Getting Gritty in a Middle School Math Class: 5 Ways to Infuse a Growth Mindset

Written By: Enterprise Middle School

As a teacher, it seems like everywhere I turn I hear talk about “mindset” and “grit.”   

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“Don’t praise for being smart, praise for effort.”

“We want our kids to have a growth mindset.”

“Our students need more grit!”

Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth’s ideas & terminology have permeated American school culture.  Trade magazines, internet sites, TED talks, you-name-it, they’re talking about our students’ mindset and the need for us to instill grit & perseverance along with academic content.  

The case has been made & our mission is clear: We need to overcome traditional fixed mindsets & promote grit.

The question is, “How?”

In order for me to actually be able to affect change & go beyond simply championing these ideas with my students, I need ways to intentionally teach “grit” with my content.  My students need skills, not platitudes. And, as their math teacher, I need ways to teach specific skills that make sense to them, that make it practical & worthwhile for them to keep trying with difficult concepts. So, here’s my own personal “hit list” for instilling GRIT:

1. Prepare students to take risks & make mistakes.

Students need to view our classrooms as risk-taking, mistake-making, safe environments.  This requires intentional instruction and constant reinforcement. No one likes making mistakes.  But, students who grow their understanding have learned that mistakes are just part of the learning game.  That’s why our lessons about mindset & character are so valuable. As with all skills, students need to practice taking risks with new information & celebrating productive mistake-making.  In addition to lessons practicing these skills, we need to foster & support the kind of environment that promotes this mindset. Some of the best ways I’ve seen this done and used myself include “My Favorite No,” various growth mindset lessons specific to math - such as Jo Bohler’s “Week of Inspirational Math,” and number talks that focus on peer-to-peer instruction. Students need to hear praise for mistakes that help illustrate, for risking their egos by asking questions and they need to see their teachers champion risk-taking mistake-makers.  

2. Multiple strategies & a plan of attack = perseverance.

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There’s simply no intelligent way to keep trying any tasks without multiple strategies and a protocol for employing them. As a problem solver, I need multiple ways “in” to a problem. These might include guess & check, drawing or modeling, using easier numbers, estimating, listing, organizing with a table, or even working backwards. Additionally, I need a protocol. I need reading strategies to find the important information. I need to find the unknown & discard the irrelevant. I need ways to check my work other than just re-doing a problem. And, finally, I need to use estimation or some other method to see if what I’ve done makes sense.

3. BOTH time alone with a problem AND effective collaboration promote deep think time.

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All students need time to consider a problem by themselves.  They also need specific instruction on how to do thisl. They need to identify the questions they have and mark their confusion.  They need to think about restating the problem in terms meaningful to themselves. Then, they need a chance to explain their thinking to someone else engaged with the problem.  In order to be effective, this collaboration needs to incorporate intentionally taught listening skills and academically respectful language such as offered in the CharacterStrong Curriculum. The focus should be on, “What do I know?”  “How do I know what I know?” “What do you know?” “How is what you know different or the same as what I’m thinking?”  Students need to reach the powerful conclusion for themselves that, most of time, we don’t really understand something deeply until we can discuss it and explain it to (and with) someone else.

4. Targeted questions during the process to guide focus and uncover misconceptions.

Novice (and sometimes not-so-novice) problem solvers need guiding questions to stay focused & figure out where their confusion lies.  As a teacher, each worthwhile learning activity or problem I give students to solve needs my forethought in the form of planned questions. These questions are designed with anticipated misconceptions in mind. What do most students struggle with on this? How will this type of misconception look? What questions will put them back in the problem without simply explaining? These questions can mean the difference between students persisting & simply giving up.

5. Personal reflection time focused on effort and effectiveness.

All too often, in our rush to complete our scope & sequence, we teachers forget to give time & space for personal reflection. All of us need time to think about our efforts & even rate our effectiveness. As a problem solver, I need targeted questions that allow me to un-pack how I thought about a problem and how my efforts worked or didn’t work.  Ideally, this involves some planning or goal setting for my next efforts. Often, this might include inviting feedback from a peer, a mentor, a teacher. I want to know BOTH how I did according to someone else engaged in the learning process AND how I felt I did - and I want evidence.

A final word: This is only a general list of things that have worked for me and it’s very incomplete. I'm sure many more great ideas are out there that have never occurred to me. But, I’ll warn the uninitiated. All of these ideas require planning and all require extra effort, beyond out-of-the-textbook curriculum delivery.

Of course, that should make sense if you think about it.  

Shouldn’t teaching grit to our students require using some ourselves?  


About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools.