The Role of Mindset in a Mathematics Teacher’s Interpretations and Enactments of Professional Development Activities

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Willingham, James Christopher
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Middle Tennessee State University
Although the motivational factors that underlie the process of mathematics teacher change have been under study for more than thirty years, the role of one of the factors in this process, a teacher’s implicit theory regarding mathematical ability, has not been well examined. The implicit theories model posits that an individual's implicit assumptions about the nature of an ability lead directly to the type of goals he sets regarding that ability and the behaviors in which he engages to pursue these goals. Those that espouse an incremental theory tend to establish learning goals and focus on strategies that lead to the improvement of the ability in question. These individuals are said to have a growth mindset.
The purpose of this study was to explore the role of a teacher’s mindset within the contexts of the teacher’s professional development experiences and answer the research question: How do characteristics of the growth mindset influence a mathematics teacher’s interpretations and enactments of professional development experiences, if at all? A holistic single-case study design was implemented to examine elements of an elementary mathematics teacher’s change environment as she observed, adapted, and enacted a demonstration lesson from a professional development program into her own classroom. The study examined aspects of this environment including the teacher’s beliefs and mindset regarding mathematics and the teaching and learning of mathematics, her classroom teaching practices, her perceptions of her past experiences in professional development, her areas of focus during the demonstration lesson, and her experiences and reflections as she implemented the demonstration lesson in her classroom.
The study produced results that were significant in at least four ways. First, the study presented evidence that tenets of self-regulation theory, including goal setting, goal operating, and goal monitoring, were utilized by the participant teacher to operationalize her mindset. These findings provide support for the use of self-regulation theory in examining mindset constructs and help extend the study of implicit theories to mathematics teacher professional development. Second, the results indicated that the teacher operated through goals at three distinct levels: long-term goals related to mathematical practices, mid-term goals related to her mathematics learning trajectory, and short-term goals related to mathematical content. These goal levels have potential applications for both classroom teachers and designers of professional development. Third, the study revealed the role of mindset, operationalized through self-regulation theory, as a mediator of the various domains of the teacher’s change environment at each of her goal levels. The highly connected growth networks formed by these mediated pathways appeared to have been a factor in the sustained change in teaching practices and beliefs described by the study’s participant. Finally, the case narrative produced in the study provided a deep, rich description of a teacher’s interpretations and enactments of her professional development experiences that adds to our understanding of the variation present in these situations.
Elementary Education, Implicit Theories, Mathematics, Mindset, Professional Development, Teacher Change