Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math
Book Preface
One of my former Stanford students teaches fourth grade in the South
Bronx, an area of New York City with many underserved,
underachieving minority students. Her students invariably believe
they are bad at math, and if you looked at their past performance, you
might be tempted to think so too. And yet, after one year in her class,
her fourth graders became the #1 fourthgrade class in the state of
New York: 100% of them passed the state math test, with 90% of them
earning the top score. And this is just one of many examples of how all
students can learn math.
When people think that some kids just can’t do math, that success in
math is reserved for only certain kids, thought of as “smart,” or that it’s
just too late for kids who haven’t had the right background, then they
can easily accept that many students fail math and hate math. In fact,
we have found that many teachers actually console their students by
telling them not to worry about doing poorly in math because not
everyone can excel in it. These adult enablers—parents and teachers
alike—allow kids to give up on math before they’ve barely gotten
started. No wonder more than a few students simply dismiss their own
poor performance by declaring: “I’m not a math person.”
Where do parents, teachers, and students get the idea that math is just
for some people? New research shows that this idea is deeply
embedded in the field of mathematics. Researchers polled scholars (at
American universities) in a range of disciplines. They asked them how
much they thought that success in their field depended on fixed,
innate ability that cannot be taught, as opposed to hard work,
dedication, and learning. Of all the STEM fields (science, technology,
engineering, and math), math scholars were the most extreme in
emphasizing fixed, innate ability (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland,
2015). Other researchers are finding that many math instructors begin
their courses by referring to students who have the aptitude and those
who do not. One college instructor, on the first day of an introductory
college course, was heard to say, “If it’s not easy for you, you don’t
belong here” (Murphy, Garcia, & Zirkel, in prep). If this message is
passed down from generation to generation, no wonder students are
afraid of math. And no wonder they conclude they’re not math people
when it doesn’t come easily.
But when we begin to see evidence that most students (and maybe
almost all students) are capable of excelling in and enjoying math, as the following chapters show, it is no longer acceptable that so many
students fail math and hate math. So what can we do to make math
learning happen for all students? How can we help teachers and
children believe that math ability can be developed, and then show
teachers how to teach math in a way that brings this belief to life?
That’s what this book is about.
In this unique and wonderful book, Jo Boaler distills her years of
experience and her powerful wisdom to show teachers exactly how to
present math work, structure math problems, guide students through
them, and give feedback in a way that helps students toward a “growth
mindset” and keeps them there. Boaler is one of those rare and
remarkable educators who not only know the secret of great teaching
but also know how to give that gift to others. Thousands of teachers
have learned from her, and here’s what they say:
“Throughout my schooling years …I was left feeling stupid and
incapable of doing [math] …I cannot tell you the relief I now have
that I can learn math myself, and I can teach students that they
can too.”
“[You have] helped me think about the transition to common core
and how to help my students develop a love and curiosity for
math.”
“I was searching for a process of learning math that would change
the attitude of students from dislike to enjoy …this was the
change I needed.”
Imagine your students joyfully immersed in really hard math
problems. Imagine them begging to have their mistakes discussed in
front of the class. Imagine them saying, “I am a math person!” This
utopian vision is happening in classrooms around the world, and as
you follow the advice in this book, you may well see it happening in
your classroom too.
Carol Dweck
Professor of psychology and author of
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
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November 4, 2020 
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