Anxiety, Mindset, and Motivation

On growth mindset

If we are telling students that it is important for them to develop perseverance and grit or grow new dendrites to get smarter, but the system remains stacked against them, is that really a healthy perspective to promote? From the point of view of students of color and historically looted students, does that just sound like a new version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”?

Gutierrez, Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics

“Our brain grows when we make mistakes” is not a helpful message for students. The majority of the time, these student aren’t making mistakes, they are building understanding. Rough drafts are not mistakes and classifying student thinking as a mistake can distract us from what students actually do understand.

Compounding this difference of perspective about growth mindset is our focus on time. We are used to disequilibrium being resolved in a 45 minute class period, or an episode of our favorite sitcom, or between the warm-up and the cool-down, or the pre-test and the post-test. We grow slowly and continuously over time – through consistency and revisions to our thinking mixed with reflection and experience

Growth mindset can be constructive, provided that we recognize its limitations. Instead of telling students their brain grows when they make mistakes, we need to support students in making revisions to their thinking, build from their strengths and enable them the time and support for all students to see and believe in their own brilliance.

How can instructional routines help?

In my early years of teaching, I became aware that my default way of functioning as a teacher was closely aligned to what I experienced in my time as a student. I struggled to try new strategies and get them to stick, being constantly torn between striving to implement new strategies and trying to do no harm to the amazing teenagers under my influence. When trying something new, if it doesn’t go well the first few times, I would resort to more familiar, and less ambitious, methods.

With instructional routines, my students and I committed to working through a set of thoughtfully planned interactions regularly with varying, and carefully selected content. Through this consistency, I was able to reflect and make minor adjustments to the routines – the wording of a question, wait time, when to pair students or allow individual think time –  to make these interactions increasingly effective.

Isn’t this what you think of when you hear about growth mindset? Long term, thoughtful revisions to improve a technique, or approach – not a quick fix of a “mistake.” Let’s model this behavior.

What does anxiety have to do with it?

Being an adolescent is hard. They’re realizing that their parents are not as perfect as they thought, their body is changing, they’re trying to decide how they fit in society and in the social groups at their school. The National Institutes of Health reports that one in four thirteen-eighteen year olds have anxiety, which can be presented as: ADHD, disruptions, off task behavior, shutting down, shouting out, substance abuse, or depression. Understanding the role anxiety plays in behavior is crucial to creating a safe environment.  

Unstructured time and transitions are two primary triggers for students with anxiety. Once anxiety has set in, students working memory declines, making it difficult for them to recall or retain information, initiating a downward spiral for that class period. Routines can be a critical component in preventing the onset of student anxiety and creating a predictable and safe class environment.

Teaching is a stressful job, and anxiety is common among teachers too, impacting our working memory and hindering our ability to be aware of everything happening in our classroom. Like when I am late for work and can no longer remember where I left the car keys, frantically running around the house unable to think clearly. Routines help us too, reducing the cognitive load of every interaction in a lesson and using to a familiar format that’s been adapted to work for your personal style, making space to be able to pay attention to student thinking instead of behavior management.

Bridging from research to action

Thoughtfully selected, developed, or adapted instructional routines, implemented regularly, can help manage student’s anxiety and build on their strengths to authentically develop students confidence and persistence. Over time, teachers build confidence implementing certain routines and student adjust to the expectations of the routines understanding how to find success leading to their development as a mathematician and contributing human being.

I’ll be presenting on this topic with Dylan Kane at NCTM Regionals where we will practice a few routines that allow students to see their own brilliance and discuss many more while considering how they can be adapted to fit your own classroom.


Come join the discussion in our session at NCTM Regionals in Seattle:

Anxiety, Mindset, and Motivation: Bridging from Research to Action
November 30, 2018 | 9:45-11:00 a.m. in Washington State Convention Center, 606

Developing a supportive class culture and growth mindset can reduce students’ anxiety, allowing learners to engage thoughtfully with each other around mathematics. Participants will discuss the challenges of shifting mindsets, experience routines as learners and leave with resources and ideas to implement these structures in their classroom.

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Little Fish / Big Pond / Why Coding

This post bugged me. I could go on and on about why. I think I found it disturbing because I agree with some of the points, but there is something fundamentally wrong about the whole post. Something that I think is hard to see unless you know your students and how to appeal to them.

I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Golaith which is about perceived underdogs compared to who is most likely to actually be successful. There is a chapter where Gladwell compares students pursuing STEM degrees in the top, middle, lowest thirds  based on SAT scores at Hartwick College, a small college in New York, to the top, middle, lowest thirds of students at Harvard. Even the lowest third at Harvard scored better on the SAT then then top third of students at Hartwick. The interesting thing is that the top third in both schools were equally as likely to complete their degrees, similarly the middle & bottom thirds had the same likelihood of completing a STEM degree from either  school.

The reason being that students perception of their ability is a large factor in their success (also, standardized testing doesn’t measure anything meaningful). Students are more likely to be successful as a “top” student at a “lower” school then as a “low” student at a “top” school, because they will see themselves as being “smart”. Parents are setting their child up for struggle when they encourage their teenager to go to the most selective schools.

This is obvious to me after being in a classroom for 10 years, but I couldn’t verbalize my thinking until reading this chapter.

So, what is the “Big Deal” about coding? 2 things:

1) Students currently value technology and it is mysterious to them. Their parents don’t know how to code (mostly) they have seen all the recent movies where some fancy smart hacker guy saves the day. They know the stories about Mark Zukerburg & they use Snapchat and have heard about Evan Speigel’s recent offer. There’s momentum here. It’s new & its exciting & there is a lot of potential to turn it into a career. More importantly, they think that only really smart people can code. Logically, in their minds, this means if they can code, then they must be really smart. Then, if they are really smart they will feel capable of completing a college degree which leads to a greater willingness to apply and increased likelihood of their completion.

2) It has great educational value. Coding is one of many ways to expose students to logical reasoning, to break a task down into small, manageable pieces, problem solving. It provides immediate feedback, teaches persistence, and how to learn from failure…All of the critical elements of being successful. I could go on & on, but you have probably heard all of the hoopla here.

So my big problem with the article linked in the beginning of this post is that it focuses on coding. Coding is just the vehicle. I agree that it won’t always be, but right now it is a tool that I can use to convince my students that they can be successful and their perception of themselves is what creates their future.