A growth mindset means embracing challenge and mistakes


  • Many students shy away from challenging schoolwork and get discouraged quickly when they make mistakes. These students are at a significant disadvantage in school—and in life more generally—because they end up avoiding the most difficult work.
  • Successful entrepreneurs make more mistakes and learn from their mistakes.
  • Making mistakes is one of the most useful ways to learn in math. Our brains develop when we make a mistake and think about the mistake. This brain activity doesn’t happen when people get work correct.
  • To see similar videos about growth mindset in math, sign up for Professor Jo Boaler’s course, How to Learn Math, and check out youcubed.org.

As most teachers are well aware, many students shy away from challenging school work and get discourage quickly when they make mistakes. These students are at a significant disadvantage in school and in life more generally because they end up avoiding the most difficult work, which also tends to be the most productive. Let's hear more about the importance of mistakes from Stanford professor, Jo Boaler.

Professor Jo Boaler, Mathematics Education Expert, Stanford University: So recently a New York Times columnist Peter Sims wrote a really compelling piece about the critical role of mistakes in innovation and design thinking, and he analyzed the differences between more and less successful entrepreneurs, and he found that the successful ones basically make more mistakes, and they learn from those mistakes, and that learning set them on the path to huge success.

But another New York Times columnist and best-selling author of the book, Better by Mistake, Alina Tugend, has written correctly, in my view, that we are raising a generation of children who are terrified of blundering, of failing, of even sitting in the discomfort of not knowing something for a few minutes.

So what we're finding from research is that when students make a mistake, I'm thinking that this is kind of a core mistake, not an error, such as a numerical slip, but when they make a mistake about an idea in math, two sparks happen—first when they make the mistake, and then again when they think about the mistake, and that doesn't happen when people get work correct.

So this was stunning to me, and the reason is, it turns out that making mistakes is the most useful thing to be doing, the very most useful thing in math, but students often feel really bad, crushed even, if they make a mistake in math. They think it means that they're not a math person, but it turns out it's really the most useful thing they can be doing.

Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive posterror adjustments. Psychological Science, 22, 1484-1489.
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