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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

1 Reason to Give the Growth Mindset a Chance

By Peter DeWitt — November 16, 2014 5 min read
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Remember the story of Teddy Stoddard? Mrs. Thompson, his fifth grade teacher, didn’t like him too much at the beginning. Sadly, debates ensued about whether the story was fictional or not. To me, it doesn’t matter because there are many students like Teddy Stoddard among us who desperately need their Mrs. Thompsons to inspire them to grow.

Growth...just as long as it’s not our waistline, is something we all aspire to have in our professional and personal lives. We all....every single one of us, have potential to do many great things.

Unfortunately, too often in schools it is achievement that is focused on, because getting good grades matters. However, any teacher knows that there are students who can achieve an A without really trying, and other students who get a C with a great deal of effort.

We should appreciate the C students more. Everyone likes to root for the underdog

Over the decades, we have all slapped a sticker on top of a student’s paper or marked it with a 100% and moved on to the next task without really diving down deeper to see if a student made any growth. We assume by the grade that they have sitting on top of their paper, that they made growth...or at least learned something.

Too many initiatives...too little time.

We need to get away from the thinking that students all have one track...that fixed mindset will ruin us. It’s why the work of Carol Dweck and the growth mindset is so vitally important. In a February, 2000 interview with Education World, Carol Dweck said,

There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected."

Dweck has changed a lot of perceptions about growth vs. fixed mindsets, but she is fighting an uphill battle still. Too often still, students who are not engaged in school or those who struggle are viewed as students who are doing the best they can, but will probably struggle with reading, math or some other academic topic through life.

In effort to make them better at something, we over assess them and suck the fun out of learning. We need a better balance.

As sad as it is, this perception happens at a very young age, especially in these days of increased accountability (i.e. Teacher growth scores, etc.) and mandates. I’ve never been a fan of some of the accountability measures and mandates, and one of the reasons why is that it provokes even some of our best teachers to believe that students who struggle will be doomed to struggle for the rest of their lives.

That’s simply not true... and we have the influence to change that.

In some cases, our students get recommended and accepted into Academic Intervention Services (AIS) and it becomes a case of the Roach Motel...once you go in you will never get out. All of this leads to perception that, when it comes to academics, we have the “Haves” and “Have-nots” in school. That’s a fixed mindset.

Which leads to one simple reason why we need to give the growth mindset a chance.

Our students deserve a chance...

Not just one chance, but a series of chances. Some students just don’t get it the first time. And sometimes it’s not a lack of effort on the part of students, but the lack of instructional strategies on the part of the teacher.

That is not meant to be critical, but we have all had students that didn’t “get” certain information, and it took a change in instruction to get there to gain that understanding. Having a “my way or the highway” mentality as a teacher...or school leader will never help foster a growth mindset.

I heard a doctor refer to our increased level of ADHD as society’s way of telling us that “it’s easier to change the child than it is to change the child’s environment.” Just because a child doesn’t fit in our box, doesn’t mean they won’t fit in to another shape. The more we tell students that they aren’t good at school, which should really be untrue, the more they will walk away thinking we didn’t care about them. The reality is that if we are telling students they are not good at school, we may be the biggest problem and not them.

With a growth mindset, educators can provide the tools for future learning, just like parents do at home, with an understanding that we cannot control what events the child will see in their future...we can only help them by providing support so that they know they can learn from failure, and take risks in order to move on and see what they can achieve.

In fostering a growth mindset I go to several places. The first is that we have to find a better balance between grades and effective feedback (Hattie). Many parents, and therefore their children, value a good grade. Parents...and some banks (Credit Unions, etc.), provide money as an incentive for good grades. What we really need to be trying to give more of is effective feedback.

John Hattie says there are 3 types of feedback:

  • Task - for those who are new to learning the information
  • Process - for those who have a small level of understanding
  • Self-regulation - For those with a high level of understanding who need the feedback that will lead them to the next level.

Hattie has spoken and written a great deal about assessment capable learners, and using SOLO Taxonomy to dive down deeper into learning. All students, no matter their grades or academic level, can be brought to a place where they know what to do when we aren’t around. Getting students to assessment capability takes a growth mindset on the part of the teacher, student and parent.

One other valued way to foster a growth mindset and get a better understanding of what is happening in the classroom is through the use of an instructional coach. I had some pushback by a teacher on Twitter who asked me if “Doctors have instructional coaches.” Her point in the Tweet was to suggest I was devaluing teachers, which isn’t anything close to the truth.

There are doctors who do have instructional coaches, which is great because they can help us see our blind spots, and here is a great article from the New Yorker explaining why we should value coaching in all professions.

Offering feedback to students, and listening to the feedback they give us...or using an instructional coaching model in the classroom where feedback is valued and not evaluated...teachers, leaders and other professionals already have to believe in the growth mindset.

In the End

We need to change our mindset about struggling. It does not have to be painful, and can be a great learning experience because within that struggling is when we have the opportunity to foster the growth mindset.

The benefit of struggling at a young age is that, with the right mindset, it can help us when we struggle when we are older. Let’s face it, we don’t leave this world unscathed, and all struggle from time to time. Instead of looking at our struggling students as the next residents of the Roach Motel, we need to have open dialogue with them about how struggling can be one of our best teachers.

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Creative Commons image courtesy of Dave Rogers.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.