Learning Mindsets: The “Grit” of Learning

As a principal for the past twelve years, whenever I meet with teachers and ask them what they want to focus on to help students learn, over and over again, the resounding cry is: how do we teach effort? “Too many of our students just give up!” they cry. “If they only tried, they would succeed!” others say. Teachers are not flustered by a student’s struggles academically, but rather, they say, if students learn the habits of “stick-with-it-ness,” they can grow and feel successful.

Educators play an especially important role in building growth mindsets in middle school, and middle school students benefit from additional support from their teacher when learning growth mindset skills.

Schools across the country are implementing strategies to teach learning mindsets, so that when we talk about learning, it involves more than just intelligence, but an understanding that teachers can help mold a student’s perspective and outlook on learning, and help him or her discover what it takes to succeed.

At Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan, the mathematics department is trying to change students’ mindsets from fixed to growth. Teachers are working to instill grit, tenacity, perseverance, and resilience in the classroom. They’re making grit part of the class conversation with open discussions that reveal moments from their own lives where grit was relevant or should have been.

In Dr. Elizabeth Jaffe’s class, she teaches a lesson by moving all the chairs to the side of the room. Students are only able to get their chairs back through problem solving. The problems aren’t difficult, but they require perseverance.

When you walk the halls, you see posters on classroom doors reminding students that hard math problems are not the same as long math problems. The bulletin boards allow space for students to add ways they’ve displayed grit academically or personally. The school culture’s has created an environment where students are reminding each other to show grit throughout the year.

Another way the school supports effort over smarts is through their homework policy: homework is graded based on completion. If they don’t know an answer, students need to show where they went to get unstuck, even if it didn’t work. Students also have flexibility in their assignments, allowing them to use their strengths. This may be something as simple as choosing from three debate topics, choosing the method of presentation for their work, choosing homework questions, or choosing which section of the newspaper to critique when determining how the media uses statistics to manipulate the public.

In Brooke Simon’s Algebra class, she provides students with hint envelopes. In the beginning, when they solve a problem they can use as many hints as needed, but the goal at the end of the year is for them to stop using the hint envelopes as a crutch. Students are taught that a wrong answer can be as informative as a right answer. This increases student confidence, allows them to feel more comfortable participating, and it teaches them to keep going no matter what.

Ultimately, the students feel more successful and develop a greater love of mathematics when they realize that it’s not always about the right answer, it’s about recognizing the beauty of the mathematics around them.

Students often say “I’m not good at math.” Baruch is a great example of how a school and its staff are actively working to combat that mindset, and building on the concepts of Learning Mindsets, they are changing students’ minds one problem at a time.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

3 Comments

  1. Great article and reminder.

    I remember how difficult math seemed to me when I transitioned into Algebra for the first time. It was pretty intimidating. And the teacher of the class had a reputation for being “hard” on her students! I smile as I think about it even now.

    I always did well academically and I was a strong competitor in sports as well. I just applied the principles that helped me to excel in other areas to the mathematical challenge I now faced. I actually did quite well in the end.

    As an adult, I’ve gained a strong career background in the field of finance, which of course utilized the math skills and knowledge that I acquired way back then. I currently work with a finance company that provides working capital loans to small businesses across the country. I’ve worked in the mortgage industry, and have been insurance, real estate and securities licensed in the past.

    Never give up!

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