Promoting Growth Mindset with 3 Act Math

  • Promoting Growth Mindset with 3 Act Math

    By Dane Ehlert, posted October 26, 2015 –

    In this post, we’ll shift our focus to course content. Specifically, 3 Act Math can help promote growth mindset. For more on what 3 Act Math is and how to use it, click here.


    One big reason why these tasks are helpful is the fact that there is a low entry point. Jo Boaler talks about this. It’s crucial for allowing students at every level to be able to enter a problem. Here’s the set up (video).

    After playing the video, ask, “Which way will be faster?” and students simply write down a guess. This is great because all students, no matter what their confidence level, can take a guess. This is the low floor that Boaler is looking for. I’ve seen some of the least confident students get very involved with these types of problems because of the low entry point and the high intrigue level.


    Another crucial component is the fact that there are multiple routes to a reasonable solution. This is important because students begin to develop growth mindset when they can see different avenues to success.

    Act 2 is where multiple methods occur in the lesson. Students are given information after some discussion that has taken place about what might be needed to solve the problem. For example, we need to know the speed of the person on the stairs (video).

    After the necessary information is received, the students work in groups to solve the problem. Almost always, different methods are used throughout the room. Here are some possibilities for this lesson.

    2015-10-26 art1 

    2015-10-26 art2

    2015-10-26 art3  

    As you can see, a variety of problem-solving tools can be used. This is awesome because it allows for good discussion, formative assessment, and personal dialogue between teachers and students. All of this can help encourage growth mindset.


    After students work on the problem and present their work, it’s time to reveal the actual result for Act 3.

    The reveal not only is exciting but also allows for a great opportunity to discuss the imperfection of mathematical models in real life and encourages learning from mistakes. Many times, the actual result is different from students’ calculations even if they didn’t make computation errors. For example, many students will not get the exact time for the stairs because of other factors at play. Did the speed change during the descent? What about the time to go around the turns? This problem provides a chance to analyze the influences in real life that don’t always allow for a perfect “right” answer. In addition, students can be encouraged to share possible mistakes they made and how they could correct them. This is important because they need to continually be shown that mistakes are valued in our classrooms.


    My favorite reason for using these tasks is the students themselves. I have to mention one individual whose story inspired me to never take these problems out of the curriculum.

    I had a junior in my freshman algebra class last year because he had failed the course twice. On the last day of school, the student came to see me.

    “Mr. E, I just want to say thank you. I’ve always struggled with math, but this year I finally got it.”

    What struck me the most was the student discussing his previous struggles with math. This was surprising because he was brilliant mathematically. Every time we did an open-ended problem in class, I was blown away by his thought process, visuals, and reasoning. It was incredible to witness, and the other students were in awe, as well. We could all see that this student had an amazing ability to reason mathematically.

    I told him he was brilliant, and it showed in his work. His response is why I will always use these tasks.

    “Well, yeah, I was good at those problems because they’re real life. They just make sense.”

    What he was saying is that he was able to have the space to demonstrate his thinking in a way that he’s never had before. He, along with so many other students, just needed a different outlet to express his thinking. Whenever it came to traditional work and assessment, this student was near the class average. It wasn’t always easy to see his thinking come out. When we opened up the tasks, his ability shone in a way that was easy for everyone to see. I want these types of students in our classrooms to have an opportunity to show their math potential in this way. I know that there are countless students who have “always struggled with math” but just need the opportunity to show that they really are “math people.”

    Check out the following list for great 3 Act/open-ended lessons.

    You can also see problems in action with student work and outstanding insight at Clayton Edwards's blog.  

    2015-09 Elhert 

    Dane Ehlert,, is a secondary math teacher in Texas. He tweets at @DaneEhlert and blogs at


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    Tamara Bonn - 7/22/2019 12:13:55 PM

    I tried clicking on the video link and it says the video does not exist.  Can you send me an updated link?