Many educators work hard to make students feel that the classroom is a place of learning, and that means making mistakes, rethinking strategies, and learning from setbacks. Based on Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, teachers encourage students to see their intelligence as something malleable, that changes and grows, not a fixed asset assigned at birth. Despite the popularity of these ideas in education, there are still systemic practices and requirements that undermine the message at every turn.
Stanford education professor Jo Boaler has been one of the most outspoken advocates of growth mindset, particularly in math education, where students often have fixed mindsets about their abilities. Boaler says she has seen the damage in adults and students who believe they don’t have “math brains” or that they’ll never be good at math. To counteract these negative messages, Boaler encourages teachers to use open-ended, visual math tasks, and to mix content with mindset messages. She’s even created a website, YouCubed, with videos, research, and classroom activities to help teachers get started.
Boaler teaches Stanford students, high achievers who often felt they had to be perfect to get into one of the most selective universities in the country. Through personal conversations with her students, Boaler began to see how being labeled “gifted” or “smart” as children stunted even these bright and successful young people. When growth mindset was still a fairly new concept in the education world, many teachers of gifted children saw its potential with that population, who often feel they’ve gained a special status for being smart. It’s not uncommon for gifted students to fear failure more than other students because they feel they have more to lose.
Boaler made a short video with Citizen Film of Stanford students reflecting on how they were labeled as students. It’s hard to feel sorry for Stanford students, many of whom have had amazing opportunities not offered to peers precisely because someone recognized them as smart, but their experiences do call into question the practice of labeling in the first place.