Growing is learning, or is learning growing?
Since reading Jo Boaler’s “The Elephant in the Classroom”, I have found the concept of growth versus fixed mindsets fascinating. It explained many experiences I have had of people who were convinced they could not do maths and would never be able to learn maths. This is a culture which will be very hard to change because today’s students will still hear this again and again from today’s adults. Which is why I think today’s teachers should try to teach students more about how the brain works and learns and that their ability is not fixed. I feel I am repeating myself but I think a crucial part of having a growth mindset is understanding that making mistakes is a positive part of the learning process and not a sign of failure.
But teaching students that everyone has the ability to learn maths provided they work hard and put in the effort is not going to make them all miraculously become model students putting in lots of effort is it? In the video, Duckworth points out how her experiences and subsequent research have shown that in all kinds of areas, the most successful people are not just talented but the ones who persevere, have passion and stamina and keep trying. She defines this as ‘grit’ but then admits that she does not (yet) know why some people have it and others not or how to obtain it. Why do some work hard and others not? Why do some find maths interesting and others not? Why does anyone find a subject more interesting than another? Good teaching helps but will not make everyone love maths or any other subject. People are different and have different interests and passions. We can only try to help those who are less confident to see their potential and not give up. We can try to help those who do work hard to achieve a goal. But despite all the discussions about talent versus effort, there are always going to be students who put in no effort and still get high grades. Other students will see this and wonder how they do it and feel they are less able because they have to work so hard.
Although I am fascinated by Boaler’s growth mindsets, I am less convinced about her suggestion to abolish ability grouping. The range of abilities I have come across in schools is so wide, I do not see how all these students could be mixed and taught effectively. On one day I was explaining exactly the same concept to high ability year 7’s and low ability year 11’s. I think it may be better to delay setting ability groups and not set in primary school. I think we should be aware of the negative impacts of setting on self-esteem and have more confidence in all students to learn.
One thing occurred to me about mistakes: although making mistakes is important for learning, the goal of learning is to be able to do something without making mistakes. This applies to assessments, exams but also finally in the workplace. In my engineering work, making mistakes may be part of the process of problem solving but the final result is expected to be correct. But all work would be checked by ourselves and by others to minimise the risk of mistakes. Perhaps this is something that could be used in the classroom to also make maths less solitary: let students check each other’s work so they can learn about different methods and mistakes as well as help each other correct mistakes. As in real life.