How One School Changed Its Math Culture, Starting With Teachers

Students at Two Rivers Public Charter School present piktocharts. (Two Rivers Public Charter School)

Many educators are aware of Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset. The Stanford psychologist has found that the way students think about and approach challenge makes a big impact on their learning. Students who believe that they were born with a certain amount of intelligence that cannot be changed — a condition Dweck calls a fixed mindset — are often afraid to seek out challenging tasks and are resigned to one’s perceived set of abilities. Students who see intelligence as something that can grow and change with effort — known as a growth mindset — tend to persist at difficult tasks, trying new strategies and ultimately performing better in school. Many schools have begun to focus on building growth mindsets in students because of this research.

Helping students develop growth mindsets is made even trickier because mindsets about learning can change depending on context. And unfortunately math class is a time when many students have preconceived notions about their abilities. Many adults, including teachers, grew up receiving negative messages about their math ability and can unintentionally pass on unhelpful messages to students through casual words or actions.

That’s why it’s impressive that educators at Two Rivers Charter School in Washington, D.C. recognized a culture of math fear among the staff and worked hard to change teachers’ relationships to math as part of their broader strategy to improve math achievement. The school’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Jeff Heyck-Williams, described their efforts in an Education Week article:

In August of 2010, we started by listening deeply to our teachers’ math stories. We recognized that if we didn’t start with their learning first, we would never be able to approach the kinds of mindset shifts necessary to impact the learning of students. Teachers—even the art teacher and the pre-school teacher—wrote their math stories, sharing their deepest feelings about math and the people and experiences that led them to those beliefs. Over 65% of the stories that teachers told were negative. When they were students, our teachers had been given messages like “girls aren’t good at math,” “it is OK if you don’t get this, you won’t need it once you get out of school anyway,” and “math is either something you get, or you don’t get.” These messages were pervasive and came from teachers with an affinity towards math as well as teachers who couldn’t stand math. By acknowledging these messages, we brought them to the surface and made teachers aware of the messages that they were explicitly and too often implicitly sending to kids about math.

By starting with the mindsets of teachers, and recognizing that each person has her own mathematical history, Two Rivers was able to empower teachers to deepen their math skills. This professional development in turn helped teachers feel capable of teaching in problem-based ways that stretch student thinking.


Learning and Loving Math: A Problem-Based Approach from Two Rivers Public Charter School on Vimeo.

The Two Rivers Charter School example is a good reminder how so often the culture of particular schools and the attitudes of the adults in the building affect efforts to improve academic outcomes. It also shows that with a concerted effort, the teachers at this school flipped the script on their own math stories, learning the math they teach more deeply, while simultaneously becoming better mentors and guides to students.

How We Got Teachers to Love Math-And Improved Our Math Scores

A few years ago, I left an interview with an elementary school candidate deeply concerned. She was looking to work with us at Two Rivers, a Preschool – 8th Grade urban public charter school in Washington, D.C. In many ways she was the perfect candidate. She had skills in literacy instruction and classroom management.

How One School Changed Its Math Culture, Starting With Teachers 2 November,2016MindShift

  • LovinCommonCore

    I really enjoyed the video! Last year I tried using math circles which is a variation of this strategy but felt something was lacking and haven’t tried it again. This article and video made me see that letting students grapple with new concepts is worth giving it another try. This year I will be more explicit in discussing the problem and possible tools to use. Last year I gave the students the problems and a box of tools and let them go at it. I think the added component of explicit teaching before letting the students grapple with the concept will be more helpful.

    • Jeff Heyck-Williams

      I totally encourage you to try inquiry-based lessons where kids grapple with math. If it useful, check out our resources at learnwithtworivers.org. We have an instructional practice page on problem-based tasks in math with a lesson plan template, lesson plan examples, more videos, and some ideas for planning.

      • Paul Hartzer

        Do you know any video resources of similar quality that are aimed at a high school level? I really love the model and am interested in encouraging my sophomores, but I’m not sure how they’ll respond to seeing children that young. I’d also be interested in how to use this philosophy for older students.

        • Margaret Zheng

          Youcubed.org has good resources. There is an online course for students that features college students in its videos.

          • Paul Hartzer

            Thanks, Margaret. I’m aware of Youcubed, but it definitely warrants more signal boosts. 🙂

          • Jeff Heyck-Williams

            Hi Paul,

            Youcubed is definitely the first place that I would go and the work around complex instruction and mathematical mindsets from Jo Boaler and crew. We also have used a lot of resources from the MARS tasks http://map.mathshell.org/. Two Rivers is a Preschool – 8th Grade. So our resources while adaptable are aimed at that age range, but we do put some resources up open source at http://www.learnwithtworivers.org. I would love to hear how things are going. Best of luck.

        • Katrina Schwartz

          Hi Paul,

          I wrote an article a little while ago about Complex Instruction, which isn’t exactly the same as what Two Rivers is doing, but similarly focuses on offering complex problems that have multiple points of entry and require students to work together. In this article one of the teachers recommends a site for more of these types of complex problems. It’s a not a video, but it might help get you started down the right path for older students.

          https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/05/23/how-a-strengths-based-approach-to-math-redefines-who-is-smart/

          Cheers,
          Katrina Schwartz
          Online Editor, MindShift

  • Staci Sniezek

    Growth mindset and Carol Dweck have been a hot topic at the middle school I teach at, and I see the impact this concept has on students every day. I can see why implementing these same strategies in math class, which is where I think most fixed mindsets exist, is a great place to start when creating change. Two Rivers Charter School is implementing teaching strategies which are very in tune with the way students learn today. Teachers are encouraging students to construct their knowledge based on what they already know, making learning more meaningful for students. By focusing on problem-solving in math, teachers are challenging students abilities and mindsets. Growth mindset theorists will emphasize through struggle students learn best. Growth mindset also involves teachers sharing out their own experiences of failure or struggle, to relate to students and encourage them that all learning is possible. It is clear Two Rivers Charter school’s teachers are exemplifying and modeling important aspects of the learning process with their students!

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