Florida’s rejection of 42 math textbooks for including “prohibited” topics obscures a more nuanced and important issue: Decades of educational research are colliding with American views about freedom and morality.
The books were rejected for including newly prohibited topics like social-emotional learning and critical race theory. At a recent news conference, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed that “Math is about getting the right answer. . . . It’s not about how you feel about the problem.”
Yet educators point to a huge body of research showing that how students feel about a math problem is indeed critical.
American education used to pair content with character, and most of us would agree that both are the foundation for success. As agreement on core values has eroded, however, teachers find themselves in the crosshairs of a new political battle that pits the role of emotions in learning — and especially learning to think for yourself — against desires to control the content students are learning. Should school be more about the process of learning how to think, or about content, correct answers and what to think?
Research tells us that confidence and mindset are the result of how we talk to ourselves about what happens to us. Confidence and optimism are temporary and constantly need to be constructed: If we tell ourselves that our missed catch, social blunder, sales error or wrong answer is personal, permanent and pervasive (what psychologist Martin Seligman calls our “explanatory style”), then we are less resilient and more likely to give up.
When a student gets one of those wrong answers that concern the Florida governor, how they think about it is actually critical. Those with what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” see that wrong answer as an opportunity for learning and growth — and that mindset opens a door for more of that growth.
If you believe you can make yourself smarter, stronger or better, research says, you can.
Students with a “fixed mindset,” however, believe that intelligence, skill and talent are fixed, and every failure just confirms the limits of their ability. They believe they can’t make themselves better, and that belief becomes self-fulfilling.
Teachers have long known that persistence in the face of failure is essential for learning, and in the past, parents seemed to agree. Whether it is the new label of “social-emotional learning” or simply the growing politicization of school curriculums, there is a new suspicion around this established science. Most Americans do not want educators or government officials telling parents what they can say to their children, and some parents are starting to see teachers and textbooks that advocate for and promote a positive mental attitude for successful lives as an encroachment on their parental rights.
There is a real tension we should be discussing between parents who want to raise their children as they see fit (even if they want to tell them they are stupid and will never be good at math) and teachers who contradict that (telling them they are not stupid andcan learn math).
The vast majority of teachers do not want to teach students what to think: We want to see our students surpass us and learn to think independently. Democracy requires and teachers want students to learn how to think and, when they graduate, no longer need a teacher to tell them what is fact and what is fiction.
Education is a bit like fitness training. The person who does the work gets the benefit, and watching a teacher do pushups is not that useful (even if they are intellectual pushups). Some instruction in the best way to do pushups is helpful, but ultimately, the way to learn or get fit is to do the work. Good trainers and teachers motivate students to do more pushups.
Teachers want to make sure students have the right answers, but also develop the character to persist in the face of wrong ones.
What Florida is calling “social-emotional learning” is really a form of motivation, and is derived from research that affirms the connection between success and grit, or what some call character (and indeed, until now, much of the criticism of grit and mindset has been from some on the left arguing that the concepts lead to victim blaming). As Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”Those conditions, even, and perhaps especially, in math, include self-belief, confidence and resilience.
Scientists like Seligman, Dweck and Duckworth have given us a much better understanding of the way in which our thinking and feeling about failure influences our persistence and future success. While it sounds sensible to argue that teachers should simply teach 2+2=4, the real problem is, what happens when we answer 3?
Will we stop trying? Will we memorize the right answer (temporarily)? Or will we instead have the self-belief to tell ourselves that mistakes are how we learn, and that we have just learned something that can change us and our future?
Some parents and politicians, however, see all of this emphasis on self-belief as crossing an educational line from content to character, and they are right. A generation or two ago, there was broader agreement about the values an American education should instill: sharing, telling the truth, working hard and liberty and justice for all.
As parents and schoolboards have become more polarized around the causes of injustice (opportunity or character), understanding how emotions and identity influence how and what we think has put science and teachers on a collision course with some parents and politicians. But self-belief, grit and an ability to think for yourself are building blocks of character and contribute to education. Who gets to teach these values (parents or teachers) should and will be contested. Traditionally, it is those on the left who have objected to including character in discussions of inequality (seeing opportunity and fairness as the real issues), but now the right is objecting to the teaching of positive character traits as well.
Teachers have long sought to teach students how to think without teaching them what to think. That is not a perfectly attainable goal: Teachers do have real influence! Americans now need to have real conversations about the values we share that can help students and democracy thrive in the future.
This piece about Florida’s textbook ban and SEL was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.