Bagels and Math

I wrote the following blog post for a pedagogy course I’m taking this quarter. We were tasked with recounting an experience we witnessed or had ourselves that reflected fixed and/or growth mindsets to learning. Enjoy!

My favorite breakfast is a bagel and cream cheese. To feed this habit, every couple of weeks I stop by a local bagel place and pick up a half dozen–3 cranberry and 3 blueberry. Last week, as I was standing in line to place my order, a dad and his two daughters walked in. The dad and the youngest were in the middle of a conversation about school:

Daughter: I’m bad at math
Dad: No you’re not. You’re smart.
Daughter: No, I can’t do math.
Dad: No, you’re smart. I can do math so you can do math.
Daughter: I’m bad at math! Why can’t you just support me?!
(this girl had some sass)

Years of conversations like this came flooding back to me. I was this girl. I was this girl until I was a senior in high school. Sometimes, I’m still this girl.

Since the 1970s, psychologist Carol Dweck has researched human motivation, looking at how people overcome difficulties. She developed the idea of fixed versus growth mindsets. According to Dweck, people that have a fixed mindset view intelligence as an innate characteristic that doesn’t change, so that academic success is limited by how “smart” you are. Those who have a growth mindset see the key to success in effort and hard work; intelligence isn’t something you either have or don’t, but is instead something that can be cultivated and grown.

Like the young girl I encountered at the bagel shop, for much of my young life I had a fixed mindset. As a third grader learning multiplication, I struggled a bit. I declared myself to be bad at math. When in junior high I got my first D on a writing assignment, I decided I couldn’t write. This thinking followed me around throughout elementary, junior, and early high school. Things finally began to change when I joined my high school’s cross country team as a sophomore. I had never been an athlete. When I first started running, I was really bad. I was sore for weeks on end. When I didn’t see immediate improvement I said it was because I wasn’t athletic. I didn’t think of running as a skill that needed to be developed; I saw it as something that you could do or you could not do.

Many off-season cross country runners join their school’s track and field team for the spring. I did the same. I was slow. And everyone could see how slow I was (tracks are the worst). Because I was the only upperclasswoman on the distance team my junior year, I ran in league finals against the top runners from the other schools in our league. They were very good. I crushed that race. I didn’t win, and I came in dead last, but I improved my 2-mile time by over 2 minutes (for those who aren’t runners, that’s a lot). It seemed like my hard work was, just maybe, finally starting to pay off. That summer, as I trained with my team for the fall cross country season, I made goals for myself, I focused and worked hard at improving my running. It worked. I was voted team captain. I ran on the varsity girls’ team. I came to see that, just as I had to work hard to improve at and develop my running skills, I needed to apply the same kind of effort to those areas of school that I struggled with (which, at that point, was most things).

With that realization, I moved from a fixed to a growth mindset–from I can’t to not yet; from hating math to excelling on it when I took the GRE; from being a B/C-range writer to doing it as a central part of my career.

I was so tempted to turn around and say something to that little girl. To tell her that, though she might not be great at math yet, if she works at it, and maybe works at it really hard, she’ll get better. I wanted to say: I used to feel the exact same way! For years and years and years. It stunted my learning and kept me from pursuing opportunities. You’ll get there. Just maybe not yet. I didn’t say anything (I mean, did you hear her sass? I didn’t know if I could handle getting yelled at by a 10-year-old at 6:30 in the morning). But, I hope she figures it out. I hope she has a teacher or a parent, a friend or a coach, that can show her that we might not always be good at things on the first try – that we can’t do math yet, but with hard work, determination, and a commitment to growth, we can.