March 28, 2022

Ep. 62 – Dr. Jo Boaler – Limitless Mind: Building Kids Brains Beyond Barriers

  • The difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
  • 4 careful considerations for nurturing a growth mindset - struggle, smart, speed, and synergy.
  • The trouble with ‘ability groups’, timed tests, and IQ.

Until the 21st century, we thought skills and capacities discovered in childhood set the standard for adulthood. We assumed people grew from a ‘fixed mindset’, giving way to phrases such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Ongoing discoveries in neuroscience reveal that not only can we teach old dogs, but that the new tricks are the ongoing path to brain growth.

In this episode, Stanford professor and author Dr. Jo Boaler talks about our limitless minds and how our brains and our lives are highly adaptable when we welcome a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

Episode Guest

Dr. Jo Boaler

Dr. Jo Boaler is a world leader in education, expanding the scope and depth of student learning potential. She’s a professor of education and equity at Stanford University and the faculty director of YouCubed, a free online teaching resource serving over 230 million students around the world and focused on the teaching of math.

Dr. Boaler is also a bestselling author, and in her newest book, Limitless Mind she describes the impact of outdated education beliefs in classroom teaching and methods for reaching our boundless learning potential.

Additional Resources:


Ep.62 – Dr. Jo Boaler – Limitless Mind: Building Kids Brains Beyond Barriers

Rachel Cram – Well, good morning, Jo. Thank you so much.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Good morning,

Rachel Cram – Thank you so much for giving me your time in what I know is precious moments for you right now. You’ve got an urgency of getting a new curriculum out to the state of California. And I know it’s pressing.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes, a new mathematics framework in California, which I’m helping to work towards.

Rachel Cram – How’s that going for you?

Dr. Jo Boaler – How’s it going? Pretty rocky actually. We know that there’s a lot of math failure and underachievement in the US and in California in particular and we’re proposing to make maths more engaging, to open up more pathways so we don’t write children off at a young age, and we’re getting a lot of pushback from people who want to keep math the same.

Rachel Cram – We weren’t really prepared to talk about this right now, but it’s interesting to me. Can you give a quick synopsis on why you think people want to keep it the same?

Dr. Jo Boaler – One of the big push backs is we are trying to tackle the problems with sorting kids into different pathways. We know that in many districts they put students into different groups in fourth grade and they set out a pathway for them for the rest of school. So we can’t be doing that. We don’t know what students can do. And when we tell fourth graders that they’re in a low group and they’re going towards a lower level of mathematics, that changes their lives in negative ways.

And so we’re talking about opening up pathways for more students, and some people have benefited from the narrow group of students that have gone forward and they don’t want to see that change. They know they’ve had an advantage. They got themselves into a high group. Often they use money, tutoring and they have benefited from that. And so they are opposing opening up pathways to more students. So partly it’s communication and lack of understanding of how this can work and how it can be successful. And we’re about to release a second round of the framework where I think it’s all explained a lot more clearly and hopefully we’ll get a lot more support.

Rachel Cram – Well, clearly you’re so passionate about the subject. And even in preparing for this interview, I actually reached out to you because I was having such a frustrating moment with my daughter. She’s 11 years old and I had been reading your book Limitless Minds, which we’re going to be talking about today. And then I sat down with her to do her homework and she burst into tears and she was sobbing, and she was so frustrated and she was like, “I hate math, I don’t want to do this.” And so in my email to you talking about the interview, I told you I was going through this and you sent me a link, an invitation to youcubed, which is the site that you’ve created through Stanford University, a free site for math educators, which as of this morning had over 55 million visits. So obviously serving the world so well, and I really appreciated that. It’s difficult to change attitudes toward education and learning, for both educators and students, and you’re and you’re working very hard.

Dr. Jo Boaler – It is. One of the resources on Youcube that’s so great for families that I shared with you, is a little short online class that’s made for students to give them a different relationship with math. It’s six sessions, around 15 minutes each. We’ve had over half a million people take that course, and lots of people have shared how it’s changed them. And in fact, we’ve studied it in a randomized controlled trial and found that students who take the course achieve significantly better in math afterwards. So, yeah, we’ve worked to get lots of different resources out on that site. Lessons for teachers to try that are very, very popular. Videos to share with kids. Lots of different things.

Rachel Cram – Yeah, and they’re very warm and accessible too. I went on to it, because it is so popular of a site and because it’s through Stanford I originally went on thinking, this is going to be like a Disneyland kind of performance, and it’s not, in that it’s very warm and homey I almost want to say.

When I was taking my education degree, I worked at UBC in a summer program for students and it gives me that feel. It’s the feel of having kind wise adults and teens care for you in your math process. And it’s wonderfully done.

Dr. Jo Boaler – I love that. Thank you. That’s definitely what we would hope for it.

Rachel Cram – Well, you’re hitting the mark 100 percent and you’re 55 million people are showing that.

Well Jo, I love to start interviews with a common question just to give our listeners a chance to connect with you as a person beyond the professional that you are. And so I’d love to give you the question right now. Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” And so I’m wondering, Dr. Jo Boaler, is there a story or experience from your childhood that you see as formative into the person that you are today?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Wow. Great question. When I think back to myself as a child, well, certainly at age seven, I was very curious. I was interested in lots of different ideas. I can remember during my primary school, as they’re called in England, we were asked to do a project where we chose the topic and went out and gathered data on it and presented it to each other. And I have to say that’s the one school project I can remember in my entire primary school experience because we were able to choose something we were interested in and go out and collect data and present ideas. And so

Rachel Cram – What did you choose?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Actually, and I can’t remember what constraints we were given, but I wrote my project about birds flying. But I also remember something I loved when I was younger was patterns. And in fact, my family always kind of make fun of me because when I was really young and we didn’t have lots of money in my family, we were a very wealthy household. When I was very I used to save all the batteries that my family had and make all these different patterns out of them. I loved to make patterns, and I remember being really fascinated by them. So that’s probably a bigger source of my mathematics passion that developed in later years.

Rachel Cram – Well and interesting that in that story you talk about this open experience to explore and be creative because that really is a big part of what you’re trying to bring into math and education right now as well. Well, I’d love to read an enticing section from the front of your newest book, Limitless Minds, that’s also a great introduction to your work. You say this, “From the moment we enter school as children, we are made to feel as if our brains are fixed entities, capable of learning certain things and not others. This notion follows us into adulthood, where we accept these established beliefs about our skill set, limiting our choices and ultimately our futures.”

Jo, your research proves that those who achieve at the highest levels do not do so because of a genetic inclination towards any one skill set, but because of certain characteristics towards learning. And I know you’ve won multiple awards for your work, including your doctoral thesis and research. I’m wondering, can you just spend a moment describing what you researched and what you discovered in your initial doctoral degree?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Sure. Yes. When I was choosing to do a doctorate, I was at King’s College in London University at the time, and I knew that there was a lot of controversy about ways to teach math. People argued about it. Should we give kids these real problems? Should we have them just go through abstract methods?

Rachel Cram – What do you mean by real problems?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Well, maybe asking students to look at data on fires in California, for example, and think about where they’re coming from and, look at real situations instead of, here are some algebraic methods. Repeat them in an abstract textbook question.

But I realize there really wasn’t much research about different approaches at the time, so I decided that’s what I would do. And I found different schools, one which used the sort of more typical way of teaching math. Not super traditional, but the kids did work through textbooks and they were put into ability groups, and they were taught very defined mathematical methods. And then another school that was part of a group of schools who were trying to work out if math could be different, and they took a wholly different approach. The kids were not in ability groups. They were all mixed together, and they were given these open project ideas and invited to work on them for a couple of weeks. And as part of those projects, they learned the formal mathematics, but they wouldn’t learn it until they needed this in their projects. So they may be working away on something and realize they couldn’t go forward.

An example I gave actually in my book is, one of the projects the students were asked to do was to find the maximum area with 36 fences. So the kids go out and they’re all drawing and trying different things. And one group of kids realized that the biggest area actually came from a thirty six sided shape. And they realized they could find the area of it by making this into 36 triangles. But they didn’t know how to find the area of a triangle when they only had one or two sides and an angle. And so the teacher at that moment taught this group of students how to use trigonometry.

Rachel Cram – How old were these students?

Dr. Jo Boaler – They were about 13. And the students were so excited. And I remember them rushing to another group of students saying, “Hey, forget what you’re doing. I’ve just learned how to find the area of a triangle and it unlocks this problem we’re working on.”

And at the time I was watching this, I was also in this other school watching the learning of trigonometry, where the teacher put out the methods on the board, as very typically done. This is a sine. This is cosine. This is tangent. And then the kids work through like 200 questions. No excitement. Couldn’t see any relevance. They didn’t know why they were learning it. And of course, all of those things contribute to kids, not being very engaged and not learning as much.

Rachel Cram – Yeah well, with the 36 fences, that’s making math a puzzle and kind of a game right? But even as you described that, and then the association with trigonometry, I don’t think I’ve ever had the visual for what trigonometry is. So thanks for this!

So, you were looking at all of this happening in these two schools?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, that was the study I conducted my doctor, I collected a lot of data. I was in the schools, both schools, for three years. I was able to look not only at the students work in classrooms, but the national exam, which is conducted by exam boards in the UK and, turned out that the kids working through this project-based approach did better on that national exam as well as on other assessments that they were given. So a lot of people don’t think that can happen. They think for kids to do well on a short, narrow exam, they have to be taught these isolated methods and turned out that wasn’t what I found.

Rachel Cram – Yeah. Now did you go back and do a second study with those same groups of kids after that?

Dr. Jo Boaler – I did. Yes.

Rachel Cram – And what did you discover then?

Dr. Jo Boaler – I actually, so after that study, I was recruited to come to Stanford and moved to California, which I did, and it was some years later that different groups said to me, “What happened to those kids after they left school? It’d be so interesting to know.”

And I actually went back to the two schools and managed to connect with a large group at each school and gave them surveys, but also conducted interviews with them. And that was really fascinating. I’ve written that up in a paper that’s on our website now, but the students who went to the project-based school were like, “Oh, you know, the things I learned in school are what I took it into my life, and, yeah, I take mathematical ideas and I use them in different situations.”

And then in the more traditional school, the kids were kind of annoyed by their math experience. And they were saying things like, “Math is all around me in my work. Why was it so abstract in school? Why didn’t anybody ever show me all of this math in the world?”

They were very aware that they were put into these different groups at a young age. And one of the young men I remember talked about how that felt like what he called a ‘psychological prison’, when they were told, “This is what you can achieve now you’re in this group.”

So, yeah, it was very, very interesting results.

Rachel Cram – And this is the kind of change that you’re trying to offer to the state of California right now as well. Is that correct?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes. Well, and I must say it’s not me that’s changing these ways.

Rachel Cram – You and a team.

Dr. Jo Boaler – It actually came from an elected committee of leading educators who worked for a year together, to set out, what do we want in California? And I’m one of the writers. So, unfortunately now it’s coming out everybody’s saying, you wrote this and we’re coming after you, not really realizing that this is actually the result of this collective wisdom from leaders across the state.

Rachel Cram – So that’s a weight and a challenge and a gift, and you’re struggling. You’re struggling, which is part of where we’re going to go to today because struggling is good Jo.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Exactly. Right.

Rachel Cram – You’re having to live your growth mindset.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Exactly.

Rachel Cram – You are.

Musical Interlude #1

For highlighted quotes from our conversation with Dr. Boaler, you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram. Find us at family360podcast and please leave a comment. We’d love to connect with you.

Rachel Cram – Well, let’s jump into talking about growth mindset. Your work reveals that how we think about our talents and abilities has a profound effect on our potential. And you talk about growth mindset versus fixed mindset. So can I start by asking you what is a growth mindset?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, a growth mindset is really where you believe you could learn anything. Kids with a fixed mindset think there are limits to what they can learn. And you could have different mindsets in different situations. You may be totally growth mindset about believing you can learn to cook, but be very fixed in thinking about learning math, for example. It’s your own internal beliefs about what you can do. And of course, it doesn’t just apply to learning, it applies to your life and what you’re prepared to go out and try and do in your life.

Rachel Cram – You describe traits of someone with a fixed mindset versus someone with a growth mindset in your book Jo, and I’m wondering if I can read what you wrote because it’s very compelling.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Oh, yeah, yeah.

Rachel Cram – I’ll try to read with the passion that it’s due. You wrote this, “ The research points out that people with a fixed mindset are more likely to be aggressive, since they believe that people – including themselves – cannot change and that any failure they have experienced themselves is an indication of their own weakness. This causes them to harbor more negative feelings about themselves. Those with a fixed mindset feel more shame, view their adversaries as bad people and express hatred toward them.

And now you go on to write about people with a growth mindset.

“The research found that people with a growth mindset responded to conflict with less hatred, less shame, and less desire to be aggressive. Their improved response to conflict comes about because they view others as being capable of change.”

So, I’m wondering Jo, is our response to mistakes and struggles the best indicator of whether we’re operating from a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Well, definitely how you handle times of struggle and mistakes is really important in seeing people’s mindsets. I can quickly see in a classroom, if you give difficult work out to students of any age, there will be some students who look at difficult things and say, “I can’t do this.” Kind of internally shut down.

There are others who are like, “Oh, this is an exciting challenge, I want to go forward.”

And so those are mindsets in action in a classroom. I see it in my own teamwork actually. I lead a team of people at Stanford, and sometimes when we’re developing something we’ll realize we need to do something that may be new to us, like, “Oh, we need some new software,”

And there are people in my team who will say, “Oh, I don’t know how to do that. Somebody else can do it.”

And others will say, “Oh, new software, I’ll learn it. I’m doing it,”

And I can in those moments, see mindset playing out.

Rachel Cram – Yeah, I have to say Jo, on the software front, I fear I might be falling into the fixed mindset category. But I could change that. So perhaps knowing that gives me credit towards a growth mindset.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Absolutely.

Rachel Cram – It’s fascinating because as you’re saying, it really does extrapolate into all of our life,

Dr. Jo Boaler – It does.

Rachel Cram – How we confront problems, how we confront failure.

Dr. Jo Boaler – How we parent our children.

Rachel Cram – A lot of this comes down to our understanding of neuroplasticity, and you talk about this in the beginning of your book, our realization that our brains can always be changing, they aren’t fixed. You know, there’s that saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” realizing you actually can keep teaching tricks all the way through our lives. And that changes everything. You know that understanding.

You shared a fascinating study about London cab drivers that rocked the world’s notion of fixed brains. Maybe, first of all, do you even want to say before a study like this, what was the world’s notion about fixed brains? What did people think?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, that was the study that rocked the scientific world. People believed that your brains were fixed as soon as you were born. Others believed that at the end of adolescence, they became fixed. But definitely in the scientific world, not just in the lay public, there was a very strong belief that certainly when you’re older, your brain would not change substantively.

The researchers realized that London cab drivers go through really intense spatial training. They actually trained for years where they have to have in their memory routes through 20000 streets and landmarks. There’s a lot that they have to retain. And to get that memory, this isn’t something you can blindly memorize, to get that memory these London cab drivers are out driving routes all the time. And then they take a test, which, I love the name of it, it’s called ‘the knowledge’. And the average number of times it takes to pass ‘the knowledge’ is 12 times. So these cab drivers, it’s really rigorous spatial training. One cab driver I was with in London recently said they studied for seven years to pass the knowledge. So these scientists thought, why don’t you look at their brains? And what they found was.

Rachel Cram – Oh, there’s your dog in the background. That’s OK. What’s your dog’s name just so we can be familiar with who is barking in the background? Who is that barking?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Alfie. That’s Alfie.

Rachel Cram – OK, well, will this be familiar with Alfie and enjoy him in the background.

Dr. Jo Boaler – OK.

Rachel Cram – Or feel free to go let him outside. I can wait. That’s not a problem.

You were with a recent cab driver and he was saying it took him seven years to study. Want to jump up from there?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes. So these scientists decided to look at the brains of cab drivers and what they found was, at the end of this spatial training, they had significantly grown their hippocampus, which is a really important part of the brain, particularly for mathematical work, spatial work. And so at first, people rejected these results. Other scientists said this cannot be true. The brain cannot undergo that kind of change. And gradually over the years, they’ve had to let go of that idea and realize it is true. And in fact, they also found that the cab drivers increase the hippocampus, but when they retired from being cab drivers, it shrunk back down again, not because they were older but because they stopped using that part of their brain. So that was really the first study that showed the degree of brain change, and in adults. So that made it just all the more shocking for people.

Rachel Cram – Yeah. Now what are you saying that grew the hippocampus? It doesn’t mean that it got bigger, but that the wiring..? What does that mean when you say they grew that?

Dr. Jo Boaler – When people think about brain growth, they generally think about it in terms of these pathways strengthening and connecting and developing. So the brain has a certain size, but the pathways inside you can have a much more densely interconnected brain than somebody else because of this sort of growth of pathways.

Rachel Cram – And interesting, you say that after they retired, that shrunk back again, which just speaks, well, one thing, to what we think about when we retire, but also what we’re just doing with our brain on a daily basis, what kind of power we’re giving to it.

Dr. Jo Boaler – I mean, Norman Doidge is another neuroscientist I talk about in the book, talks about how every day you wake up, your brain is different from the day before because we’re constantly experiencing these brain connections and growth. And this is something I wish all students knew, that every time they learn something, their brain is forming connections or strengthening a connection they had or connecting different pathways that were unconnected. So it’s constant in our brains, and we really want that rich environment for kids, where that’s happening.

Rachel Cram – Absolutely.

Musical interlude #2

If you’d like to connect further with Dr. Jo Boaler writing and work, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation with Jo, find links at It’s all there waiting for you.

Rachel Cram – Well, this is so exciting because it’s going to take me into what is the heart of your work right now? And I think just some really practical information for parents and professionals. As I was reading your book Jo, so many thoughts were going through my head. I can hold it up for you right now and just show you all the earmarks and underlining that goes through it because you have so much good information.

I’ve kind of boiled it down through my growth mindset, I think, into four S’s that I’d love to talk with you today. Four words that start with S because that helps me keep it organized in my brain.

So I’ll quickly say the S’s are struggle, smart, speed and synergy, and I’d love to walk through each of those one by one with you. Those words can change everything for our educational process and how we learn. So can we start by struggle; the importance of struggle? I love this concept, and I found myself thinking about it constantly as I prepared for this conversation. What does struggle do for us? Why is it important to struggle and to allow our kids to struggle?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes, that’s some of the really exciting brain evidence that we have now that times of struggle are the very best times for our brains. That’s when our brains are on fire. And if we were visual I would show you a map of the brain undergoing struggle. You can actually see that it looks like it is on fire with lots and lots of activity. Whereas if you’re, I don’t know, taking a test and you get all the questions right, you don’t see that brain intensity, you don’t see that opportunity for brain growth.

So it’s really amazing to think that we want to struggle and we should be putting kids in places of struggle and certainly my own teaching, whether it’s undergrads at Stanford or middle school students, which we do from time to time, I say to them, “I want you to struggle. This is really good for your brain. I’m going to give you difficult work and I want you to struggle.”

And that changes things for kids when they realize it’s OK to struggle and even to be wrong. When kids are wrong in my math classrooms, I celebrate it. And we all think about it and talk about it. But when kids realize that it’s a safe place to struggle and be wrong, that changes them as learners, they become more willing to take risks and to keep going when they find things difficult.

Rachel Cram – And this is where you have to look at the systems that we’re in, because it’s one thing to say to kids, “Hey, it’s good to struggle, it’s OK to be wrong. But then if you’re going to give them a test at the end of the day, they can feel like, sure, you can say it’s all these things. But if I don’t get a good grades then I can’t go on into this next course.”

Dr. Jo Boaler – Such an important observation. Yeah, it’s a completely mixed message, but it actually undermines mindset messaging. And we talk about this with teachers all the time. We don’t want to give them these fixed tests. Much better to assess the students and give them feedback on what they’re doing, than giving them scores and marking them down when they make a mistake. In fact, Carol Dweck and her mindset team at Stanford will say that we should give kids extra points when they make mistakes because that is what’s really going to help them understand that this is good for them. But yes, if you’re in a heavily graded and tested system, many times teachers are giving mixed messages on that.

Rachel Cram – And I think as parents, as I discovered, as I was working through with my daughter and you through youcubed, I think we can even counteract that a little bit. In my situation with her, she was so frustrated because she had this very creative word problem that her teacher had asked her to solve and she could not figure it out. And she was so upset. This is what she was crying about. And after reading your work and going through this course with her, I said to her, “Fiona, I don’t care if you get the right answer or not, it’s not about getting the right answer. This is about building your brain. This struggle is really good for you. I don’t care if you get the right answer or not.”

And that kind of changes everything, that perspective.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, yeah. Yes, it does. And of course, this is a message that we’re heavily criticized for by the people who don’t want math change. They’ll say, “How ridiculous that you’re saying the answers don’t matter. Of course, answers are what are so important.”

And answers are important, but we’ve put too much emphasis on I think of it as a performance culture so that kids don’t value times of struggle. They’re constantly having to perform. And, you know, you probably do want to get things right when you are in the workplace and doing things that are important. But as you are learning, we really should be valuing those times of struggle for students.

Rachel Cram – Well, and even when you bring up the workplace, I know in my work environment that I have, when I’m in a think tank with people, when we’re trying to figure something out, I’m not looking for a ‘right’ answer. I’m looking for creativity. I’m you and you only get that creativity by being willing to make mistakes, by being absolutely yeah. And be willing to be

Dr. Jo Boaler – Absolutely. If you are not open to mistakes and struggle, you can never be creative.
In Limitless Mind I talk about a doctor who keeps a record of all his mistakes. The medical profession is one where mistakes are very heavily frowned upon for obvious reasons. And he makes the very important point. ‘We will always make mistakes. We need to record them and think about them and change our approach to them, not always be, you know, harshly reacting to them.’

Rachel Cram – I remembered that. I found that so fascinating and so encouraging. Another story you told around struggling was the idea of the learning pit, which really made sense for me and I think it came to be in an elementary school classroom, but it extrapolates really into all of life.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, absolutely.

Rachel Cram – And the learning pit has landmarks as you go down into it and then up the other side again. Predictable stages we go through when we’re struggling, but we all have to go there sometimes. Into the pit.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Right. The learning pit where the message is, you’ve got to get into the pit. This is like a pit of struggle and I share in my book of fifth graders, drawing their own learning pit, and there are little pictures as the kids are going down into the pit saying things like, “I can’t do this,” but as they’re coming out, they say, “You know, I’m going to get some tools. I can do this. I need to…”

And I love the teacher I interviewed who uses this metaphor with her students. She says that when she’s teaching her kids come to her sometimes and say, “Miss Schaefer, I’m really in the pit.”

And her response to that is, “Fantastic. Are there any things I can give you? Any tools that you would like to use?”

And I love that response for a couple of reasons. One, she really values them being in the pit and struggling. And the other is she doesn’t jump in and help them, which is kind of what we’ve been trained to do as teachers and make the question much easier for them. She just says, “Are there some tools that will help you think?”

So, that valuing, teachers parents valuing that time of struggle, is a new idea for lots of people, but an important one.

Rachel Cram – There’s times when we want our kids to struggle and they don’t want to. They can be just like, “I can’t do that.” And they want to give up or give in. How do we encourage our kids to struggle? How do we encourage them to stay in the pit?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Well, I think a key message is you can learn anything. Kids have to let go of the idea that there are limits. And it’s a very pervasive thought and idea. Actually, the Gates Foundation put out a national survey to adults recently, and I think something like 82 percent of adults believe that you have a fixed brain in math. That you can or you can’t. So it’s very, very pervasive idea and kids believe it. It comes through the school system and things that we do in schools. So it starts with that, and I find that just sharing that brain evidence to students is really effective. This is your brain growing and changing. Nobody is fixed. And then after they get that idea, sharing with them how important struggle is, how struggle is such a good time for their brain. And everybody needs this. I teach undergrads at Stanford and they’re very a high achieving group people. And some of them have got A’s their whole lives. They’ve just been told they’re smart their whole lives and they come to Stanford and they take courses and they struggle. And many of those kids fall apart when they have to struggle in a course, And I have had lots and lots of undergrads I teach in my course, saying, “Thank god for your course. It saved me because I would have left these subjects because I got a B in it.”

So, yeah, I just think these messages are very important for everybody.

Rachel Cram – Well, you just made a phrase that I think leads fabulously into another key S word, that I picked up in your work. Smart. You said you have these undergrad students that have been told they’re smart. And that’s not a good thing. Why is it not a good thing to be told you’re smart?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Well, the reason it’s not a good thing is ‘being smart’ is really a fixed idea for kids. And what we know is when we praise children and we say to them, “You’re so smart.”

What they think is, “Oh good, I’m smart.” But then later, when they mess up or struggle on something, which they will, they think, “Oh, I’m not so smart.” And they start to evaluate themselves against this fixed idea.

So we know that children as young as three have different mindsets, with young children developing fixed mindsets that are harmful, and it comes from the praise they’re given as children. They’ve given kids math problems to do and half of them, when they finish the first problem, they praise them for being smart. And the other half, they praise the work they’ve done. And then they say to them, “Would you like another problem to do? And do you want an easy or hard one?”

And almost all of the kids praised for being smart choose the easy problem. And they do that because they’ve been told they’re smart. They don’t want that idea to go away. They become averse to struggle and challenge. Whereas the kids who are praised and told, “That’s really great what you did there,” they want more challenge.

Rachel Cram – I think to a parent listening, you can be like, “Well, this is splitting hairs,” but it’s not.

Dr. Jo Boaler – It’s not.

Rachel Cram – It’s not. And it’s also frustrating for parents because they’re doing the best they can. You know, we’re showing up wanting to encourage our children, but how we do that is so important. And we’re discovering that more and more. You have a chart in your book about ‘fixed praise versus growth praise’. And you have a list of examples that would be fixed praise statements and then growth praise statements. Can you review those? Do you want me to tell you what pages they’re on? Do you know them off by heart?

Dr. Jo Boaler – I don’t have my book right next to me. I could say, though that the sort of fixed praise we give kids is to say to them “Oh, you’re so smart for doing that. You’re so great.” Instead of, “Oh, I love the way you’ve thought about that problem.” Or, “That’s a really creative solution. I like that a lot.”

In fact, in my own classes at Stanford, my kids come in, these undergrads, and they call each other ‘smart’ all the time. When one of them does some mathematical solution on the board, the other kids will say, “That’s so smart. You’re so smart.”

And I say to them, “OK, we’re not going to use the smart word. We’re just going to ban that word.”

And they listen to this. And then when they see something they really like, they start to say it again. They start to say, “You’re so smart.” And then they say, “I really like the way you added those visuals.” Or, “That’s so creative the way you thought about that.” And of course, you know, when you take out that smart word, all of these really interesting descriptive adjectives come out that are so much more helpful for people.

Musical Interlude #3

Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Dr. Jo Boaler.

Our next episode hosts a down to earth conversation from Perth Australia with pediatric nurse and sleep consultant Tara Mitchell. As a young Mom, Tara personally experienced the mind bending challenge of many sleepless nights, and now compassionately and practically helps families across the world find their way back to slumber and renewed sanity through her face to face and online sleep-consulting-courses. The early years of parenting young children hold unique blends of beauty and bewilderment and this conversation offers wise comfort and council. Join us!

And now back to our conversation with Dr. Jo Boaler as she continues to describe two more considerations for encouraging a growth mindset.

Rachel Cram – Fabulous. OK. So we’ve talked about struggle. You’ve talked about smart. Speed is the next word. You say in your book, “we now know that timed math facts tests are the beginning of math anxiety for many.” What’s the problem with speed?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Many, many, many, many. Yes. Well, one of the problems with speed is many children believe that to be good at math you have to be fast. And actually, it may be that the opposite of that is true. And in fact, a lot of high level mathematicians will talk about how they’re not fast with numbers and in fact, they think very slowly and deeply. I like to share the recollection of a French mathematician. I think I put it in the book Could Lauren Schwarz?

Rachel Cram – Yes, this is fascinating.

Dr. Jo Boaler – He won the Fields Medal for mathematics. That is the highest honor, like winning the Nobel Prize for Math. And then he wrote an autobiography and he talked about when he was in school he was very slow and he felt stupid. And it took him some years to realize, actually speed isn’t what’s important, it’s really about the connections you make and the depth of understanding.

Fortunately for the world, he came to that realization, but many kids are put off very early on from realizing they’re not fast. Kids who have enormous mathematics potential. And of course those timed fact tests are the worst scenario. They’re telling kids, we want you to memorize these facts and reproduce them at speed. And we actually know that some of the kids who are most disadvantaged by that are really high achieving students who develop severe anxiety. So I’m very much against those tests, but I will say that my message about this is one of the messages that’s really distorted on the internet, in articles, because people hear me say, “Let’s not have these timed-math-fact-tests,” and they share, “Jo Boaler thinks math facts are not important.”

That’s really not what we’re saying. In fact, there are lovely ways to learn math facts where you learn the facts, but you also learn the connections and you know why they work and really, really helpful for kids. But for some reason, people really have this strong association between knowing math facts and time tests, as though that’s the only way you can ever learn math facts is by having time tests.

The researchers compared kids who learned math facts by what’s known as ‘rote memorization, “Here are the numbers, just memorize them, put them in your memory,” with kids who learn them through looking at strategies of how to find different math facts. And the kids who learned through strategies achieved more, better. They remembered them longer. They were better able to use them in different situations. So it’s not about do I memorize them? It’s about how do I do that? And I guess that subtlety doesn’t come through often in communication.

Rachel Cram – That’s tough and when you’re introducing a new way of thinking, subtleties do get lost don’t they? Because it’s new. And that’s part of the challenge you’re facing. And interestingly perhaps, in your book, you explain how speed can actually stand in the way of flexible thinking, creative thinking, and deep thinking. Yeah, there’s a Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell, are you familiar with him?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Oh, yeah. Yeah, very familiar.

Rachel Cram – And he did a recent work, I think it’s probably in one of his books. He’s talking about the exam you take to get into law school. Is that the LSAT? That’s right?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Something like that. Yeah.

Rachel Cram – And how that exam has been all geared for speed; that you have to be able to do it really, really fast. And his argument is that it stands in the way of a really important quality of lawyer that we need. And those are those flexible thinkers, those creative workers and those deep thinkers.

Dr. Jo Boaler – I’m glad he’s arguing that. You could argue the same thing about the S.A.T., about many of the tests were used in the school system. Yes and we know that kids only have to think that ‘they’re being timed’ for that creative problem solving side of the brain to shut down. So, yeah, it’s really important we dial back on speed. And, as I share with teachers, it’s not just time tests. If you are a teacher who asks a class a question and then takes an answer from the first kid that shoots up their hand, that’s giving the whole class the message that what you value is speed. So there are lots of ways kids get that idea in the school system, that they really need to be fast. And we find that undoing that message is actually as liberating as undoing the message of fixed brain for many people.

Rachel Cram – So important. OK, so we’ve talked about struggle, smart, speed, and your last S word is synergy. You talk about the importance of collaboration and teamwork for a learning and growth mindset, and you use this fascinating study done on the Berkeley campus on calculus dropouts.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes. Amazing study done by Uri Treisman. Yes. What they found at Berkeley was, a large number of students were failing calculus and dropping out, and that a lot of them were African-American students. But Chinese-American students were not experiencing this failure. They were doing well in calculus.

So at first, he asked the question of faculty and others, “What is this apparent cultural difference?” And, faculty had ideas like, “Oh, they come from different backgrounds,” or, you know, “they were weaker on test performance coming in.” None of those things were true.

What was the case? So Uri Triesman went about to really study what’s going on with these different results and different cultural groups, and found that the Chinese-American students work together on math, in the dining halls, in their dormitories. They were always doing math problems together. Whereas the African-American students were going to their dorm room on their own, struggling on this math and dropping out. And so they instigated special sessions where students were invited to come in and do the work in their calculus classes, but together work through some of the problems. And very quickly the dropout and failure rate dropped to zero. Within a few years, the African-American students were outperforming the Chinese-American students. So that being able to work together is really important for a number of reasons. I would also say that working together is what we need for life and for the 21st century. You want people who can share their ideas and collaborate, but it turns out it helps people learn. And part of the reason it helps people learn is when people learn together they see that everybody struggles. And so it’s not such a negative message for people.

Rachel Cram – I think in a lot of our schools, certainly around where we are, there has been a shift towards much more emphasis on collaboration and group work. But it can be really hard for kids, and I can sympathize with this because, in a school classroom when you’re putting a bunch of fourth graders together, sixth graders together, eighth graders, there’s the struggle of confidence, of cooperation, of “Oh, I don’t want to be with them because they don’t like me.” How do you work around those challenges?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Absolutely. I’m just working on a paper on this at the moment with my graduate students actually,

Rachel Cram – Perfect.

Dr. Jo Boaler – that talked about how we got over these struggles when we were teaching a course on calculus to one hundred students. They were incoming Stanford students. We put them in groups. They worked math problems together and these horrible social status differences erupted of kids thinking, “They were quicker than me. I can’t do this. They’re better than me. I can’t work on this with them.”

And I sort of expected this to happen. If you don’t address these kinds of issues with kids or with young people, they will emerge because they’ve grown up thinking ‘you’ll be ranked against somebody else’ and that is really damaging.

So we started to enact things that I share in the book that are methods to make group work equal. And one of them I particularly love, I always use it with my undergrads. First of all, I let them work in groups together and I watch how it unfolds and then I enact this practice where we start off the class by showing them what are good group work activities? What does it look like?

And then I tell them, I’m going to look for this. I’m going to walk around the class and I’m going to look for; Is everybody talking? Or is one person doing all the talking? Are people listening to each other? Are people asking good questions about each other’s thinking? So I literally share this is what we’re looking for, and I’m going to walk around this lesson and I’m going to look for these. And so I do that. And of course, the Stanford students I work with, they get it straight away and they’re immediately changed in their groups and they’re asking each other questions and leaning in all of these things that are listed.

Rachel Cram – You have to create the groundwork for that.

Dr. Jo Boaler – You have to do that, yeah, I think if you just put kids in groups and have them work, particularly on a subject like math, where there’s so many incorrect beliefs about what it is to be a good student, it will inevitably fail. We really have to do work to get kids to work well together, to listen to each other, to respect each other’s thinking.

Rachel Cram – Just before we move toward a conclusion Jo, with regard to all these S’s, struggle, smart, speed and synergy, I’m wondering about the relevance of IQ. And specifically, does IQ assist or denigrate growth mindset versus fixed mindset.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Happy to talk about that.

Rachel Cram – Because IQ is still factored into assessments in some school systems.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes, it is. So what I would say about IQ is it’s actually a very damaging idea and test. And people often don’t know that the inventor of the IQ test was a eugenicist who was making these tests to try and show that some racial groups were inferior to others.

So I know when I was growing up, everybody talked about IQ and I did IQ testing. I was in a little club when I was young. Now I look back on it and realize how this concept has a lot of problems associated with it, one of which is it’s supposed to give you a measure of your intelligence with the idea that that’s it, that’s what your intelligence is and really doesn’t give people the idea that you’re always on a growth journey. You can grow and change what you can do all at the time.

Rachel Cram – So, as a world, we need to be in a growth mindset, so we can ‘grow and change what we do all the time.’ I love that. Well, Joe, thank you. This is such great information, and you cover this all so well in your book with a lot of great stories attached to them. Just as we start to wind up the interview, I’m wondering in addition to what’s already been mentioned, do you have any last thoughts on what a parent can do to nurture a growth mindset in their children?

Dr. Jo Boaler – Well, certainly one thing you have to model as an adult is being comfortable with struggle and mistakes yourself and when your kids make mistakes. Because we know as a parent, kids make mistakes a lot of the time. They may be physical things like, I don’t know, spilling things or making a big mess of something or other kinds of mistakes. But whatever kind they are, you have to model a mistakes friendly approach to that and not fly off the handle when kids make mistakes, because that will definitely lead to a fixed mindset thinking in the kids.

And modeling that for ourselves, too, I mean, I really can’t be preaching to my kids, “We can learn anything. We can have a growth mindset.” And then in my life, they see me turn away from things because I don’t think I can do it. You know, embracing things that are difficult for yourself will help your kids see that that’s important.

Rachel Cram – Hmm. Kind of like you keeping going with this curriculum in California.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yes. Right. Exactly.

Rachel Cram – Well, Jo, I wish you and California all the best with that. I really admire your dedication to struggling for change in our educational practices and mindsets. We’ll be watching to see what unfolds.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Thank you very much. It’s been great talking with you, and I hope people will come to youcubed or read Limitless Mind and get some of the same ideas.

Rachel Cram – Yes. And we’ll have links to all the places people can find you on your episode page on our website. So, thank you so much.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Thank you.

Roy Salmond – Thank you, Jo.

Dr. Jo Boaler – Yeah, it was a pleasure. Good to chat with you both.

Our Real Work – By Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Episode 44