Back in 2005, I spoke at the Asilomar meeting of the California Math Council. In that session (cheerfully titled “Nothing Works”,) I presented a great many ideas about every aspect of the art of teaching math (slides | outline | article). Among those ideas:
- Make mathematical mistakes on purpose or otherwise, and model a positive response to those.
- Do not praise correct answers. They are their own reward, and over time such praise only serves to intimidate students from speaking up if they’re not 100% confident.
- If you must praise something: praise student participation when they speak up even when they are unsure — whether their answer is correct or not.
These ideas have gone mainstream now, thanks to Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, two Stanford profs who have been researching and promoting the notion of growth mindset. If you are not familiar with this now well-known concept, by all means look it up: it is not the answer to everything, but it is important.
But on to today’s topic. Mindset is usually discussed in reference to students. What would it mean for teachers to have a growth mindset about their own work?
We all know that teaching is an emotional roller coaster — we are thrilled if a class goes well, depressed if it doesn’t. But the reality, I’m afraid, is that every lesson we teach is a failure in one respect or another: some students found it too difficult or too easy; some students were engaged, but didn’t learn what we had hoped; some students picked up some skills, but not the underlying concepts; and so on. I’m not saying this to bring you down. Quite the opposite: we learn a lot by paying attention to these daily challenges — in fact, they are the main avenue to professional growth, especially if we discuss them with our colleagues.
On the other hand, obsessing about them, and trying to anticipate every possible bump in the road is asking too much of ourselves. Becoming a better teacher, paradoxically, is only possible if one accepts that each class we teach will of necessity be imperfect. We learn a lot more by keeping the job manageable, and staying in the profession for many years, than by making unrealistic demands on ourselves and burning out. As they say in French, the best can be the enemy of the good. Teaching is not a good profession for perfectionists.
At the other extreme, fear of feedback reflects a fixed mindset about one’s own work: don’t bring up any issues about my teaching, because it is what it is, and what it always will be! A growth mindset for a teacher has to start by acknowledging that no matter how much we have improved since our first week, all of us, always, have a long way to go. I have this image of teaching as a path. Looking back, I can see how far I have come. Looking ahead, I realize that my destination is not yet within reach.
As I move forward, I welcome any help I can get, especially from colleagues, and especially if it is based on looking at student work, student behavior, student attitudes, student misconceptions. At the heart of the journey are the questions about pedagogy: how can we be more effective with a wider range of students? What tools are available? That is already a serious, multidimensional, and ongoing challenge. And yet it’s not enough: we ourselves need to be students, and continue to deepen and extend our involvement with math. And we need to keep the conversation going about what to teach in a fast-changing world (or if that’s not a choice at our school, what to prioritize.)
Frankly, it is these challenges that make the job worthwhile. I don’t think I could have stayed in the classroom for 42 years if I ever got to a point where I believed I had nothing more to learn.
(If some of this sounds familiar, it is because this is a much expanded version of a 2010 post on teacher perfectionism.)