Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets–And How They Impact Student Performance (Excerpt from Mathematical Mindsets)

DR. JO BOALER is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. The author of seven books and numerous research articles, she serves as an advisor to several Silicon Valley companies and is a White House presenter on girls and STEM.

This excerpt from Mathematical Mindsets demonstrates the effect fixed mindsets have on children’s perception of their abilities. In the book, Dr. Jo Boaler explains how teachers and parents can help students succeed in–and even enjoy–math. Read below to learn why growth mindsets are essential for student success, particularly in the field of mathematics.

One reason so many students in the United States have fixed mindsets is the praise they are given by parents and teachers. When students are given fixed praise—for example, being told they are smart when they do something well—they may feel good at first, but when they fail later (and everyone does) they think that means they are not so smart after all. In a recent study, researchers found that the praise parents gave their babies between birth and age three predicted their mindsets five years later (Gunderson et al., 2013). The impact of the praise students receive can be so strong that it affects their behavior immediately. In one of Carol’s studies, researchers asked 400 fifth graders to take an easy short test, on which almost all performed well. Half the children were then praised for “being really smart.” The other half were complimented on “having worked really hard.” The children were then asked to take a second test and choose between one that was pretty simple, that they would do well on, or one that was more challenging, that they might make mistakes on. Ninety percent of those who were praised for their effort chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

Praise feels good, but when people are praised for who they are as a person (“You are so smart”) rather than what they did (“That is an amazing piece of work”), they get the idea that they have a fixed amount of ability. Telling students they are smart sets them up for problems later. As students go through school and life, failing at many tasks—which, again, is perfectly natural—they evaluate themselves, deciding how smart or not smart this means they really are. Instead of praising students for being smart, or any other personal attribute, it’s better to say things like: “It is great that you have learned that,” and “You have thought really deeply about this.”

Our education systems have been pervaded with the traditional notion that some students are not developmentally ready for certain levels of mathematics. A group of high school math teachers in a school I recently encountered had, shockingly, written to the school board arguing that some students could never pass algebra 2. They particularly cited minority students from low-income homes; they argued that these students could not learn algebra unless the teachers watered down the curriculum. Such deficit and racist thinking needs to be banished from schools.

The letter written by the teachers was published in local newspapers and ended up being used in the state legislature as an example of the need for charter schools (Noguchi, 2012). The letter shocked many people, but unfortunately this idea that some students cannot learn high-level mathematics is shared by many. Deficit thinking can take all sorts of forms and is sometimes used with genuine concern for students—many people believe there is a developmental stage students must go through before they are ready for certain mathematics topics. But these ideas are also outdated, as students are as ready as the experiences they have had, and if students are not ready, they can easily become so with the right experiences, high expectations from others, and a growth mindset. There is no preordained pace at which students need to learn mathematics, meaning it is not true that if they have not attained a certain age or emotional maturity they cannot learn some mathematics. Students may be unready for some mathematics because they still need to learn some foundational, prerequisite mathematics they have not yet learned, but not because their brain cannot develop the connections because of their age or maturity. When students need new connections, they can learn them.

For many of us, appreciating the importance of mathematical mindsets and developing the perspective and strategies to change students’ mindsets involves some careful thinking about our own learning and relationship with mathematics. Many of the elementary teachers I have worked with, some of whom took my online class, have told me that the ideas I gave them on the brain, on potential, and on growth mindsets has been life-changing for them. It caused them to develop a growth mindset in mathematics, to approach mathematics with confidence and enthusiasm and to pass that on to their students. This is often particularly important for elementary teachers, because many have, at some point in their own learning, been told they cannot do mathematics or that mathematics is not for them. Many teach mathematics with their own fear of the subject. The research I shared with them helped banish that fear and put them on a different mathematical journey. In an important study, Sian Beilock and colleagues found that the extent of negative emotions elementary teachers held about mathematics predicted the achievement of girls in their classes, but not boys (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine, 2009). This gender difference probably comes about because girls identify with their female teachers, particularly in elementary school. Girls quickly pick up on teachers’ negative messages about math—the sort that are often given out of kindness, such as: “I know this is really hard, but let’s try and do it” or “I was bad at math at school” or “I never liked math.” This study also highlights the link between the messages teachers give and the achievement of their students.

Wherever you are on your own mindset journey, whether these ideas are new to you or you are a mindset expert, I hope that the data and ideas I share in this book will help you and your students see mathematics—any level of mathematics—as both reachable and enjoyable. In the next chapters, Two through Eight, I will share the many strategies I have collected over years of research and practical experiences in classrooms for encouraging a growth mindset in math classrooms and homes—strategies to give students the experiences that allow them to develop strong mathematical mindsets.


Mathematical Mindsets_Boaler ABOUT THE BOOK: Mathematical Mindsets provides practical strategies and activities to help teachers and parents show all children, even those who are convinced that they are bad at math, that they can enjoy and succeed in math. Jo Boaler—Stanford researcher, professor of math education, and expert on math learning—has studied why students don’t like math and often fail in math classes. She’s followed thousands of students through middle and high schools to study how they learn and to find the most effective ways to unleash the math potential in all students. This book:

  • Explains how the brain processes mathematics learning
  • Reveals how to turn mistakes and struggles into valuable learning experiences
  • Provides examples of rich mathematical activities to replace rote learning
  • Explains ways to give students a positive math mindset
  • And much more!
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