Learning is strictly making mushtakes

I was a shy child with a very fixed mindset. I didn’t know it at the time, but now when I reflect back I can see that I approached every task with the expectation that somehow I would be bad at it or fail to be as good as the other students. And I’ve seen this now in classrooms where children seem to be divided into the: ‘I can probably do it’s’ and the ‘I probably can’t do it’s’. And it has a drastic impact on their learning in the classroom.

The work of Jo Boaler (Boaler 2013) and Carol Dweck (Dweck 2006) shows us that the main hinderance to students learning is the belief that they cannot do it.

In the TED talk ‘How you can be good at maths, and other surprising facts about learning’ presented by Jo Boaler (Below), she argues that a ‘fixed mindset’ has arisen for many in maths through the misguided perception that it is an ability you either have or you do not. 

How you can be good at math, and other surprising facts about learning, Jo Boaler, TEDx Stanford.

She argues that praising students for their intelligence instead of their effort will only result in the student valuing the praise rather than the process of learning. A lesson based on proving ones knowledge through rapid question answering or worksheets will foster an attitude with roots in a fixed mindset. The antidote? A lesson based on inquiry, making mushtakes and coming to an answer through one’s own investigation..

“Our brains – and our lives – are highly adaptable”

Jo Boaler

A person with a growth mindset, as defined by Dweck (2006), will see mistakes as opportunities to improve and believe improvement results from effort (Moser et. al. 2011). Basically, when someone with a growth mindset gets an answer wrong, they work hard to get it right. When someone with a fixed mindset gets an answer wrong, they give up. 

‘The Learning Pit’ analogy by James Nottingham

Related to the discussion of mindsets is a powerful analogy called ‘The Learning Pit’ by educator James Nottingham (pictured above). The learning pit represents a challenge, something a student does not understand or perhaps something the student might have a few conflicting ideas about (i.e. stepping inside Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’). The students are supposed to fall into the pit, representing uncertainty or being out of one’s comfort zone, and here engage in some deep thinking about a topic. They are then supposed to use selected ‘Habits of Mind’ in order to climb back out of the pit (The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit 2017). 

 The ‘Habits of Mind’ (Costa and Kallick 2009).

I think many adults fall into the trap of rarely taking on something completely new to learn, and we forget how much of a struggle it is to develop brand new neural pathways and enter into a new way of knowing. Learning about the pit is a turning point for many people who use it in many situations in life.


Boaler, J 2013, ‘Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education’, Forum, vol. 55, no. 1.

Dweck, C 2006, ‘Mindset: the new psychology of success’, Ballantine Books.

Moser, J, Schroder, H, Heeter, C, Moran, T and Lee, Y 2011, ‘Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive posterror adjustments’, Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 12. 

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