Transforming fixed mindsets towards maths

For a long time, I have held the belief that one of the biggest inhibiting factors when it comes to children making progress in maths is their own lack of confidence. Let’s be honest, almost every child can have a go at writing a story or drawing a picture but when faced with a maths question which involves a concept that they really don’t understand, how do they even make a start? So it is no surprise that many children have a fixed mindset when it comes to maths.

I have always seen one of my biggest roles in teaching maths, therefore, as that of a confidence builder and yet until the last couple of years, without realising it, I was doing certain things in my practice that I believe encouraged a fixed mindset. When I moved to my current school, I made two significant changes to my practice which I had previously only briefly experimented with and the difference it has made to the mindset of the pupils I have taught has been quite striking. Now I can imagine some of you reading this are waiting to hear something radical but I’m afraid there is nothing new about what I am about to reveal. Both approaches have been around for some time but I know that there are many teachers out there who haven’t taken the plunge so I thought I would share my experiences.

What did I do?

I abandoned seating the children in ability based tables and I started letting them choose their own level of challenge in their work. It might not be revolutionary but it was a highly significant change for me and for a number of reasons, it initially took me out of my comfort zone, so much so that after a few weeks, I thought I had made a big mistake. But I stuck with it and I am so happy that I did.

Why had I always sat children in ability groups?

When I look back, the only reasons I can come up with are hardly compelling ones: It was what everyone else did and it made it easier for me to organise resources or to work with a particular ‘ability group’. I had never told the children which ability group they were in but they always knew (not only that, so did their parents!). The children that I had decided were less able tended to have a particularly fixed mindset and why wouldn’t they have? Year after year, they had been sat with other children who also held the view that they couldn’t do maths either. They had lower expectations placed upon them, and because they all sat together, either I or a Teaching assistant would work with them and rarely a day went by where they were truly working independently.

At the other end of the spectrum were those children that I had decided were more able. They also had a fixed mindset: they saw themselves as being good at maths and knew that other children in the class held the same view about them. Many weren’t prepared to take risks because they didn’t want to be seen to get things wrong or to be struggling. I did occasionally move children ‘up’ and ‘down’ and that always ran the risk of parents coming in wanting to know why their child was no longer ‘on the top table’.

When I read that the Sutton Trust went as far as to say that ability grouping can have a negative impact on pupil attainment, I knew it was time to sit up and take notice. I needed to change my practice but would sitting the children in mixed ability tables be enough to really change these fixed mindsets? After all, I would still need to come up with names for the different ability groupings that I had so that they would know which work I had chosen for them to do. It wouldn’t take long for the children to work out which group were ‘the clever ones’ and who were ‘the strugglers’ regardless of the names I came up with.

What more could be done?

I felt that, if I was to truly start tackling these fixed mindsets, more needed to change. Traditionally, I had always set the work for each ‘ability group’. There were times when I didn’t pitch the level of work as appropriately as I had hoped but overall, I liked to think that I had got it right more often than not. But had I really? How many times had I unwittingly prevented a child from going on to achieve at a higher level than I thought they were actually capable of doing? If you set the bar low, of course many children will be ‘successful’ at reaching the standard expected of them but it is amazing what can happen when children are given the opportunity to aim higher.

How many times did I knock a child’s confidence because I made them do a piece of work that they really didn’t understand? I know that my confidence in my ability as a teacher can fluctuate from one day to another (it’s certainly not unusual for me to question my ability as a teacher altogether) so it is only reasonable to expect that children can and do feel the same. What if I allowed children to choose their own level of challenge based upon how they felt on any particular day? Could I trust them to make the most appropriate decisions? I would never know unless I gave it a go.

Starting at a new school gave me an ideal opportunity to confine ability grouping to the past and to allow children to start choosing their own level of challenge in their work. My colleagues in the two other Year 3-4 classes were really open to trialling the same approach so we boldly took the plunge together.

The early days

After 2 or 3 weeks, I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision. What had I done? I had 5 children who seemingly couldn’t do any work at all without me being there to support them and I had just spread them far and wide around the room. All of a sudden, I was having to chase around the classroom like a lunatic in a bid to get any work out of these children while their classmates might have been lucky enough to get a few seconds of my time if they happened to be on my route.

What changed?

Just as I was getting to the point where I was considering giving it up as a bad job and reverting to my old ways, I started to see some real chinks of light. I noticed that there were some really good relationships blossoming around the room. More confident children were getting the opportunity to verbalise their understanding of different concepts to their partners while less confident children were listening, asking questions and learning from them. The quality of interactions appeared to be much greater than what I had been used to seeing in ability grouped tables. I consciously started planning more opportunities for ‘Maths Talk’ in lessons and collaborating in this way has had a really positive effect on the way that the children participate in lessons.

The idea of allowing the children to choose their own independent tasks was warmly received from the beginning. Of course there were occasions (and there still are) when children made choices where the tasks weren’t challenging them enough or were a step too far and I have to admit that at times, I might encourage a child towards a different level of challenge although I always leave the final decision down to them.

As the class got used to this new way of working, I began to make some interesting observations. I remember a child putting his hand up to tell me “I started the middle challenge but I was finding it too easy so I have moved on to the harder one. Is that ok?” Ok? I thought that it was absolutely wonderful. A great example of self-assessment had just taken place and instead of happily carrying on and getting all of his questions right without breaking sweat, the boy decided that he wanted to challenge himself more. I stopped the class and explained what had happened. Before long, children across the class were feeling the freedom to make similar decisions. Sometimes children dropped down to a less challenging task if it really was a step too far for them and the great thing is that they clearly felt comfortable in doing this. There was no stigma attached to it.

What followed next really took me by surprise: occasionally, some of those children who craved my support so much during lessons and seemed incapable of working independently began to feel confident enough to try the middle level of challenge. Sometimes it was a step too far but that wasn’t really the point. They were showing the first signs of developing a growth mindset and that felt like a mighty triumph.

Now this is, of course, purely anecdotal evidence but what reassured me about this approach was that discussions with my Year 3-4 colleagues revealed that they were seeing very similar things happening in their classrooms. Surely that wasn’t a coincidence?

What do the children make of it all?

Part-way through last year, I carried out some pupil interviews with children from all three Year 3-4 classes. When I asked which subjects they preferred, maths kept cropping up. I was intrigued to know why it was so popular and so I dug a little deeper. The children loved to choose their own level of challenge because they were in the best position to know on any particular day just how confident they were feeling about the learning that had taken place. They liked the freedom they were given and the fact that they were taking ownership of their learning.

A couple of months ago, a teaching assistant was carrying out her own pupil interview with a Year 4. The child was asked what his favourite subject was. I can still see his reply now: I love maths. Even if I get it wrong, I still love it. What a marvellous attitude, especially considering that it came from one of the 5 children who only a year earlier didn’t believe that he could do maths without an adult there to help him.

Looking back, I’m so glad that I didn’t give up. It looks like I’m developing my own growth mindset!

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7 thoughts on “Transforming fixed mindsets towards maths

    1. Thank you for sharing this and for raising important issues about ceasing to group children according to flawed notions of ‘ability’. It was both brave and, I believe, pedagogically sound of you to keep going when things seemed to be not ‘working’. Thank goodness you persevered.

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      1. Thank you for your comments Mike. 6 months on from writing the blog, I feel more than ever that this approach is giving children the best opportunity to succeed in maths and the popularity of the subject amongst the class remains as high as ever.

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  1. Something I particularly like in your blog is a sense of humility. As a HoMaths in an 11-16 school I found I learned so much about teaching; of how I needed to focus on students’ learning. It became so important to find problem-solving based starting tasks so everyone could participate in lessons. This, in turn, helped build confidence and confidence helped develop students’ competence. I wish you well in your future teaching.

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    1. Thanks again for your kind words, Mike. I’ve been teaching for 13 years, but I feel that I am probably learning more about teaching and learning than ever before. Being able to collaborate with other teachers online is a fantastic support to me too. The idea of beginning a lesson with some sort of problem is something I have really looked at this year and I believe it has worked well. All the best to you.

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