Math? Yes, You Can! Fostering a Growth Mindset

“Why is it that as a society we’re willing to freely admit that we’re not competent mathematicians but would disguise any struggle we had with being literate? What if we decided that numeracy and literacy are both languages we should be fluent it?” 
Leslie Minton, What If Your ABCs Were Your 123s?

How society views math ability

At many of my workshops, I tell a version of a scenario Leslie Minton outlines in the first chapter of her book What if Your ABCs Were Your 123s? It goes something like this: Suppose you are standing around talking with a group of folks at a cocktail party. Someone laments about the difficulty they have planning and executing their household budget. They comment that they’re “just not good at math.” Everyone in the group laughs appreciatively, and soon people are sharing their own “I’m not good at math” stories. It’s as if “I can top that one!” is a badge of honor. Contrast that with a similar scenario: Someone in the circle asks if anybody read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the upcoming election. Someone laughs and chimes in, “No, newspapers aren’t really useful to me. I’ve just never been any good at reading.” Imagine the reaction. I’m thinking of a shocked silence, followed by murmured comments as the group awkwardly disbands and drifts away.

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The idea that it’s okay to be bad at math is NOT okay. So how do we turn this ship around? Enter growth mindset.

Carol Dweck introduced us to “fixed” and “growth” mindset in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessIf you would like a quick introduction to her research and findings, take 10 minutes to watch this TED Talk in which she explains the power of Not Yet. She concludes her talk with a powerful call to action: Let’s not waste any more lives, because once we know that abilities are capable of such growth, it becomes a basic human right for children, all children, to live in places that create that growth, to live in places filled with yet.” 

There is no such thing as a “math brain”

Fast-forward ten years and growth mindset is a hot topic in math education circles. Last week I attended CAMT (Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching) and Jo Boaler, a mathematics educator out of Stanford University and co-founder of, gave a keynote address. She spoke about the importance of our words and messages, the brain research supporting the value of a growth mindset, and ways to “open up” math for all learners. Her book, Mathematical Mindsets, is a best-selling handbook for teachers and parents who are looking for practical ways to improve math instruction and boost achievement. If you are not familiar with Jo’s work, I highly recommend that you view her TED Talk and then visit for a wealth of free resources, including brain research, posters, lessons, and so much more. She also conducts online courses for both teachers and students titled How To Learn Math. The student course is free, while there is a charge for the teacher course.

Charting a course for change

I am a big believer in having a focus for personal professional development, and one year my personal PD focus area was growth mindset. I had dabbled in it previously, but that year I was all in. That year, I work exclusively with struggling students, and who better to benefit from understanding how struggle and failure can actually change the brain? Here was my plan:

  • During the summer, I read and studied Mindsets in the Classroom, by Mary Cay Ricci, and Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets. These books would be resources I’d use throughout the year. By the end of the school year they were dog-eared and worn!
  • I kept a mindset journal with ideas that I wanted to implement with my students.
  • I viewed all the professional development I participated in throughout the year through the lens of growth mindset. For example, I attended a session on mathematical discourse, and I looked for ways to connect that learning to my work with growth mindset.
  • Because it’s important to teach my students the brain research behind the mindset theory, I gathered resources to help with that (see the links to some videos below).
  • My first week’s lesson plans focused on growth mindset and what math learning should look like in the Math Lab.
  • Finally, I knew that if I was going to create a culture of growth mindset (or anything else, for that matter), it had to be visible on a daily basis. This couldn’t be something I talked about the first week and then never mentioned again. I used my mindset journal to document the ways my students and I grew in our understanding of growth mindset and the results of our new learning.

It was an exciting journey—one that benefitted me and my students!


Class Dojo’s series of growth mindset videos
Growth Mindset Video (2:31, simplified explanation of brain research)
Growth Mindset Animation (3:50, uses the context of the Tortoise and the Hare)
You Can Learn Anything (1:30, Khan Academy video)
How the Brain Learns (3:37, includes emotional and physical factors as well) 
Your Brain is Plastic
 (4:06, suited for older students)

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  1. I am a Math Specialist, and work with two schools. I loved reading this post! My mindset experience started 2 summers ago leading an online book study for a group of teachers in my school. We started with Mindset, by Carol Dweck. Last summer, my teachers asked for another mindset book. They chose Mindsets in the Classroom because they wanted something directly related to the classroom. This past school year, I lead a Mindset team in my school. These teachers had been a part of the book study and were using mindset lessons in their classrooms. We presented in staff meetings throughout the year to share how easily mindset could be incorporated into their daily lessons. We have used many of the resources that you described in your post. This year we are adding in the “With Math I Can” resources. I shared those with my teachers in the spring and they were eager to work them into their plans. We have also used the companion resource book to Mindsets in the Classroom. The lessons and activities referenced in the book are ready to use in the companion book. I can’t wait to see what others share, as I am always looking for new mindset ideas.

    1. I love this, Tiffany! You all were so methodical and consistent in your approach to changing the culture in your school, and I’m sure it’s paid off in big ways. I’ll have to check out the companion to Mindsets in the Classroom!

  2. This is great, Donna! It drives me CRAZY that parents still make excuses and that my students, as young as 7 or 8 years old, are already bringing those same mindsets with them to my classroom. I would love to have a handout (like your story above) to send home to parents during the first week of school that asks them to keep an open mind and positive approach and WHY that is so important for their children’s progress!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Mrs. Beattie’s Classroom

  3. I’m currently reading Mathematical Mindsets and can’t put it down. It’s fascinating! I especially like chapter 7 on tracking and grouping. I co-taught in a fifth grade math class last year and within a few months the classroom teacher and I were discussing the possibility of heterogeneous grouping for the next year rather than the traditional (at our school) 5th grade homogeneous math classes. We experienced many of the challenges discussed in this chapter. The classroom teacher made her decision to group heterogeneously next year before I started this book, but it’s validating to see the research in black and white. It was interesting to read that tracking is not good for the higher end students either. I am also going to read Good Questions Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction by Mariian Small. I am especially interested in getting better at developing open questions and parallel tasks. Are you going to lead a book talk for either of the books you are reading like you did previously? I would be interested in participating if you do.

  4. I teach third grade math and science and was fascinated by Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets book. I was so excited to discover that the app “Classroom Dojo” came out with some wonderful short videos for students that discuss the power of growth mindset and the power of “yet”. I used the entire series with my third graders last year and they loved them. I even sent the link to parents who were also able to make connections in their lives. My students begged to watch them again!

  5. I love this article it really helps me rethink my math skills. I hate math but I know that with practice and training my mind, I can improve the skills and accomplish a lot more in the subject. I feel that if I just keep doing more and more activities now my mind will be a lot better, and focused on the proper way to do better and achieve more.

  6. I am a agh interventionist for 3rd – 5th graders. I found this book last summer after spending a year just trying to incorporate the growth mindset. I love it! I got all the elementary math interventionists in my district to use this book for a book study meanwhile I have been teaching it.
    I have a effort meter that uses growth mindset terms that the kids evaluate themselves daily. At the end of each month we come up with a growth mindset goal to attempt for the next month. I constantly stop a student if they fall into the trap of making a fixed mindset statement for ex., “I just can’t do this math.” I then have them say yet! “It may take me longer than others, but I will do it!” I also stop the group if I notice a student really embracing the growth mindset!
    Last year I had my students answer a quick questionnaire the last week of school that one question asked something like: “what is something you learned this year about yourself?” They replied “I am stronger than the math!” It made my whole year worth it.

    It has definitely been a game changer! As a 22 year veteran and 15 year math interventionist, it has helped me revamp my teaching! I look forward to reading your blog this summer!

  7. Thanks for the post and all the great resources. I’m just beginning to learn about and incorporate growth mindset. I grew up thinking I couldn’t do math but got my MEd in elementary ed with a math specialty because the program was grant funded and free. Because of the wonderful professor I learned as an adult that I could learn math. Here’s a great video to add to your toolbox.

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