Jo Boaler, growth mindset, and a trip to Oxford!

Blog: Suzanne Cook, Primary Development Lead

Jo Boaler, growth mindset, and a trip to Oxford!

Posted: 19/12/14

Yesterday the whole of the Maths Mastery team journeyed to Oxford for a presentation on teaching mathematics for a growth mindset, led by Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, Jo Boaler. It was an inspiring and energising afternoon that reaffirmed our belief that every pupil can excel in mathematics, a belief that underpins our partnership.

The presentation began by looking at some of the results of the PISA assessments of 2012. An interesting statistic to emerge from these PISA assessments was that the UK was the 2nd highest country in the world for ‘memorisers’ that is a huge proportion of our students believe that the way to learn maths is by memorising. The implications of this are worrying when we consider that the highest achievers are those that make connections between different areas of maths and think about the ‘big ideas’ rather than memorise a set of facts to regurgitate by rote. After all isn’t being a mathematician all about reasoning rather than memorising?

This brought us on to consider the kinds of tasks we set pupils. Many pupils believe that maths is all about answering a set of questions and getting the answer right, no doubt because the majority of lessons revolve around working through a set of questions that you get right or wrong. We spent the next part of the conference discussing how tasks could be opportunities for learning rather than simply a set of questions to demonstrate existing knowledge.

Of course, the afternoon would not have been complete without the opportunity for us to do some maths ourselves! After exploring a sequence represented pictorially with multi-link cubes, reflecting individually and then discussing how we could see the shapes ‘growing’, it was eye-opening to hear how many different ways there were of interpreting this pattern.

growth mindset

We then watched a clip of a group of students working on the same activity. It was inspiring to see how engrossed they were in their discussion and it was a great chance to think about what really engages students in mathematics. Here’s what we came up with:
• Students having ownership of the problem
• Students having the opportunity to construct a solution of their own
• Students being allowed to explore their ideas without being told they were ‘wrong’
• Students valuing each other’s’ ideas and having a safe space to debate
• Students being free from the restrictions of a specific method imposed by the teacher

Although we may still have a long way to go, we are moving in the right direction with new National Curriculum requirements for all pupils to be taught the same content at the same time. There is a renewed emphasis on problem solving and pupils showing a depth of understanding of the content for the year group rather than whether pupils are able to complete work for the next year group.  And this focus on understanding is not at the expense of ‘practice’.  As Charlie Stripp at the NCETM has said, secure progress is achieved when we develop “procedural fluency and a deep understanding of concepts in parallel”.

Overall, the workshop really brought home the need to include inquiry opportunities that will foster a positive learning environment and a growth mindset towards mathematics. We need to celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities and give students the chance to reason and think deeply about the maths that they are doing.