Teachers Seize On 'Growth Mindset,' But Crave More Training

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As enthusiasm about "growth mindset" spreads across schools, researchers who popularized the idea are concerned that teachers might not have the resources or understanding to use it effectively in their classrooms.

And teachers themselves seem to be well aware of the gap between knowing about growth mindset and having the skills to incorporate it into their classroom strategies.

In a nationwide poll of K-12 teachers conducted by the Education Week Research Center, 77 percent said they were familiar or very familiar with growth mindset, but 85 percent said they wanted more professional development in the area.

Growth-mindset research suggests that students will be more engaged in learning when they understand that their talents and intellectual capabilities can strengthen through effort and strategy. That's counter to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that such skills are inherent and unchangeable.

Students with a fixed mindset are less likely to respond to mistakes by developing strategies to improve in the future, research suggests.

Mindset researchers are now faced with a balancing act: encouraging educators to seek a deeper understanding of the concept without squelching the enthusiasm that got them interested in the first place.

"We're really at the critical juncture of whether the idea will be effectively adopted or whether it's going to get discarded," said Jacquie Beaubien, a senior program manager for the Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, a Stanford University research lab that investigates practical ways to put mindset research to work in K-12 schools.

Without effective, research-based practices, teachers may abandon growth mindset as just another buzzword or fad, Beaubien said. That's why the Stanford lab is offering online training modules for teachers, creating a diagnostic tool to determine if their classroom practices are supported by mindset research, and assessing their professional-development needs around the subject.

In its survey of teachers, the Education Week Research Center found that 53 percent of respondents said that their use of growth mindset was a very important factor contributing to academic achievement, ranking it below others such as motivation, teaching quality, and school climate. An online poll of a national sample of more than 600 teachers who are registered users of edweek.org was conducted in May.

Demand for Practical Training

It's not uncommon for teachers to want more practical training in how to use mindset research, even if they are very interested in the concept, educators noted. Many teachers didn't learn about this approach to student motivation in their preservice training, instead picking up on it from books, articles, and discussions with peers.

As a result, Stanford researchers working with focus groups found that those teachers often have misconceptions about the research. Among them: equating a growth mindset with a general sense of optimism, emphasizing sheer effort instead of teaching students to develop new learning strategies, and focusing on how they communicate with students rather than adapting broader classroom practices.

"They become very focused on labeling students' behavior and not really probing what's driving that behavior," Beaubien said, adding that some teachers mistakenly identify a student with a lack of interest in a subject as someone who has a fixed mindset and a fear of making mistakes in front of his or her peers.

Just 35 percent of teachers surveyed by Education Week's Research Center said their training and professional development had included strategies for collaborating with other teachers on incorporating growth-mindset concepts into their classroom practices, which researchers have identified as an important way to develop strong and meaningful approaches to using their work.

Respondents did demonstrate an understanding of mindset research. A majority identified the kinds of student praise that would be more likely to nurture a growth mindset. (The Education Week Research Center consulted a panel of experts on the subject to formulate that question). And a majority of respondents reported using on a daily or weekly basis practices that experts have linked to promoting growth mindsets—such as praising students for effort. Fewer respondents said they used practices known to lock in a fixed mindset, such as praising students for their intelligence, on a daily or weekly basis.

When asked how they integrated growth mindset into their teaching practices, 33 percent of respondents said they did so by praising students for taking risks and persevering, the most popular answer.

Less popular among respondents were other strategies that researchers say promote growth mindsets: using formative assessments, self-evaluation, and assignment revisions, 18 percent; encouraging multiple strategies for learning, 17 percent; and supporting peer-to-peer learning, 13 percent. Leaders of ongoing schoolwide and districtwide professional development in mindsets say those deeper changes to classroom practices are necessary to help students learn how to respond to mistakes.

Staying Informed Is a Challenge

Another problem identified by the Stanford lab—high teacher-turnover rates in high-poverty schools—makes it difficult to keep a teaching staff informed about the concept. That's especially problematic because researchers have found that while students from low-income families are less likely to have a growth mindset, their learning is affected more dramatically than their wealthier peers' when they adopt the approach to learning.

Some districts, both high- and low-income, have worked to address that churn effect by making mindsets part of ongoing discussions and working groups.

In Baltimore, what the Stanford researchers call a "mindset revolution" started when two teachers became interested in the concept and formed a group of peers in their school to read books and share effective strategies for putting it to work in classrooms. That effort has remained teacher-led as it expanded to other schools, said Tina Jablonowski, the district's coordinator of new-teacher support and development.

Two years ago, she incorporated growth-mindset discussions into the district's new-teacher-induction program, which includes summer training and follow-up with a mentor for the first few years in the classroom.

"Teaching students how to learn and take risks and really think through their learning process was something that we didn't do in the classroom," Jablonowski said. "We see students who struggle, and it's almost like they're paralyzed because they don't want to fail."

An understanding of mindsets gives new teachers a way of thinking about all kinds of classroom practices, including how to grade, organize student groups, and conduct classroom discussions, she said.

That's been true in the school system in Marshing, Idaho, said Ken Price, the director of the district's 21st-century learning-center site.

After a district wide training about mindsets, teachers began applying what they learned to every area of their work, even classroom management. A 5th grade teacher put signs in her room describing traits like honesty and kindness. She encouraged students to pick a trait they wanted to improve in themselves and to identify ways to do so. She shared her own answer, talking about past mistakes and regrets.

"When an adult shares their vulnerabilities and their hopes, then kids go, 'Hey, that's OK for me to do, too,' " Price said.

While the growth mindset concept is intuitive to many teachers, it takes time and collaboration to incorporate it into classroom practices, he said.

"We don't have to do this perfectly all at once and we don't have to be comprehensive all at once."

Vol. 36, Issue 05, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: September 21, 2016, as Teachers Seize On 'Growth Mindset,' But Classroom Practice Lags
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