it has become more popularized, but I have also seen educators use it as an excuse for why kids aren’t growing when the problem might not be as cut and dry as a growth vs. fixed mindset issue on the students part. When combined with the idea of “grit, championed by Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth, some teachers are expecting students to grind endlessly at dull curriculum and when the students fail to learn blame the students for their deficiency. Alfie Kohn has commented on the fact that with regard to grit, students are often asked to do hard things for the sake of doing hard things even if they are ultimately meaningless to the student.

In fact, the final area of an Academic Mindset is the belief by the student that “This work has value for me.” Students who are asked to do work that is valuable to them are found to be much more engaged, produce better work, and are much more likely to remember what they learned. Regardless of your position on the politics of their work, teachers Megan Fierst and Stephanie Woldlum were recently written up in the Star Tribune for their work on Social Justice mathematics. Students were being asked to analyze issues that they face on a daily basis, work that has value to them. I see different levels of engagement in my own classroom when the problems are real and have value to the students. There is an instant transformation in my class from an attention standpoint and my role changes from one of classroom manager to educational supporter.

The results of facilitating the development of an Academic Mindset are long lasting. Those who do not develop one do more poorly in school, are less likely to graduate, and society incurs costs that are difficult to recover from. I encourage the mathematics teachers reading this article to take a look at Farrington’s work and see how they and their schools can assist their students to develop an Academic Mindset.

Academic Mindset

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