Growing is learning, or is learning growing?

Posted by Marjan, Uncategorized on Jun 1, 2016

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.


  1. jat32
    2 June 2016

    Marjan, I enjoyed your article. And have similar concerns about how to square failure with being a great learning technique compared to the need, in most situations (including exams) to get things right. I also think that there will be an interesting debate about setting, I do wonder if some of the things that we are seeing are more to do with how primary schools have been teaching (possibly in sets) which means that by the time the children reach Y7 they are already way of the pace.

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 June 2016

    Great to hear that ‘mindset’ is helping you better understand how individuals respond to the system. Setting is indeed a complex one. However, if you’ve only experience setted teaching, it’s difficult to imagine mixed ability teaching. And vice versa. Finally, I agree that we’d be better to focus on ‘learning from mistakes’ than making them…

  3. ajf29
    8 June 2016

    Nice thoughts Marjan. As you state Boaler talks about abolishing setting, very hard for us to currently picture as the majority of Mathematics in the UK is set (although this has been an ongoing change throughout the decades). You also mention the wide range of abilities you have witnessed in schools, I too have seen this and find it deeply sad that students have given up and have no motivation. I can’t help but wonder whether setting is a factor in causing this huge divide.

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