Dr. Jo Boaler Opens Minds

March 19, 2019

The PSPA Authors & Lectures team recently brought Dr. Jo Boaler to campus to talk about maths. We intended to write “maths” because Dr. Boaler, who is British, refers to “math” as “maths.” Further, the “s” on “math” makes the subject expansive and full of possibilities and “expansive” and “full of possibilities” is exactly what we want for our students when they’re engaged in maths. To nurture the idea that maths is full of potential, and most importantly, accessible to all, students need a belief that they can do maths. Dr. Boaler’s talk focused on how to cultivate this type of mathematical mindset.

Growth Mindset

At Prospect Sierra, we’ve been implementing Carol Dweck’s work around growth mindset for many years. Dweck posits that 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. A growth mindset is integral to Dr. Boaler’s work as well, and underpins the research she does showing the brain’s plasticity and extensive brain growth during hard work and struggle in particular.


Dr. Boaler’s work is pivotal in helping students believe they are capable math problem-solvers. In Dr. Boaler’s work there are no “math people” and “not math people.” She knows that every student will hit a roadblock and struggle, whether they’re told they can do math or not, or whether they’re good at math or not.

The Pit

Speaking of struggle, another powerful strategy from Dr. Boaler’s talk is her idea of “the pit.” The pit is the place of struggle where students are grappling with hard problems to solve. They often want a way out, or want a teacher to carry them over the pit. But in actuality the pit is the place where the brain is growing the most. The more we can help kids get more comfortable with the discomfort of the pit, the more they will grow and learn.

Helping Your Child

So what can parents do to help their child develop this flexible, ever growing math mindset?

  • When you see your child struggling with a math problem you could ask “What are some other strategies you can use?” You could also remind them that “Struggle is good; it means your brain is growing!”
  • Praise hard work rather than attributing success to being smart or gifted. You might say “You tried very hard and you used the right strategy,” or “What a creative way to solve that problem!”
  • When your child has made a mistake or feel like they’ve failed you can remind them that mistakes are an important part of the problem solving process and that they ultimately help improve understanding. Further, to normalize mistake making, you could ask “What mistake did you make that taught you something?” Or, “What did you try hard at today?”


If you’d like to learn more about the growth mindset, there’s lots of great information specifically for parents on this website. And if you’d like to learn more about Dr. Boaler’s math mindsets, click here. Thank you to the PSPA Authors & Lectures committee for bringing us such a thought provoking maths leader!