Getting down to the Nitty-gritty…

Posted by Marcus on Feb 24, 2016

The idea of growth mind-set is one that I continue to find very intriguing, yet I still cannot get my head around the problem of how we get students to see its potential importance when considering its successful implementation within the education of mathematics!

I feel that the research conducted by Angela Duckworth, Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck are the most important things to take from both of the articles in question. Duckworth explains how in her experience; the strongest performers weren’t the ones with the highest IQ scores, they were the ones who believed they could learn material if they worked long and hard enough. The ones who had the belief that they could train their brain, which then lead them to intelligence and smartness, as argued by Dweck. Yet if this is the way forward, how come studies show that only 40% of students display a growth mind-set? Is it because some are simply content enough with believing that they either can or can’t do something? All too often I come across students who concede that they ‘cannot do maths’ and here-in lies (in my opinion) one of the biggest problems!

I found Boaler’s comments on ability to be very thought provoking, it’s generally true that educators can instinctively communicate (the wrong?) messages to students about ability and learning through the conversations they have with them. I have seen so many cases where students have become disengaged through being set by ability, and its interesting to consider Boaler’s argument that abandoning ability groupings leads to improved achievement and participation… My worry with abandoning it is that although in a mixed ability environment, students would all be seen as being on a level playing field (so to speak) wouldn’t we see that some of the lowest achievers start to become more disengaged, and some of the highest achievers start to coast? So whilst solving one problem, we potentially create another? Boaler concedes that students are well aware of ability grouping practices, so why would mixed ability grouping suddenly mean that students wouldn’t be aware of differences in ability? I don’t think it would…

If we are to consider the idea of growth mind-set then we should really accept that this leads to a student being willing to commit to practicing mathematics to a point at which they have trained their brain to learn and understand something and therefore meaning that they have mastered it…

So a mix of gritty perseverance (Duckworth) from a student displaying a growth mind-set (Dweck), amongst a mixed ability group (Boaler), along with high quality practice (Syed) leads to a relational understanding (Skemp) and being able to master (NCETM) a subject? There’s lots of interesting ideas out there, but one alone doesn’t seem to offer a solution. Perhaps we need to be less concerned with finding a ‘one size fits all’ answer and more concerned with mixing things up a little?!


  1. Dom
    6 March 2016

    Marcus, the idea of ability grouping comes as a surprise to me. I was in a class with mixed ability students I guess… I remember that students were divided according to their previous achievements and classes were set with a certain ratio of low, average and outstanding ability. I believe they thought we would level up somehow, and in fact it worked for many. However, it is true that some students would have downgraded as a result of staying with lower ability students.

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 March 2016

    Love the last paragraph! Illustrates how you’re making sense of all these ideas being offered. Good to see you being critical of the simplicity of some of the ideas too. As you suggest, we’ve got to be mindful of the unintended consequences of changes in our policies and practices.

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