Posted in: Aha! Blog > Great Minds Texas | Blog > Implementation Support > In Math Instruction, Words Are Just as Important as Numbers
When working with students, choose language that communicates a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset.
When I was in eighth grade, my teacher told me that people are either right brained (creative and artistic) or left brained (math oriented and logical) and then gave us a test to see which one we were. I wasn’t surprised that I scored high as a right-brained person. I loved reading and writing and wasn’t particularly interested in math. My teacher also told me that most girls are right brained and most boys are left brained. I believed these things because my teacher said them. I finished middle school believing I was not a math person. I believed it right up until I got my first teaching job—teaching eighth grade math.
Feeling totally awkward and unqualified, I managed the best I could. The teacher in the classroom next door helped me, and that made me feel more confident. I studied things like area models and strip diagrams so I could better conceptualize what I had previously only memorized. I learned how much I loved making connections and trying to solve hard problems, even when a solution pathway wasn’t immediately obvious. This joy of discovery—and my realization that math is for everyone—made developing a growth mindset in my students a priority for my instructional practice.
My eighth grade teacher had a fixed mindset and fostered that mindset in me. A fixed mindset is a belief that intelligence, creative ability, and talent are traits that we are either born with or born without. This kind of thinking can make you believe that if you’re not a math person by nature, you’ll never be good at math. Mistakes and incorrect answers feel like proof that you aren’t a math person. By contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that our current abilities can be developed and can grow through effort. With a growth mindset, students believe they can do better if they work at it. Failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and rebound with more insight and skill for the next challenge.
Your feedback affects your students’ mindsets.
Consider these two responses to a student who correctly solves 82 – 59.
Mr. Jones: “Wow, Jada, that’s correct! You are so smart!”
Ms. Smith: “Jada, you subtracted 59 from 82 in an efficient way. I notice you’ve been practicing the take from ten strategy.”
While well intended, Mr. Jones’ first response gives fixed mindset praise. This praise sends a message that answering correctly is what’s most important and that being naturally smart is what led Jada to the correct answer. What students internalize when they hear this kind of language is that when they get an incorrect answer, they must not be smart.
Ms. Smith’s growth mindset feedback, however, notes Jada’s choice of an efficient strategy and suggests that practice is what leads to success. The message sent is that both thinking and practice are valued.
Feedback on incorrect answers matters too. To foster a growth mindset, celebrate mistakes as an important part of learning and doing better. Say things like, “You really challenged yourself with this problem. I can’t wait to see which strategy you try next.” Ask students to talk about a mistake they made and what they learned from it. Your thoughtful use of language will develop students who are willing to try tough problems, who are more aware of the strategies they can use, who notice patterns about what works and what doesn’t, and who have the stick-to-itiveness to solve new problems.
Your words can shape students’ beliefs about themselves.
I noticed many of my students saying things that indicated they had the same fixed mindset I had when I was in eighth grade. I began to collect responses to use to cultivate a growth mindset in my class. The following examples include fixed mindset student statements, fixed mindset responses, and the preferred growth mindset responses.
Fixed Mindset Student Statement |
Fixed Mindset Response |
Growth Mindset Response |
This is hard. |
No, it isn’t. You’ve got this. You’re smart. You just need to … |
You can do hard things.
I remember when you thought ___ was hard, and now you do that well. |
I’m not a math person. |
Neither am I, but I learned it, and so can you! |
A math person is someone who tries their best at math. I know if you keep trying, you’ll keep learning. |
I can’t do this. |
Yes, you can. You’re smart. Let’s go over it again. |
I hear you. But I think you forgot the yet. You can’t do this yet.
What can you try? Can you draw something? Maybe that’ll work. If not, you’ll know to try something different next time. |
I don’t know how to do this. |
Let’s go over this again. (Then proceed to explain it the exact same way.) |
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing students get stuck. Because when you figure this out, you’ll have learned something new, and you’re going to feel so proud of yourself. What can you try to get unstuck? |
I'm not good at math. |
Yes, you are. You just need to remember what I taught you. |
Sometimes we notice that we make more mistakes than someone else or that we’re not as fast at solving problems as someone else is. That can make us think we aren’t good at something. Is that how you feel?
Being good at math is about perseverance—sticking with it when it’s tough. |
Your language also shapes your beliefs about students.
Consider this scenario. Before a class observation, a principal says, “Tell me about the students in your class.” As you read the following teacher responses, think about the language used to describe Daniel and how that affects your expectations and beliefs about him.
Ms. Thompson: Daniel is sweet, but he’s a really low performer.
Mr. Evans: Daniel is sweet. He’s working toward proficiency with dividing whole numbers by fractions by using a tape diagram and number lines.
Think about your impression of Daniel in each of these cases. Both responses show affection toward Daniel, but Ms. Thompson states an overall deficit, showing a fixed mindset about his ability. Labeling a student as a low performer can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In contrast, Mr. Evans focuses on Daniel’s growth and effort. This attitude will likely lead to maintaining high expectations for Daniel and to supporting his progress toward proficiency.
Try adopting growth mindset language to describe students when communicating about their academic performance to your principal, to intervention teachers, and to parents.
Fixed Mindset Language |
Growth Mindset Language |
Low students |
Students working toward proficiency |
High students |
Students ready for a challenge |
SPED students |
Students receiving specialized instruction |
Behavior students |
Students working toward a specific behavior goal |
As math educators, we must not get lost in the numbers. Language matters. The words we choose to inform, to explain, to question, to praise, to guide, and to correct can affect our beliefs about students and our behavior toward them. Words can make all the difference in both student and teacher capacity to do better. At Great Minds®, we have a growth mindset. We believe that every child is capable of greatness. Eureka Math TEKS® is designed to help you and your students achieve greatness with math.
Submit the Form to Print
Heather Curry
Heather Curry is a Eureka Math in Sync Virtual Teacher. She is a former math coach from Yelm Community Schools in Washington state.
Topics: Implementation Support