Growth Mindset In Learning Neglects “Fixed” Mindset In K-12 Math Curriculum Design
I have a 100% belief I could learn to put together IKEA furniture like a pro. I also have 100% belief that I never want to.
Just because one can, doesn’t necessarily mean one should or will. I taught my entire 19-year teaching career without knowing about Carol Dweck’s revolutionary research. But, I was always working with the raw fundamentals of her beliefs — that anyone can learn mathematics. However, in that framework, was a very active awareness that K-12 mathematics is filled with IKEA furniture.
I have already been down this road too many times in previous blogs regarding the state of the mathematical union. I have gone pedal-to-the-metal on being a disruptive agent/voice on the mathematical content found in most schools. Not surprisingly, the responses have nested themselves in Rachel Botsman’s three outcomes below:
While Botsman is discussing disruption in more of a commercial/business light, it is important to note that Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset is rooted in many businesses and companies. So, changes in education and corporations are often tied together. This commercializes education, which in turn commercializes math education. And, if you keep following this production model, you will eventually end up at the general design of the K to 12 math curriculum — suited for homogeneity and portability.
I digress, but not my much.
When we ask our students to adopt a growth mindset in learning mathematics, shouldn’t we be damn sure that what they are signing up for in terms of resilience, taking risks, cherishing mistakes, etc. has mathematics that isn’t all a thousand painful turns of an Allen Key? I mean pairing up growth mindset with worksheets on decimals is a pretty abusive use of Dweck’s research. All it does is enable boring mathematics to exist, all good intentions notwithstanding.
Look, math education was never going to be a Julia Robinson Festival. It’s never going to be as illuminating, cool, and hip as Numberphile. And, it certainly will never be confused as a Museum of Mathematics. I know this. Many of us do. Math was cool before education intervened. It should kindly get out of the way, so maybe it can be cool again.
However, to champion growth mindset without addressing what mathematics is in the broadest sense — which means going beyond the claustrophobic confines of the educational wall — and why one should learn it, just puts “smiley face” band aids on cuts that go much deeper.
Why are you learning mathematics? Why are you learning this mathematics? Bypassing this is why pedagogy — sadly and ironically — has started to take up so much oxygen in mathematics. So much so, that few are paying attention to mathematics. What makes it worse, is that many teachers think they are — “if it was good enough for me, it is going to be good enough for you” is the general mantra probably recited.
But you need math? Okay. But why? And unless your answer can really attend to this question in a Simon Sinek way, be careful that your answer doesn’t resonate with the corporate answer of performance or careers. Because if it does, then we have just sold mathematics down the river — and not for the first time.
This being “good at mathematics” is a complete misrepresentation of the purpose and content of mathematics?
Am I good at math in the broadest sense? Hell to the No!(notice how excited I got about that). I am rookie, merely dabbling in the art of mathematics. But, that “good at mathematics” pertains to K to 12. And…sigh…yes…I am good at that. But, I would rather talk about what I don’t know and can’t know. I can factor the hardest polynomials really fast, but I would rather tell people I drink white zinfandel than share that information.
In a nutshell, I know enough mathematics to know that I hardly know anything. But, my love for mathematics beats with the intensity of a thousand suns. The goal shouldn’t be getting good at mathematics, it should be, as simple as it sounds, liking mathematics. Liking math will lead to loving mathematics.
This is what I BELIEVE all students are capable of. It will lead to being “good”, if that is your goal. However, merely getting proficient at school mathematics in a climate to testing, speed, and performance? Not sure where that leads…and really, I don’t care.
Sadly, I think math education, in a collective subconscious way, knows it will never shed proper light on the beauty and wonder that is mathematics. The road was never going to be colorful or poetic. It was going to be practical and functional — like good Swedish furniture.
That said, I am interested in learning how to build beautiful rustic tables. I can’t right now, but I believe I can. Growth mindset works much better when there are no tasks, just longing…
Sunil Singh is the author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics(2017) and co-author of Math Recess(2019). He works full time as a Mathematics Learning Specialist for Scolab.