If there’s one thing a large proportion of students around the world share, no matter where they go to school, it’s a fear of maths. Many of us grew up dreading being asked to solve complex problems and equations. Some educators say this anxiety is holding back the learning outcomes of millions of children who simply believe that they aren’t capable of working with numbers.
Jo Boaler, a professor of maths education at Stanford University, says the fear is based on out-dated notions about who can or can’t succeed at the subject. “Many people across the world have been really damaged by the idea that you’re born with a maths brain, or you’re not,” she said. “The first time they struggle, they just think, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ And they give up.”
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So how do you get students to accept that they can become good at maths, even if they start out unsure? Many schools are bringing in programs that teach students a “growth mindset” to show them that their abilities can improve. Today, there’s a burgeoning industry around providing such programs to schools on the promise that student’s brains can change for the better, but questions have been raised about effectiveness.
Changing Minds about Maths
The term “growth mindset” was coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. It represents the belief that you can improve your abilities over time, as opposed to a “fixed mindset”, in which people believe they’re either naturally good at something or they aren’t, and there’s not much to be done about it.
A program designed to switch student mindsets from fixed to growth was recently rolled out in South Africa’s Western Cape province as part of a study by the World Bank, the University of California and the provincial government. The study involved more than 1,000 students across eight high schools, covering grades 8-10, and 12 primary schools, covering grades three and four.
Ammaarah Martinus, who works on policy and research at the Department of Premier in Western Cape, says the program was designed to make students more resilient in times of difficulty.
As part of normal schooling, “we teach kids about literacy and numeracy,” she said. “But we don’t teach you about the other part of it: how do you build resilience? How do you build grit? How do you respond to challenges?”
To test whether training children to have a growth mindset could actually improve results, researchers split children into two groups.
The control group were shown National Geographic videos, while the test group watched a set of five three-minute videos about building resilience, starring two monsters. After the videos, the students were asked questions about what they’d seen.
In high-schools, children who had been taught the growth mindset showed an 11% improvement in their final maths grades that year, and a 17% increase in a subsequent assessment.
There was no statistically significant increase among the primary age children, perhaps due to the complications of delivering a program like this in a country with eleven official languages. In South Africa, children are taught in the language they speak at home until grade four, at which point the curriculum switches to English.
Martinus’s team hypothesises that the younger children simply did not understand the videos well enough to put the principles into practice, because they were delivered in English.
Still, their success at the high school level was enough to convince the provincial government in Western Cape to roll the program out to all 160 high schools in the province, Martinus says.
Do Growth Mindsets Really Work?
Growth mindset interventions are being adopted in more and more school districts worldwide, including in the United States, the UK, Indonesia and Peru.
But some scholars have questioned how much student success can be ascribed to programs like the one carried out in South Africa.
In a recent analysis of research into growth mindset interventions, academics from Case Western University found that, overall, the interventions have a small effect on student outcomes. (Dweck has argued that the effect size in this analysis is actually meaningful using the right comparisons).
Brooke Mcnamara, one of the study’s authors, says there was one surprising finding in particular.
“Oddly, when the intervention influenced students’ mindsets, there was no effect on academic achievement, whereas if the intervention had no influence on students’ mindsets, there was an effect on academic achievement,” McNamara said via email.
This suggests that while these interventions can indeed have a positive effect on children, it may not actually be because their mindsets have changed.
“It could be encouragement to put forth more effort, more student attention, placebo effects, or something else,” Mcnamara said. “We don’t know.”
But few advocates of the growth mindset approach claim the approach will work on its own. Boaler says changing the way we teach maths from rote learning exercises to a more visual approach is just as important, and should take place alongside mindset interventions.
And it may be that the most effective way to deploy growth mindset training is to work on the beliefs of teachers. Boaler points to a study she carried out with maths teachers in California using the growth mindset.
After teachers were given growth mindset training, including being shown scientific evidence about how brains can change and instructed on new approaches to teaching maths, student scores in those teachers’ classes were 8 points higher at the end of the experiment, with particular improvement being shown among girls, students whose first language was not English, and economically disadvantaged students – groups that have traditionally struggled with maths.
“If you change kids’ ideas, but then they’re hearing the opposite messages from teachers, that’s not helpful,” Boaler says.
While there’s clearly money to be made in designing growth mindset training for kids and teachers alike —online provider Brainology charges US$20 a student — in places like Western Cape, where education budgets are tight, it’s the relatively low cost of the interventions that appeals.
The World Bank program cost US$2 a student to implement, something that was, from Martinus’s point of view, more than worth it given the opportunity cost that could come with only teaching students maths without also teaching resilience.
“A lot of the communities we work in have low-resourced schools,” she says. “These kids come from a really impoverished background, and you are basically further and further impoverishing them by just giving them skills, but not giving them the ability to tackle challenges.” – Megan Clement and Amelia Axelsen
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)