Saturday, October 17, 2015

Starting the Year Off Right: Growth Mindset

I always heard teachers talk about doing days of team building, mindset, goal setting, and other "soft" skills at the beginning of the year. And, yes, I would half-heartedly do something like this because I felt like I had to. But it was half-hearted, and I was concerned I was losing valuable math hours.

Things change. I had a pretty yucky year last year. To be fair, it was a tough crew, and every teacher that taught them had the same feelings. It was like we were playing Tug of War... the whole class was at one end and I was at the other dragging them through the content. They didn't like group work. They didn't like projects. They didn't like lectures. They didn't like pretty much anything. Why? This group (for the most part) struggled. If something was hard; they disengaged. They quit. Enter behavior issues. This wasn't a new development. It had been happening for years. As a class, they had lots of skill gaps, so when a new topic was presented that hit on one of those weaknesses, a lot of students had very negative emotional responses. It was a class that basically believed they couldn't, and so they wouldn't.

At the beginning of this school year, I vowed I would do something to help my kids have a better mindset about mathematics and learning in general. Enter two days of growth mindset work. I know. You're talking about the down-to-business math teacher here giving two whole days for "soft" work. And, to be frank, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Here's how it went down:


Marshmallow Challenge. Just assign it like any other group project. Be explicit. Give kids the rules and materials. Set a timer on the board and let them go. Most groups will fail (their towers will fall). LET THEM. By the way, this ties in nicely with geometry curriculum since it gives you a chance to eventually discuss the strength of a triangular structure.

After the Marshmallow Challenge (don't clean up yet), show the following two videos:

Khan Academy: You Can Learn Anything


The Power of Belief

Afterward, we made observations about each group's tower. Usually there is at least one tower that stands per class. Why did it stand? How was their planning and building process different from the other groups' processes? Let the kids make the observations. I did have to prompt mine sometimes to get them to notice the important things. Here were the takeaways I wanted:
  • Groups that stood largely had triangular structures.
  • Groups that stood went for structural integrity rather than height.
  • Groups that stood started with the marshmallow (the weight) and built the structure underneath to support it. Not vice-versa.
Students recorded these observations in notebook. We cleaned up the mess. End of Day 1.


As soon as students were seated, we review the takeaways from Day 1. This is done in the vein of "What did we learn from yesterday and how can we apply it today?". The same groups repeat the same marshmallow challenge. Here's what will happen - almost every group's tower will stand. I had 1 or 2 towers not stand over the course of the entire day, but that was 4 periods - pretty good. Even in the 2 or so that didn't stand, they were dramatically improved.

After the marshmallow challenge, I didn't declare a winner. You can if you want. We were all winners, though (and not in the give every kid a trophy way - I hate that). You see, we'd failed, we'd made observations about how to improve, and we'd used those observations to be more successful. The culture that this activity builds is awesome.

As a final activity, I talked a little bit about growth mindset (read: gave a motivational speech) and then we filled out a growth mindset handout.

Here it is:

Handout was lovingly borrowed from Dallas at

Months later, kids (even kids I don't teach!!!) are still talking about growth mindset and ending sentences like "I don't know what I'm doing"... yet. (By the way, the power of "yet" was part of my motivation speech). It's a classroom culture changer and maybe the best two days I've spent this year.


1 comment:

  1. Kelly,

    I love this! What a wonderful example of how a little time to meet kids where they are can change a mindset and the experience they will have in math this time. Thank you for sharing this.