“Actually, we were surprised even to be considered at the board level,” said Jennifer Perry, Crystal Phifer and Tracy Moorhouse, teachers at Iroquois Public School. “So it was exciting and really overwhelming to learn that we had been selected for an award at the Ministry Level.”
The Teacher Learning and Leadership Program award carries with it a grant of $25,900 from the Ministry which the educators will use to develop their project. They will work specifically with teachers at their own school, and within the Upper Canada board, then, if asked, share their findings and skills with other interested boards in the province.
The collaborative proposal created by the three teachers entitled Growing with Math and Mind was first submitted to a committee of supervisors at the UCDSB: chosen with one other submission to represent this particular board, the Iroquois teachers’ proposal was examined by the Ministry, along with proposals from every other board of education in the province.
It was a very significant honour for the three elementary teachers and their school to learn that the Ministry Teacher Learning and Leadership Program ultimately had chosen their proposal for implementation.
Their proposal examines ways to break a “mind set” which has become perhaps all too common among students, their parents and among teachers over the last few years.
It is a mind set which says “I can’t,” rather than exploring ways to say “I can.”
“The idea is to teach children to accomplish goals through hard work,” Jennifer Perry explained. “It is not necessary for a person to somehow be ‘gifted’ in a subject to succeed, to think that you can either ‘do math,’ for example, or you can’t. Many people think that intelligence is pre-determined. Our premise is that effort and practice can create success. Neither kids nor teachers should give up. There is no such thing as “math” or “non math” people: the basis of success is the work you are willing to put into a subject, or a project, anything.”
“We see kids give up too easily,” said Crystal Phifer. “We based our study on math because there is so much negative thought associated with math. Kids need to understand that getting a wrong answer, even several times, is not the end.”
“We are trying to make students (and teachers too) understand that you have to find another way, different approaches to any problem,” said Tracy Moorhouse. “You have to get over mind sets. Too many kids have never learned that you can actually grow out of mistakes, even failure. It doesn’t mean an end to trying.”
“We ultimately want kids to leave school believing that they can always learn, that it is better to learn from mistakes, rather than to just sit back and never accept any kind of challenge,” said Jennifer Perry.
A prominent educator and psychologist whose work has had a profound effect on the three teachers is Dr. Carol S. Dweck, of Stanford University. Her book, Mindset: How we Can Learn to Fulfill Out Potential has been inspiring educators to break out of long held, even cherished, mind sets.
“When teachers and students focus on improvements rather than on whether they are ‘smart’, kids learn a lot more,” Dweck has written. “I have always been deeply moved by outstanding achievement and saddened by wasted potential.”
“We need growth out of these mind sets,” the Iroquois teachers explained. “You can learn to do anything. Of course someone may be better at something than you, but you can still succeed. You have to keep trying, exploring other ways to learn.”
EQAO results in math led the three to feel that there was an opportunity to grow in math, to make a change.
In their proposal, the Iroquois teachers wrote that “a school culture that develops and promotes a growth mind set in students and teachers will increase students’ learning. Our goal is that all adults will believe that hard work and learning from errors will allow all students to succeed in learning at any level. Teachers will facilitate flexible number sense strategies to increase the understanding and ability to solve early algebraic problems.”
Accepting and learning from mistakes, exploring new ways, or different approaches to a challenge can have long term positive effects in fields far beyond math. Despite failures and frustrations and sometimes years of setbacks, research into the problems of cancer, for example, cannot be derailed by what Dweck would describe as unproductive mind sets.
Making mistakes should never signal an end to trying, as teachers Jennifer Perry, Crystal Phifer and Tracy Moorhouse hope to prove through their award winning proposal.
“There is a quote from Henry Ford that I like to draw on that I think sums up the problems with mind sets,” said Jennifer Perry. “He said, ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.’”