The Strong may Survive but the Resilient will Thrive

Carla Silver, Head L+Doer
April is nearing a close, and May is about to sneak up on all of us school people – throwing the inevitable curveballs at us.  It is actually a perfect month to dig into the eighth chapter in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Jeff Howe and Joi Ito. We’ve been enjoying this book all year, but somehow the topic of “Resilience over Strength” seems to be timely as we prepare for the most relentless month of the year.
As an originator and neophile, I rarely read the same book twice or watch the same movie over and over again.  Why would I do that when there are so many other books to read, and movies to watch? I make a strange detour from this behavior when it comes to podcasts.  I will sometimes listen to the same podcast two or three times – maybe it is because I can’t easily look back at my favorite parts (although the transcripts are often available) or maybe it’s because I am an auditory learner. Regardless, there is one podcast I have listened to about a dozen times  – a Freakonomics episode from March 2016: How to Be Great at Just About Everything which is essentially an ode to the resilient and persistent learner.  I guess I listen to this one on repeat because I am ever hopeful that I will become truly great – at something.
Freakonomics host Steve Dubner, builds this podcast around the work of Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University who has studied this topic for most of his career. His work has inspired the 10,000 hours idea that Malcolm Gladwell write about in Outliers and the “growth mindset” theory of Carol Dweck.  Ericsson’s research has supported the idea that with enough “deliberate practice” humans can achieve a high level of skill in almost anything. While Gladwell prescribes a magic number of hours, Ericsson believes that 10,000 hours alone is futile and that it is all in the kind of practice we do and the coaches/guides we have along the way. It helps to have some innate talent, but talent alone is no guarantee of greatness.  In his 2015 book Peak:Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes about the highest achievers in any given field. “The clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have-the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
The most important distinction of Anders Ericsson’s work is that the simple act of repeating a task will only get you so far. You can get to a point of automation and general competency, but simply running 5 miles a day or even 10 miles a day, will not improve your running after a certain point. Instead your practice must be purposeful which according to Ericsson means it is focused,requires feedback and forces you out of your comfort zone.  It requires a certain amount of resilience to imperfection and the ability to of fail forward.  The brain is amazingly adaptable when put to the right training conditions, and with these three elements in place, anyone can drastically improve.
The implications for us as educators from this research are profound and go beyond promoting a growth mindset in students.  While growth mindset is probably a prerequisite to deliberate practice – one needs to believe they can actually learn something and get better at a skill or knowledge – it is really just scratching the surface.  As educators, it means we also need to design the right kind of practice – not simply repetition and regurgitation – and it means we need to be giving feedback – lots of it.  Most importantly, we need to be prepared for our students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. John Kotter calls this the “productive range of distress” and it is necessary for growth to occur.
This isn’t just about student learning either.  I believe it means that as the profession of teaching evolves,  we are all going to need to engage in deliberate practice if we are going to be truly great at our work of designing meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students.  And as leaders, we will need to hold ourselves and our faculty and staff in that same “productive range of distress.”  Like a good coach, we need to know how hard to push and when recovery is necessary, but we can’t expect growth and improvement without discomfort.
My friend and colleague Christian Talbot of Basecamp often asks whether a school seems to operate from a position of scarcity or abundance.  In other words are there a finite amount of leadership opportunities or awards or experiences that are limited to the “top tier” of students – the innately strongest?  Or are there ample opportunities for those who might have a budding interest and are willing to work hard to improve, excel or even do what it takes to become truly great at something?  What does your school do to provide opportunities for the students who may not be the strongest, but just might be the most resilient – and what are you doing to cultivate that resilience and allow it to emerge? This is not the same as giving everyone a trophy for participation.  This is about helping every student to pursue a level of greatness at something.

Meanwhile in our organizations, we need to be more resilient than ever as we adapt to rapidly accelerating world with paradigm shifts. As Ito and Howe smartly write,  “We are all infallible. No matter how strong we try to appear, something can take us down. There is no institution or person that is too big to fail. We know that now, in an age of disruption and dislocation.”  Therefore, none of us personally or institutionally can rely on what have perceived as our strengths simply because those are things we have always done well. How can we be so sure that those same attributes still hold the same value to a new market, and what if some other school or organization or individual can simply do those things better and add more value? We need to develop greater adaptability, a willingness to take risks and try new things, and a tolerance for failure. These three things will provide us, as Howe and Ito write,  an “immune system” for the future. We don’t always need to be proving our strength, but rather practicing resilience if we want to thrive.

Wishing you all lots of resilience in the coming month!

Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset


Use these novels to teach learning from loss and overcoming adversity to your middle schoolers and high school freshmen.

Heroes in books and movies captivate kids, many of whom could teach a master class on these characters. The fresh perspective teachers can offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, we can teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. We should show students that we also value process and progress. Heroic stories can help: They teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset.

The following books feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds and races, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce the initial lessons and keep students hungry for more. While these young adult books are typically middle school level, their resonant subject matter, complex characters, profound themes, vivid vocabulary, and historical contexts make them suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of the protagonists fool you: All of these books are worthy of serious study—and they invite multiple readings.


Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Ten-year-old Kenny is tormented by school bullies and his brother Byron, but when a family trip to the segregated South turns tragic, it is Byron who rescues his brother from trauma. Byron gently coaxes Kenny to reconcile with the monsters and angels that nearly destroy him. As Kenny makes peace with life’s joys and cruelties, readers realize that giving up is not an option.

Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: After the massacre of her father and many other members of their island tribe, an orphaned young girl is abandoned for 18 years when the remainder of the tribe departs for the mainland. Karana endures and even thrives by embracing enemies, both animal and human. This profound, beautiful story about the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit spurs students to summon their inner strength in the face of despair and desolation.

Brian from the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen: Brian enlists grit, guts, and the grandeur of nature to come to grips with himself, his parents’ divorce, and the harsh wilderness. Equal parts adventure and introspection, these stories promote inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.


Katie from Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: When a move to 1950s Georgia separates her family from their Japanese community, Katie survives the stigma of bigotry with the help of her beloved, optimistic sister, Lynn. Lynn’s untimely death leaves Katie heartbroken, but she musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Katie’s family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish hope even in the toughest of times.

Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt realizes that he is actually the clone of the evil drug lord El Patrón. Matt claims his own identity by recognizing that choices, confidence, and adapting to change create true character.

Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amid poverty and prejudice in 1930s Mississippi. Although Mama strives to shield her children from the pain of racism, Cassie grows up fast as the seeds of the civil rights movement are planted in her family farm. Students will struggle with the hard choice between standing down and standing up for yourself.


Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Stepsby Louis Sachar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, Stanley digs deep into a family curse that turns to fortune. This intricate, ingenious tale of friendship and fortitude will provoke debate about how much control we have over fate. Stanley and Armpit, the protagonist of Holes’ sequel, embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.

Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle: Swept into a strange, scary new dimension on a desperate search to save her father and brother, Meg summons the supremacy of love to win the day. Alternately harrowing and heartwarming, the book reminds readers that the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.

The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic can mean simply showing ourselves and others the best of what humans have to offer. We should cultivate and celebrate the hero living in each of us. Teachers can assist in this noble quest by supporting students in finding what is special about them (and each other!) and in nurturing the singular gift that only they can heroically share with the world.

Once students can identify positive, productive qualities in others—first in books and media, then in friends and family—they soon recognize and develop those same positive attributes in themselves. Teachers who attend to the whole child understand how social-emotional-soulful learning directly impacts student success and satisfaction and actively encourage their students to become role models in their own right.

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?

Why Teachers Should Try New Things

Try: A Little Word Becomes a Big Gift

“Shoot for the Moon.
Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
– Les Brown

Taking risks is invigorating! It’s a gift that you give yourself. The newness is refreshing and energizing. My personal philosophy is “Learn Forward” — moving with forward momentum, embracing each season, and experiencing life with a sense of adventure. My heart is filled with the hope that you’ll give yourself the opportunity (and gift) of taking a risk, learning, and growing.

Carol Dweck‘s research teaches us how invaluable a growth mindset is in our culture. I want to get really practical with that research. Here’s the big idea:

When was the last time that you tried something for the first time?

Besides being a great conversation starter at your next social event, this question encourages us to consider the gift of risk taking. It’s exhilarating, challenging, and stimulating. I don’t care if it’s jumping out of an airplane or trying a new instructional strategy — your true potential is unknown and unknowable. So isn’t the risk worth the possible growth that you might achieve? Give yourself the gift of trying something new.

Rising to the Challenge

This winter, I tried something new — the challenge of doing a webinar. While I love technology and use many apps on a daily basis, I’m not a techie. I practically break out in hives when something goes wrong. So trying to manage a live webinar was not high on my list of “things I want to try some day.” But I conceded to try, and I designed some content for parents. Then I launched my first webinar about ten days before Christmas, because I hoped there would only be a few faithful fans joining me virtually — you know, those who would be gentle with my risk taking.

After my first webinar, I decided I could build on my brief and understated experience. I chose one of my favorite topics: cultivating cultures of community in schools. While writing content with passion, I enjoyed living in my comfort zone. But then, each time I taped the “Webinar in Progress” sign onto my office door, I shuddered. Over the next six weeks, I did three more webinars. Was it an overnight success? Nope. However, I now have webinars under my belt and some high-quality content developed in a unique format that allows educational leaders to access it and use broadly with their teams.

What might be a more important outcome is that I tried something new. I was challenged and curious. I remembered how it felt to be a learner. I engaged in the same process as the teachers on my team, the students in my classrooms, the parents in my community. I was forced to learn forward. I still have tons to learn about webinars and all sorts of online content, but the learning process and growth mindset are fresh. I feel renewed in my work and willing to try again.

Pedagogy, Parents, and Personalization

In Adam Grant’s 2016 TED talk, “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers,”he states, “If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most.” That significant little, three-letter word is try.

Of course, each of us is in a completely different space in our professional development. We need to take risks in different ways aligned with our hopes and goals. What I know for sure is that it will be a great gift of renewal and inspiration.

Here are a few ideas for taking risks in education:

1. Try a new pedagogy.

Pedagogy is the method or practice of teaching an academic subject or theoretical concept. We are pedagogues, yet we can always try new methods or practices and take risks. It will be out of our comfort zone and might even be scary. We won’t feel like an expert, but it might be exhilarating, and who knows what our potential is? What new pedagogy can you risk? Project-based learning? A new technology? A different assessment method? Student-led conferences? It’s a great gift that you can give yourself (and Edutopia has a brilliant library of topics).

2. Try to connect in a new way with parents.

A teacher friend recently described her celebration ceremony with parents and students — a banquet that was literally chicken soup for the soul. While it took some effort to explain why cupcakes and candy weren’t included, her homemade warmth and nourishment came in bowls of hearty chicken noodle soup, giving reverence to the learning.

Her story offers an example of taking a risk with parents. Maybe your risk is creating an opportunity to build a connection with an immigrant family facilitated by a translator. Maybe the risk is inviting your parents to volunteer and contribute in new ways. Maybe it’s a song, poetry, or a reading performance. The ideas are as diverse as the readers of this post. The risk will be rewarded with wonderful gifts.

3. Try to personalize learning.

It’s a tall order to consider personalized learning. We aren’t totally sure how to accomplish it. We understand differentiated learning a bit better. In my region of the continent, “personalized learning” is becoming a common buzzword that we’re all trying to figure out how to achieve. What I know for sure is that we’ll need to take some risks in our instructional design and planning, empowering the student to be responsible for his or her learning.

Recently I heard Charles Fadel speak at a conference, encouraging, “We are underestimating the capacity of our students to design their own learning.” What if student engagement, learning, and achievement increase when we personalize the experience even further? What if the students love it? I encourage us to be willing to try. Tell your administrator what you’re working on or find another encouraging thought partner.

Courage to Try

The gift of this little three-letter word, try, is that you’ll automatically have a story to tell your students. You can write the word on the whiteboard and share risks that each of you is taking this week. It will be a wonderful celebration of learning, with magic enough to encourage every teacher’s heart. We’d love to hear about your efforts to try something new in the classroom. Let’s create some positivity with tweets about the #couragetotry. And also feel free to respond in the comments section of this post.

Journal Questions

  • Describe the last time that you felt energized when you tried something new in the classroom.
  • Why were you energized by that event?
  • How could trying something new be important for you this season?

The Growth Mindset – “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.

Beyond Working Hard: What Growth Mindset Teaches Us About Our Brains



Growth mindset has become a pervasive theme in education discussions in part because of convincing research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck and others that relatively low-impact interventions on how a student thinks about himself as a learner can have big impacts on learning. The growth mindset research is part of a growing understanding and acknowledgement that many non-cognitive factors are important to academic learning.

While it’s a positive sign that educators see value in the growth mindset research and believe they can implement it in their classrooms, the deceptively simple idea has led to some confusion and misperceptions about what a growth mindset really is and how teachers can support it in the classroom. It’s easy to lump growth mindset in with other education catchphrases, like “resiliency” or “having high expectations,” but growth mindset actually has a much more concrete definition. As Eduardo Briceño wrote in a recent post for MindShift, “It is the belief that qualities can change and that we can develop our intelligence and abilities.”

This simple idea can lead to big changes in learners, but it has been commonly misinterpreted to mean that if teachers praise students for working hard, they will develop a growth mindset. In many cases that isn’t true and students will feel that praise is disingenuous. Briceño explains it this way: “Students often haven’t learned that working hard involves thinking hard, which involves reflecting on and changing our strategies so we become more and more effective learners over time, and we need to guide them to come to understand this.”

To foster growth mindsets in students, teachers can coach students to try different learning strategies that make the brain work smarter. Educator praise can be used to acknowledge specific strategies students have tried and can push students to reflect on themselves as learners. This process is more complex than it looks and ultimately should help lead students to become more independent thinkers.

Growth mindset is also not a panacea for low achievement or education inequality, although the fervor with which some districts have adopted the idea might lead one to believe that. Critics like Alfie Kohn point out that no individual attitude shift is going to overcome the very real structural inequalities that exist in schools. He worries that focusing on mindsets will not only mask those bigger problems, but could undermine the imperative to provide compelling learning experiences that lead students to discover an innate love of learning.

Another common way of boiling down the mindset research is to tell students that “mistakes are good; we learn from mistakes.” While that can be true, not all mistakes are worth pursuing. Some mistakes are just sloppy and others are made in such a high-stakes environment. Reflecting on these kinds of mistakes can improve performance next time, but they aren’t necessarily the most fruitful kinds of mistakes.* Mistakes that lead to the most learning are the ones made when students are stretching outside their comfort zones to grasp an idea that’s just out of reach. Or, when someone has an “aha” moment after doing something she thought was right but then realized was a mistake based on new information. Reflecting on these mistakes, and formulating a new plan of action based on them, is what makes them powerful.


It’s exciting that this research has been around long enough and has reached enough educators that many districts and schools are already trying to put the research into practice. Their successes and failures are important to share as educators work to figure out how to implement it.

Many schools quickly realized that growth mindsets are not only important to students, they are crucial for educators trying to make change. And helping educators to develop their own growth mindsets hinges on positive working environments and trust at school. Educators have a hard time taking risks in their teaching practice if they believe the outcome must be perfect the first time. And yet, one of the most important ways to instill a growth mindset in students is to model the disposition as teachers, making it even more crucial that district and school leaders create a climate conducive to growth mindsets in adults.

Some high schools are weaving explicit instruction around growth mindset into workshops and classes for incoming freshmen. Educators hope that if students get the same messages about stretching to learn and improving based on those mistakes from day one of high school and from every subject-area teacher, that a growth mindset will become part of school culture.

Other schools focus on normalizing struggle in the classroom by honoring students who are honest about their difficulties and making thinking transparent to everyone. In this Teaching Channel video produced in partnership with PERTS, second-grade teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson models for other educators what it looks like to praise specific strategies. She celebrates the public mistakes her students make in math and makes them feel proud of how their brains grow in those moments.


Approaching the world with a growth mindset can be very liberating. It gives educators and students freedom to try new approaches, reflect on the positives and negatives, and then try again. But somehow this process is easier for students and teachers to believe in subjects like English or science. Even students who understand that their brain can grow and change with effort, and believe that to be true in some areas of their life, persist in a fixed mindset about math.

Many find math to be the most difficult and hated subject in school. In some ways that’s not so surprising, since many math classes are set up to value speed over careful reasoning and often offer closed questions requiring one right answer. When a student struggles in that type of classroom structure, it becomes difficult to believe she can grow or change her abilities. The questions asked and skills valued are projecting the opposite message.

The common experience of math trauma

The Brilliant Blog

By Annie Murphy Paul

A note to Brilliant readers: I’m continuing my confessional streak here (last week I wrote about my experiences of belonging in college). In the piece below, I’ve chosen to share a memory from my own life because I think it is likely to be similar to memories you have as well.

In writing about “math trauma,” I don’t in any way mean to trivialize trauma or its devastating effects. But I think mathematics expert Jo Boaler is right that the humiliation and shame that many of us have experienced in regard to school math does constitute a kind of trauma, one that often produces a lifelong aversion to and avoidance of the subject.

As always, I’d love to hear your perspective.—Annie

There was a math genius in my first-grade class. His name was Hank, and we all knew he had a gift for numbers and we did not. When we filled out our daily timed math quizzes, he was always done first, after which he idly tapped the eraser end of his pencil on his desk and whistled under his breath, waiting for the rest of us to be done. When the teacher called him up to the front of the classroom to demonstrate how he would solve a series of addition or subtraction problems, the chalk in his hand became a white blur, moving faster than we could follow it.

Early one Friday afternoon our teacher introduced a new activity: speed math competitions, in which pairs of students would vie to be the first to answer correctly all the math problems on one’s own half of the blackboard. My stomach tightened and my heart beat faster at the prospect of it; I shrunk down in my seat, trying to make myself invisible, but as if in a monstrously foreordained nightmare I heard the teacher call out the first two contestants: Hank, and me.

I slowly approached the blackboard and with a trembling hand picked up the chalk. The rows of problems rippled before my eyes: I couldn’t see or think about them clearly, even though I was perfectly capable of answering such questions when left alone to work at my desk. Just then I heard a knock on the window overlooking the playground; my mother and sister stood outside, smiling and waving. For a moment my heart lifted with the idea that they’d come to take me home; then I remembered that my sister, younger than me by a year, had a half-day of kindergarten on Fridays. They weren’t going to help me escape, and in fact were going to be additional witnesses to my humiliation.

“And ready . . . set . . . go!” Hank got down to work, his chalk clacking furiously against the blackboard. He moved as smoothly as a typewriter carriage, working his way through the problems left to right, left to right. Meanwhile I stood frozen, only turning my head to glance at my mother and sister, still smiling encouragingly, and then to look at the board again, still swimming with incomprehensible symbols.

“And . . . stop!” The teacher patted the shoulder of Hank, who had finished his final problem with seconds to spare. I tried to hide my tears from my mother and sister, who mercifully slipped out of sight.

Jo Boaler has heard many, many stories like this one. She is a professor of education at Stanford University and the author of a new book, Mathematical Mindsets. I heard Jo speak at Stanford last week and was so impressed, and even moved, by what she had to say about the destructive way we teach math and the harm it wreaks on students.

Here, I highlight several of my favorite passages from the book’s early chapters. I can’t recommend Mathematical Mindsets highly enough; read it, and tell others about it! They likely experienced math trauma too.

• “A high level of intensity of negative emotion around mathematics is not uncommon. Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ spirits, and many adults do not move on from mathematics experiences in school if they are negative. When students get the idea they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with mathematics throughout the rest of their lives.”

• “[The negative experiences that many people have with math flow] from one idea, which is very strong, permeates many societies, and is at the root of math failure and underachievement: that only some people can be good at math. That single belief—that math is a “gift” some people have and others don’t—is responsible for much of the widespread math failure in the world.”

• “Math is special in this way, and people have ideas about math that they don’t have about any other subject. Many people will say that math is different because it is a subject of right and wrong answers, but this is incorrect, and part of the change we need to see in mathematics is acknowledgement of the creative and interpretive nature of mathematics.”

• “Mathematics is a very broad and multidimensional subject that requires reasoning, creativity, connection making, and interpretation of methods; it is a set of ideas that helps illuminate the world; and it is constantly changing. Math problems should encourage and acknowledge the different ways in which people see mathematics and the different pathways they take to solve problems. When these changes happen, students engage with math more deeply and well.”

• “Another misconception about mathematics that is pervasive and damaging—and wrong—is the idea that people who can do math are the smartest or cleverest people. This makes math failure particularly crushing for students, as they interpret it as meaning that they are not smart. We need to dispel this myth. The combined weight of all the different wrong ideas about math that prevail in society is devastating for many children—they believe that mathematics ability is a sign of intelligence and that math is a gift, and if they don’t have that gift then they are not only bad at math but they are unintelligent and unlikely ever to do well in life.”

• “My work [on the growth mindset, originally developed by Boaler’s Stanford colleague Carol Dweck] over recent years has helped me develop a deep appreciation of the need to teach students about mindset inside mathematics, rather than in general. Students have such strong and often negative ideas about math that they can develop a growth mindset about everything else in their life but still believe that you can either achieve highly in math or you can’t. To change these damaging beliefs, students need to develop mathematical mindsets, and this book will teach you ways to encourage them.”

• “Growth mindset ideas [can be] infused through all of mathematics. Teachers of mathematics, and parents working with their students at home, can transform students’ ideas, experiences, and life chances through a growth mindset approach to math. General mindset interventions can be helpful for shifting students’ mindsets, but if students return to mathematics classrooms and math work at home working in the same ways they always have, that growth mindset about math slowly erodes away. The ideas that I share with teachers and parents and set out in this book include paying attention to the math questions and tasks that students work on, the ways teachers and parents encourage or grade students, the forms of grouping used in classrooms, the ways mistakes are dealt with, the norms developed in classrooms, the math messages we can give to students, and the strategies they learn to approach math—really, the whole of the mathematics teaching and learning experience.”

Mathematical Mindsets includes many more such insights, as well as fun, hands-on exercises you can do with your child or students. If you read it, please share the ways in which it changes your thinking and your practices on my blog, here.

And send questions and comments to me at—I look forward to hearing from you!