Over the summer term, I found myself working with a variety of pupils, across a range of schools, who are currently finding maths particularly challenging. In starting my work with these children, I always try to explore their attitude towards maths learning and this has been thought provoking. During some recent maths intervention research, working with Year 4 pupils, I used emoji icons as an icebreaker activity and to gauge pupil feelings. One statement which pupils were asked to reflect on was: “When I make mistakes in maths I feel…”
The responses were illuminating and could be summarised by the following selection:
“I feel happy. If the teacher says there are mistakes, I just cross them out. I am always getting things wrong.” (Pupil S)
“It makes me happy. You learn from mistakes.” (Pupil E)
“I know I am supposed to say it makes me happy, but actually I am worried because I want to get it right. It makes me feel angry.” (Pupil G)
I could hear the school drilled messages of growth mindset in many of the responses, and it got me to wondering about how growth mindset helps pupils to succeed in their learning. Now I know that simply changing your language does not change your mindset (despite displays in many classrooms telling me that it does), however these children, without exception, wanted to get better in their maths and were prepared to work at it. It seemed to me that pupils like these are being told that if they can’t do it they should keep on trying but that the pupils were increasingly aware this wasn't always helping. They saw that they could not do things “yet” that they wanted to be able to do but they also weren't aware of what it was they needed to do to improve. So do these pupils need to be more resilient? Do they need to try, try, try until they can, can, can?
Pupils who are not yet successful need more than the language of growth mind-set. They also need more than a growth mindset. The pupils require further teaching beyond what effort can garner. They may need:
- to be shown the maths another way or have it broken into smaller more manageable chunks
- the right practice to build greater security, they may need more time
- specific feedback would help them see exactly where they are making errors and why
- possible misconceptions served so they can address their own
- opportunities to listen to and to articulate thinking to help thinking to crystallise
- time to internalise learning
- scaffolds removed over time so that they move towards independence
- opportunities to apply their new learning
- to see and feel their success
This feeling of achievement, I would suggest, might be more likely to positively impact their attitude to themselves and their maths than the drilled “mistakes are good”.
Are mistakes good? They can certainly be useful, if pupils are able to do something about them, other wise they run the risk of repeating mistakes until they become learned - and that can be hard to undo. When pupils are either oblivious to their mistakes or do not have strategies to deal with them, mistakes may only be useful for teachers. Then they act as an indication that something needs to be taught or presented differently so it can be better learned.
I feel I should clarify here, this is not to advocate that pupils should never have to grapple and think hard, of course this is part of learning and suggesting that pupils should always get everything right, would be less than human. Teachers I love to observe are great at asking questions that might lead to common errors being made and have planned to address them. All of this is part of the diet of good maths teaching. What I do believe is that, as teachers, we should be setting our pupils up for success, success breeds success after all. We should be considering their starting points and what they do know and building on this, looking for the bumps in the road for the maths and planning to address these through the learning sequence. Beyond this if we teach well founded strategies, pupils will be more able to deal with their mistakes. By leaving it to 'try harder' or 'keep trying' we may be leaving our pupils with no mechanism to learn from their mistakes and the anxiety of knowing that they are unable to understand what their peers have understood.
Growth mindset alone was not enough.