Applying Growth Mindsets in Math Class

“I don’t know. I’m bad at math.” This phrase, when uttered by a student of any age, can be a considerable hurdle for teachers. But it doesn’t have to be. While some students may pick up on specific math skills quicker than others, every student is capable of improving their math abilities when provided access to appropriate instruction, supports, and practice. To do this, I had to overcome my own fear of math and intentionally foster a growth mindset in my classroom.

First, I focused on my math culture. My fifth graders and I started the year by creating a chart with our math norms on it. We defined six key areas of math and the way we wanted to approach them. We included phrases like, “Mathematicians make mistakes. Mathematicians fix their mistakes.” and “Curiosity over perfection!” It was important that we value academic excellence and academic growth. To have both, we had to focus on personal habits that lead to growth.

Next, I used the “Three Reads” method while tackling word problems. I have to admit, in the beginning, I found this step to be tedious and frustrating. With “Three Reads” the teacher scaffolds thinking and provides multiple opportunities to access the problem for the class. The teacher reads the question twice aloud for their students. The third time the students read the question together. Then, the teacher asks three questions: What is the question about?

What is the question asking us to do? What information is important?

After each question, students write down their answers and check as a class. Finally, students solve the problem individually using their own strategies and justify their attempts. Again, “Curiosity over perfection!” Once we’ve established the three reads then students solve the problem. After following this procedure regularly, I found my student’s comprehension and confidence increased. Even students that struggled with reading were able to listen and verbally answer. Three Reads provided students of different language abilities and learning styles to access the content on a consistent basis.

As students solve the problem individually, I monitor their work. I have a few students that are fast. When they finish, I ask them to solve it another way. This requirement encourages multiple ways of thinking. Before I show them the answer, students pair up and share their strategies with each other. This is one of my favorite parts because when students lower their affective filter they are able to practice vocabulary and reflect on their learning. This solidifies strong habits of learning in a relatively short amount of time.

After students pair up, I strategically pick students to share in front of the class. Sometimes, I scaffold correct answers shown by different strategies. Maybe one student drew some pictures or models to help them. Maybe another student used an equation. Sometimes, no one gets the answer and we share strategies. If I see a common mistake, we use the answer as a learning opportunity and I declare it “my favorite mistake!” In the beginning, I was worried that these techniques would embarrass students. But I found that when we created a caring math culture and allowed students to share their answers with their peers first, even the most sensitive of students grew in confidence and belonging in the classroom.

When is the right answer appropriate? The answer is always. But it’s not necessary to grow and learn. As teachers, when we emphasize habits of learning the right answer comes at the right time. Teachers need to use strategies that foster a growth mindset. Three Reads scaffolds comprehension so that students have a shot at practicing math skills. Partner talk time supports language and problem-solving skills through peer interaction. By confronting my own fears about math and choosing teaching strategies that support curiosity over perfection, I found that students access high academic standards in math much more regularly. 

Katie Paetz teaches 5th grade in Arizona and has over 14 years of experience in education. Katie believes children learn best when communities and teachers come together to inspire students to find their passions and develop useful skills. She is the past president of the Osborn School Board and is currently serving her second term on the board. Additionally, Katie serves as the only teacher on the City of Phoenix Traumatic Incident Intervention Resources Ad Hoc Committee where she works with volunteers to provide innovative solutions to the trauma crisis.