Following the education dialogue in America will every once in a while bring me to reflect on my own days as a student. Like most of us, I immediately draw upon memories of stellar educators whenever I read about an amazing teacher-from those who pushed me academically to those who helped me grow as a person (and let’s not forget the exemplars that managed both). Those memories are lovely. But there is another side of the coin; the disarming memories that make you realize that maybe there was something that could have helped you but wasn’t available. One realization that continues to simmer for me is student mindset. When I first learned of Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindset, a light bulb went off for me and it continues to grow brighter as more and more join the conversation. Looking back, I think I was fixed and I didn’t even know it.
There is no person, teacher or school to blame because I don’t think that’s the case at all. It wasn’t a common dialogue when I was coming through the ranks and there also wasn’t too much reason to question my mindset. Why? I was a good student. But as I progressed through school, what started out as a level playing field for all subjects started to shift. The areas that came naturally were leaning towards the humanities while I began to hit more stumbling blocks in math with my attitude towards the subject becoming increasingly detached over the years. It wasn’t coming as naturally as my other subjects so I began to come to my own conclusions about my aptitude for it and its importance in my life. If other subjects were so much more natural, clearly math wasn’t my calling. Without anyone’s purposeful guidance, I was letting my fixed mindset guide my path.
I don’t believe that my career as a mathematician was robbed but while I still lean towards the humanities, today I’m a problem-solver, always up for a good logic puzzle, absorb research and its data, and have many other intersections with the math world. I consider this proof that there’s a math person in me who I never gave a chance while I was in school and that a bit more time on math then would have ultimately saved me time later on. It wasn’t until math became more relevant to me that I chose to learn more about it. Just as I wasn’t aware that I had a fixed mindset when I was younger, I shifted to a growth mindset when I was older without realizing. I think the math whiz hidden in all of us-or the literary genius-would have benefited from at least a glimpse of how the brain works, while we were making it work. And imagine the student that isn't just teetering on the subject matter but is completely stalled. That student could have already given up or is only a few quizzes away from it. Understanding that mindset matters, could be a game changer. To that end, here is an interesting article that appeared in Education Week this fall about putting this idea into action: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/09/17/ctq_stein_growth_mindset.html