Coined by researcher Carol Dweck, “growth mindset” is the philosophy that success is a result of effort rather than natural-born talent. Although many teachers around the country promote a growth mindset for students, this hasn’t always been very effective in boosting academic achievement.

According to two meta-analyses of growth-mindset intervention, university researchers found that the academic benefits of these programs have been vastly overstated. As Ph.D. student Alex Burgoyne noted, “there is little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students.”

Deeper exploration

A new study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education explores what happens when you focus on the teachers’ mindset rather than the students’. Forty fifth-grade teachers from eight school districts in central California participated in a professional-development program that was designed to give them a new perspective and challenge the myth of the “mathematics person.”

Some people—even teachers—have the impression that math skills come from innate ability, and that if you don’t “get it,” then you likely never will. That is to say, you’re either a “math person” or you’re not. This mindset can be unintentionally passed down from teachers to students, to detrimental effect.

Jo Boaler, a math education professor and one of the study’s co-authors, pointed out, “You can’t transmit growth ideas unless you believe them yourself.” And in her view, elementary-level math instruction in the western world is “stuck in the Victorian age,” as rote memorization and fixed procedures still dominate in lesson plans, and not enough teachers promote creativity and free exploration of ideas in math.

“The idea that only some people can be successful [in math] is at the root of widespread anxiety about the subject, in the United States and elsewhere,” Boaler said. In fact, math teachers are more likely to think their students’ abilities are static compared to other subject-specific educators—and it’s precisely this mindset that the Stanford study aimed to challenge.

Study details

Boaler and her collaborators, Robin Anderson and Jack Dieckman, took a two-pronged approach in the study: changing the way teachers think about math, and also changing the way they teach the subject in the classroom.

Teachers participating in the study took a course through Stanford’s OpenEdX platform that focused on a more inquiry-based approach to math education, where discussion and trying multiple strategies were encouraged among students. Titled “How to learn math,” the course taught teachers to promote creative thinking and problem solving over rote memorization.

Rather than teaching math in a “very fixed way,” as Boaler puts it, this open-ended approach allows students to “start to see math as a growth subject.” Since they aren’t forced to use one specific strategy predetermined by the teacher, the students have better “access to learning” and can see “how to get the answers” in their own way.

Teachers participating in the study attended regular in-person group meetings with math instructional leaders who helped them learn how to integrate these new teaching approaches. In addition, the teachers met with country instructional coaches individually on a monthly basis to confer about progress.

Statistically significant improvement

Study participants reported feeling differently about math teaching and learning as well. One teacher observed, “If I’d learned math this way, I wouldn’t have cried every night in math going through school.” And according to instructional coaches’ observations, the teachers in general demonstrated an improved ability to “facilitat[e] exploratory learning, [maintain] a level of challenge in the class, and valu[e] mistakes and risk-taking.”

Students in these teachers’ classes scored, on average, about eight points higher on the Smarter Balanced assessment for California compared to a control group. According to the researchers, this is roughly equivalent to 3.5 months of additional instruction.

Some groups of students experienced even greater improvement: in particular, English-language learners “gained nine months of instruction, girls gained six months, and economically disadvantaged students gained five months.”

Additional research

These results seem to reflect the findings of another study, in which university professors were interviewed about how much they believe that innate ability—or a “gift”—enables students to achieve success in their respective fields. The study found that the more a given academic field believed in this kind of gift, the fewer women and African-American students there were in the field. And although these findings held true across numerous academic subjects, among STEM fields mathematics professors had the most fixed beliefs in this regard.

The pervasiveness of fixed-ability thinking among math instructors has the potential to steer students away from the subject—and away from pursuing mathematics pathways—with a particular impact on female and other minority students. Not only that, math anxiety is proven to reduce performance, and can be passed down from teachers to students as well.

Interestingly, the greater the math anxiety among female elementary math teachers, the lower the achievement of their female students in the subject—but this negative transference is not seen in male students. The Stanford growth mindset study demonstrates the logical conclusion: when teachers’ beliefs about math ability change, female students’ math performance does in fact improve significantly.

Conclusion

When it comes to the results of the study, it’s difficult to determine one specific factor responsible for the change in student achievement since multiple interventions were involved (namely, challenging teachers’ mindsets about math, presenting new teaching strategies, and providing professional-development support). But as Boaler points out, mindset intervention should seek to change teachers’ instruction as well as their beliefs.

“Mindset interventions will never achieve their full impact if they remain only as words, and put the onus on students to change,” she said, “while teachers continue to transmit fixed ideas through their teaching.”

The study concludes that the success of the interventions occurred as a result of two main factors: 1) “eradicat[ing] the learning myths that had held up teachers and learners”; and 2) “teachers [having] space for identity work as mathematical learners.”

As Boaler puts it, “Change in math performance can happen, but it’s critical that damaging mindsets shift, among students and their teachers.”

When teachers have a sincere belief in the growth mindset and take a multidimensional approach to instruction that engages students in open-ended problem solving—rather than promoting speed or memorization—it’s far more likely that students will have a growth mindset by the end of the school year and demonstrate better achievement in math.

And ultimately, as Boaler declares, “We need to introduce students to creative, beautiful mathematics that allows them to ask questions that have not been asked, and to think of ideas that go against traditional and imaginary boundaries.”

From attitudes to achievement, there are major positive changes for students when they are given mathematical freedom and learn that—with a little effort—they, too, can achieve success in math.