Kids are funny creatures. Sometimes it's hard to remember what it was like to be their age.
Crystal has been scratching her head trying to figure out the disconnect between math and her four kids — Ariel, Jake, Janelle, and Jenessa.
When it comes to their math assignments, Crystal says, “my children are super smart and seem to catch on quick, but they lack the confidence at times to implement and believe they can actually do it.”
It can be hard to understand why a smart child would lack self-confidence in any subject.
Even though Crystal can coach them into pursuing the right answer, she realizes this isn’t a sustainable practice or a healthy attitude to cultivate in her kids.
Keeping her kids motivated is only part of Crystal’s problem.
Ariel is five and Jenessa is nine, and their older siblings Janelle and Jake are 10 and 12, respectively.
“It’s difficult to teach all of them since they are all at such different learning stages,” she says, adding that one of her kids “has an auditory processing disorder, and another has ADHD.”
Not only are her kids at different development and learning stages, but two of them are likely facing some additional challenges in their math learning.
Like most parents, Crystal knows that kids are resilient and can be coaxed into practically anything if it’s fun.
She suspects that “making [math] fun for very outdoor-active kids,” is the key to finding a solution.
These challenges are not unique to Crystal; most parents are trying to tackle at least one of these issues themselves.
Her instincts are telling her that making math fun for her kids is the key, and she’s right. But that’s only part of the answer.
Keeping kids motivated is a daily challenge for parents.
Whether it’s a necessary chore like brushing teeth or an exciting activity like putting on boots for a snow day, it’s hard to keep kids on task.
When kids struggle with certain academic subjects, it’s easy to understand why they aren’t motivated to do their schoolwork.
Even as adults, we know we avoid the things we dislike.
It’s not a coincidence that the tasks we put in the ‘dislike’ category are often things we think we’re ‘bad’ at doing.
But according to Crystal, her kids aren’t bad at math. So why do they lack the confidence or motivation to do math work?
One clue can be found in the distinction between two terms: a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.”
These terms were first developed by psychologist Carol Dweck, and have helped educators understand — and motivate — their students better.
You can think of a mindset as a self-fulfilling prophecy that relates to any part of your life.
A fixed mindset is a belief that certain aspects about you — whether positive or negative — simply will not change.
Beliefs like “I’m smart,” or “I’m dumb,” are examples of a fixed mindset.
“I’m bad at math,” is a more specific version of a fixed mindset attitude. Sadly, many of us grew up believing that about ourselves, simply because we didn’t instantly grasp a math concept.
You might not even be aware that you hold a particular mindset because it’s so ingrained in your thinking.
According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.”
Dweck’s research suggests that fixed mindset students may learn less and avoid challenges.
When students with fixed mindsets fail at something, they see it as an unchangeable inevitability that cannot be overcome.
Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
Students who embrace growth mindsets view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.
“Understanding the power of mistakes is critical,” explains the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
“Children and adults everywhere often feel terrible when they make a mistake in math.
“They think it means they are not a math person, because they have been brought up in a performance culture (Boaler, 2014) in which mistakes are not valued — or worse, they are punished.
“In a study, Gabriele Steuer and her colleagues looked at the climate of math classrooms to consider the impact of ‘mistake friendly’ or ‘mistake unfriendly’ environments on students’ reactions to errors and the amount of effort they would put into classes (Steur et al., 2013).
“They found that when students perceived their classroom as mistake friendly...they increased their effort in their work.”
In short, mindsets have shown to influence learning behaviors and outcomes.
Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up easily because they don’t think they can change a predetermined outcome. (“I’m bad at math, so there’s no way I can learn this new concept,” or “I’m smart, so things should always come naturally to me.”)
Students with a growth mindset are more likely to persevere through challenges because they know failure is not a final defeat. (“I might not get the answer right away, but I know making mistakes is part of learning.”)
For parents like Crystal who are teaching their kids math, it's important to understand these distinctions to begin changing how they talk to their kids about their abilities.
Saying “You’re so smart,” may sound positive, but it reinforces a fixed mindset attitude.
Instead, parents can cultivate a growth mindset in their kids by saying, “You’re such a hard worker,” or “I’m so proud of you for working through that problem.”
Cultivating a growth mindset isn’t a quick and easy process, but Elephant Learning can be that critical tool parents need to start the journey.
Before starting on Elephant Learning, Crystals’ kids lacked confidence in their ability to learn new things. They wanted to avoid negative feelings associated with a wrong answer.
They (understandably) wanted to preserve their self-image — their fixed mindset — as “smart kids.”
Fortunately, Elephant Learning dispenses with many teaching pitfalls that reinforce that fixed mindset and instead cultivates growth mindset attitudes.
First, Elephant Learning presents each child with a series of math puzzles to assess their individual strengths and weaknesses.
If a child demonstrates that they’ve mastered a math concept, Elephant Learning will proceed to more challenging content.
It will not force them to repeat things they’ve already learned.
That may sound simple, but research shows how critical it is to keep kids motivated.
It’s called mastery learning, “a system where students are not required to do further work on a unit once they have been certified as mastering it,” according to Douglas MacGregor.
He continues, “This method is effective in building struggling students’ confidence, and developing intrinsic motivation and a willingness to take the risks necessary to reach challenging goals (e.g., Anderson, 1994; Guskey, 2010).
“Other researchers agree. Stipek and colleagues (1998) explain that ‘a mastery orientation is associated with more positive emotions and enjoyment and few negative emotions.’”
Feedback is another critical part of the math learning journey.
If a child solves a math puzzle correctly on Elephant Learning, their animated avatar smiles, they hear a bell, and a voice says “Correct!” Positive feedback is a motivator for kids of all skill levels.
If a child does not successfully solve a math puzzle, they don’t hear “Wrong.”
Instead, they hear “Try again!” in an encouraging tone.
Knowing what we know about a growth mindset — the ability to persevere — this nuanced prompt is an important feature of Elephant Learning.
“I am excited to see them thrive and learn to love math!” exclaims Crystal. After only three months of playtime, each of her kids has mastered between one and three years of math concepts.
The app offers each child age-appropriate games that challenge them to use math to problem solve a puzzle. That might include grouping animated objects, shading in images, or dragging an item along a number line.
Each child has their own learning profile on the app. Crystal can login and see where each child is struggling, and read Elephant Learning tips on how to reinforce those concepts offline.
She doesn’t have to worry about overlooking a child’s needs, or trying to design a unique math curriculum for each child.
Her kids aren’t avoiding math anymore. In fact, they’re averaging over an hour of playtime on the app each week. They only need 30 minutes each week to achieve lasting math confidence.
If you’re trying to juggle the needs of multiple children, Elephant Learning can be the key motivator for their math learning. It can also help cultivate the positive attitude of a growth mindset.
That mindset is something they’ll carry with them into adulthood, their relationships, and careers.