22 minutes, Mindset, Grit and Trauma

Note to the reader:  Stay with me on this post. It is long.  I am going to start by highlighting my problems with teaching a growth mindset, but then will share with you what has been effective in my classroom this year as well as some actions we can all take to make sure we have a balanced approach to a current fad in education, Mindset work,in our math classrooms.

“Growth Mindset is like Nails on a Chalkboard”

Recently a teacher posted this article on my districts teacher Facebook
page.  One comment from a teacher growth mindsetsaid “growth mindset is like nails on a chalkboard to me”  The article talks about the danger of ‘Growth Mindset’ work in schools being misused or misapplied  like so many other Education initiatives that have caught fire over the years.  In the article, Carol Dweck is quoted as saying A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches–not just sheer effort–to learn and improve.” I think the teacher from my district who aquatints mindset work to nails on the chalkboard has been surrounded by many of us who implement this work poorly.

4 or 5 years ago when Growth Mindset started being the rage I was excited because I knew from my personal experience that teaching math is about both teaching the academic but also about teaching the social in our classrooms.  I knew that it was my job as a teacher to model and teach students how to be students in a mathematics classroom.  On my blog you will notice I post about things like how to get students to talk in class almost more than ways to focus on concepts over skills, though I think this is important too. (I’m only a month in, but you will see this as a common theme).

In recent years I’ve supported & promoted math teacher efforts in my district and state to focus on teaching a growth mindset to students.  Jo Boaler of Stanford’s recent Mindset work & her YouCubed site have been a godsend towards this effort.  I’ve used & will continue to use many of the resources in her Week of Inspirational Math in my own classroom.  That said, I’ve started to notice that some of the math teachers I’ve worked with have made this work such a majority of the work that they’ve lost focus on the math.  Principals call me and ask about it and I find myself saying things like “I never told _________ to do growth mindset stuff every day”.

If I am honest, I am caught up in the education fad of our time, mindsets.  I am attracted to working with math teachers who want to talk about this topic.  Over the last 3 years I’ve been back in the classroom I’ve implemented several things in my classroom connected to developing a growth mindset in my students.  That said, I’ve had niggling concerns in the back of my head related to this work.  So have other math educators. Here is one blog post from one of my favorite math blogs Five Twelve Thirteen (Dylan Kane) on the topic.

My colleague who I co-plan with daily, Morgan, and I have had concerns this year that the work we are doing around mindset and the unintended consequences that may peculate up.  In addition to our research on mindsets, grit and persistence we’ve also done research on the effect of trauma on our students.  We’ve read books to understand the cultures of our students like Lisa Delpit’s ‘Multiplication is for White People‘.  Some themes I took form this book in particular were to continue to raise my academic expectations for my students while at the same time seeing their assets and ‘studying my students’.  Someday soon I’ll do a post on the things I’ve been working on to see my students assets and how I’ve  worked to ‘study my students’.

In our midyear reflection on our work on Mindset’s I asked Morgan what concerns she had about our work and this is what she said “I am concerned how our mindset work reinforces meritocracy & it is all about individual effort and ignores systems.  I am concerned that if students are putting in the work and not accomplishing something they may interpret this as not working hard enough. This dishonors the work they did.  Working on developing a growth mindset has the danger of creating a fixed mindset about motivation which is super dangerous.”  I have to agree with her.

There is one thing I know for sure. There is no one magic bullet to education.  All things in life must be in moderation. Teaching a Growth Mindset alone will never result in mathematics growth in my classroom.


Another coworker has heard Morgan and I talk about our work around developing persistence in students at lunch.  His comment was “If you talk about mindset for 10 minutes a day, what math are you cutting out of your lesson?”  Good question.  I think some teachers have ignored all work around Mindset because of the time it may take away from an already packed schedule of mathematics to teach.

I’ve already mentioned above that I know of many teachers in math who are dedicating too much time, my opinion, to this topic every week – sometimes up to 20 minutes of a 30 minute class daily.

Like everything else in our lives our work around teaching about Mindsets is about BALANCE.

  • We need to balance our focus on students developing a growth mindset against the the time we spend on mathematics.  My co-worker is right, if you spend time on this topic something else has to give.  That said, I believe the time I give to the topic pays off with more student engaged in mathematics.
  • We need to balance our work with teaching about mindset and grit with  growing as professionals in our learning of the other things outside of students having grit that get in the way of their success in our classroom.  Personally I want to learn more about the effects of trauma on our classrooms, more about Stereotype threat, more about seeing my students assets and more about the choice of mathematical tasks in engaging students.

What has worked for me in my classroom this year:

My PLC’s (professional learning community) goal this year is to create persistent, engaged and excited students in our mathematics classrooms.  Those 3 words – persistent/engaged/excited – are my goal for what I hope my classroom looks and feels like each day.  We’ve been looking at the things we can do to create of culture in our class where students are addicted to the cycle in a math classroom of being puzzled and then becoming unpuzzled. (please take time to read a really lovely post by Dan Meyer on this description of a mathematics classroom).

As part of our work we’ve been trying things out in our Advanced Algebra courses to build a culture of persistence.  Here are my favorite things from this year.  These are the things I’ve used to help students create a growth mindset, though I don’t always use this phrase.  All of these things take limited time away from mathematics in my classroom.  All of these things are things I will use again next year.  It is my opinion to find a few things that work and do them really well.

  • I started week 1 using a couple of Jo Boalers videos from her ‘Week of Inspirational Math‘.  I only used the first 2 videos.  I also was very intentional in my choice of math tasks week 1.  I selected tasks with low floors and high ceilings.  Things I knew would challenge all but also make all feel successful.
  • NEVER DOUBT THE POWER OF A GOOD VISUAL.  One of my favorite videos of the last few years has been the ‘Stuck on the Escalator ‘ video.  Have you seen it?  If not, stop reading my blog and watch it now.  If you have seen it, but not for a while, watch it again right now.  It is only 2 minutes.  Why do I love this video?  My pet peeve in my classroom is students sitting there doing nothing.  It is the most difficult to change. I show this video and say “When you sit in my classroom without a pencil or without a notebook you look as silly to me  and the rest of your teachers as the people in this video. If you hear me say ‘get off the escalator’ to you this year I am asking you to do something to solve your problems.  When you are sitting there doing nothing in math because you don’t understand yet you’ve not asked your neighbor or me for help and you have not looked in your notebook for ideas, you look as silly to me as the people in this video.stuck on escalator  Before I help you get unstuck, I may tell you to get off the escalator and ask your peers for help or for you to look back in your notebook for help.  If your grade is not what you want it to be but you’ve never come in for help – you look as silly as the people on the escalator.  I need you to do something……” ….And so on.  My mantra of ‘get off the escalator’ quickly becomes the mantra of students in the classroom.  If a student is missing a handout and is sitting there doing nothing I will often hear their table mate say ‘get off the escalator and go get one’.   This video takes 2 minutes of class time followed by 5-10 minutes of discussion on day one.  I then reference it briefly (30 seconds) daily in class for at least 2 weeks.  I then revisit the video (watch it again) when maintenance is needed.  I have a screen shot of the video posted in my room that says’s g
  • Another amazing video I love is about a Beagle going after a Chicken McNugget – it is the picture of persistence.  Stop and watch it now. beagle nugget Again, it is short only 3 minutes. I use this video to contrast against the escalator video.  I love this beagle.  He does not give up.  When things don’t work the first time he finds something else.  I tell students that this is how I want them to act when they tackle a task in math class.  Even if they are not sure how to solve the problem at first, stick with it, keep trying.  I also post a picture of the beagle in my classroom.
  • This year I posted both photos mentioned above at the bottom of my Smartpic of smart board Board and often we talk about where we are on the scale of persistence.  Are we more like the people on the escalator or more like the beagle going after the chicken nugget?  Never doubt the power of a repeated message.  It takes little time to escalator or beaglereference this daily.  If you only show the 2 videos yet never reference them, it is a waste of your time to even show them to begin with.  I have a standard slide I use in my lessons from time to time.
  • MY FAVORITE THING WE ARE DOING THIS SCHOOL YEAR RELATES TO THIS VIDEO ON THE BACKWARDS BRAIN BICYCLE.  Stop what you are doing and watch this video.  (even if you’ve riding the backwards bikewatched it before. This video is 8 minutes but worth every minute.  I will be blogging a ton about this video later this year, but I will tell you my friend Morgan made a bike like this and brought it to our school this fall.   Every day she and I (and a few others) spend at least 5 minutes during the school day trying to learn how to ride this bike (doing this in front of students).  We’ve decided if we are doing to talk about persistence with students we chanllenge photoshould model it everyday by trying to learn how to do something difficult.  Morgan has been better at tracking her progress (she is good) on the bike on her twitter account.  It has changed me more than anything in my recent years of teaching (more on this in future blogs).  Even if you don’t have a bike like I do, show this video and talk about it.  It is great.
  • During the first week of quarter 2 we did a 2 week focus on persistence.  Giving the topic between 1-10 minutes of attention each day.  We went back and reviewed the stuff above.  On day 1 we used this homework assignment: Persistence Homework. The next day we defined persistencedefine persistence and began a 3 week (I would only use 2 weeks in the future) calendar where we tracked our persistence in the math classroom using this calendar: Persistence Calendar It was great.  Doing this at the start of quarter 2 was great timing.  We don’t think it would have worked as well if we had done it earlier.  We talked about doing things to complete them vs. doing things to understand.  We had students name things they do to show persistence in math (see the calendar above for ideas).  I highly recommend doing a focus on this for a week or two.
  • MY FAVORITE THING I DID DURING OUT WEEK FOCUS ON PERSISTENCE WAS USE THIS QUOTE FROM MALCOM GLADWELL WITH STUDENTS. gladwell quote After reading the full quote 22 minutes has become a mantra in my classroom.  The day after using this quote I told my students I would be giving them a task (I used the painted cube problem – see my blog post on velcro for more on this task) and setting a timer for 22 minutes for them to work with their groups with zero help from me.  I expected them to work towards an answer like the beagle going after chicken mcnuggets for 22 minutes.  It was awesome.  Rather than students waiting until I came to their table to help them, students used each other to work on the task.  Every group made22 min definition progress, not right away, but as they pushed through their initial frustrations.  We talked about how in homework I only want them spending 2o minutes a night.  Even if they get stuck, they should keep working.  I keep bringing up the 22 minutes. I really believe that naming a specific time for students to work has been miraculous.  22 minutes is something concrete they can wrap their brains around and many are willing to hang in there in that icky feeling of struggle longer than they have in the past.  Use this quote.  Reference it often.  I am telling you, it is good.
  • The choice of task is key in the classroom.  I need to find tasks to go along with my focus on growth mindsets and persistence that will have students both struggle and be rewarded with success.  These my plan  comic 22 mintasks also need to relate to the standards I am teaching.  Many thanks to the MBToS blogs and twitter feeds for helping me find such tasks.  I can’t expect students to grow without me doing some changes in my classroom.  My part is to find tasks that don’t suck.  Tasks that have an entry point for every student to grow from.  My part is to figure out a way to set up the task so that students can enter without removing the rigor.
  • I also like teaching about the braineuron.  There are lots of good videos out there, but I feel like less is more. This is my favorite video on brain is titled Neuroplasicity made simple.  Again watch it.  It is short, but it explains a lot about my next favorite thing, the backwards bike.  Again, I refereyetnce this video a lot.  If I don’t it is a waste of time.
  • YET!  My favorite word in the classroom.  If students do say they don’t get something, I make them say it again with the word ‘yet’ at the end…”I don’t get it yet”.  Try adding this word to your classroom.
  • henry ford quoteI have also used this Henry Ford quote and referenced it quite a bit.  On most tests my first question is related to mindsets and changing the words they have in their heads before they take the assessment.

test 2test

  • Recently we used DJ Khaled’s Words of Wisdom video  (1.5 minutes) in the classroom in an effort to change the voices in our students heads – we talk over video and use his  “Another one.  Another one.  and another one….” mantra about what it takes to be successful in mathematics.

Action Items for us all:

  • I want to do something more active with changing students negative scripts in their heads about math.  What I’ve done so far with the items above has changed some of it, but I need to do more.  I listened into a Ignite talk in Northern California via Periscope last night and Elisabeth (I don’t know her last name) did a 4 minute talk on Mindsets and said “Telling is not teaching.  It does not work to tell students to have a growth mindset.”  She talked about helping students notice to help shift energy….anyways she said it well.  I will post the video here when CA posts it.  More soon.  I encourage you to watch it.
  • Be efficient in the work you do around developing a growth mindset in students.  Find the videos/quotes/activities that give you the biggest bang for your buck that take minimal time away from the teaching of math.  I’ve shared my favorite, but I’d love to hear what yours are.  Share in the comment section below or tweet me @saravdwerf or email sarav@mpls.k12.mn.us
  • Read Jo Boaler’s new book, Mathematical Mindsets.
  • Stay balanced in your reserch and read The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom by Aisha Sulton from the 12.3.15 issue of The Atlantic or From the Washington Post, Why Teaching kids Grit isn’t always a good thing
  • I want to learn more about Stereotype Threat.  I will read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele this year (I’ve meant to for years).
  • Learn more about seeing students assets in the classroom.
  • Read and learn more about the effects of trauma on our students.  One form of trauma, but there are others, was highlighted at the most recent NCTM Regional in Minnesota.  I did not attend the session but my good friend @nicolebridge Storified a session on Trauma and Math by Kasi C. Allen Check out what she said and learn about he effects of other forms of trauma.
  • Get serious about the choice of tasks you use in your math classroom.  Make sure they have an entry/access point for every student to start from and grow.

Postscript: At my most recent post interview for one of my classroom observations my observer said “I never use this part of the rubric when I debrief observations because I never have enough evidence to use it, but your classroom was a class for teachers in ‘creating a culture of persistence’.  This was great feedback for my work so far this year.  rubric




Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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