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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

Why Leaders Need to Develop Their Own Growth Mindset

By Peter DeWitt — November 15, 2020 6 min read
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In this powerful critique, Harvard’s Richard Elmore (2006) writes, “It is no longer necessary to belabor the catastrophe that is the education, certification, and licensure of school leaders in the U.S. The cartel—the interlocking and self-perpetuating system of state agencies, cash for-credit university programs, and hopelessly inadequate local hiring practices—has been exposed once again in all its gory detail, this time from within.”

Elmore goes on to offer four principles to help break the cartel and improve school leadership. Those principles are:

  • Principle 1. Everything should be anchored in the instructional core of schooling.
  • Principle 2. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
  • Principle 3. Professions have practices. Educational leadership is a profession without a practice.”
  • Principle 4. “Powerful practices require strategies; a list is not a strategy.

As hard as it is to read the article, and the fact that it was written in 2006, many school leaders understand that they may not have totally been prepared for their school leadership positions. It sometimes feels as though leaders spend their first few years checking issues off their lists as opposed to developing their own leadership mindsets and as well as developing leadership mindsets within others around them. After all, those teacher leaders in schools that lead PLCs, grade-level meetings, and departments need leadership mindsets, too. If we are to strengthen the instructional core of schooling, shouldn’t those teacher leaders be a part of the systemic solutions?

It Begins with Mindset: When we hear the word “mindset,” our thoughts typically go directly to the work of Carol Dweck, the well-known researcher from Stanford University. Dweck wrote Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2006, and since its first publication, it has been translated into over 25 languages.

Mindset became a hot topic following the release of Dweck’s book, and it still continues to be a focus in classrooms and schools around the world. Dweck’s work focuses on whether students see their intelligence as fixed, meaning something they cannot change, or whether students see their mindsets as something that can develop over time by putting in effort and feeling confident enough to try new strategies to gain deeper learning.

Unfortunately, over the years, Dweck’s mindset work has been used and misused by educators in those classrooms and schools around the world. So much so, that Dweck had to write a clarification of her research in Education Week. In the article, Dweck (2015) clarifies the difference between having a growth mindset and having a fixed mindset:

Students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could "grow their brains" and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.

Dweck went on to write about the often misunderstood aspect of the growth-mindset research:

A growth mindset isn't just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students' achievement, but it's not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they're stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.

In September of 2020, I interviewed Dweck on my web show, A Seat at the Table (Education Week; click here for the recorded version) and I asked her if the research could be adapted for adults, and she agreed wholeheartedly that it could. As leaders, we need to develop our own growth mindsets and embed those mindsets into our own skills and practices.

Practice, Mindset, and Skills: Rhinesmith (1992) defines mindset as “a predisposition to see the world in a particular way . . . a filter through which we look at the world” (p. 63) and expanded the definition (1995) by saying it “is a way of being rather than a set of skills. It is an orientation of the world that allows one to see certain things that others do not” (p. 276).

Therefore, as we look at the practice of leadership, research is telling us that there are three elements that comprise the practice. Those three areas are skills, practice, and mindset. Each one of those elements, whether we talk about practice, mindset, or skills, is not enough. We need to develop all three within ourselves and our groups to truly have an impact on our school community and focus on the instructional core of schooling.

How does this look in reality? Let’s try a personal example.

In late summer, I purchased a Peloton bike. (No, I’m not a paid spokesperson.) After four months of riding my road bike through Adirondack Park where I grew up, and just like every year, I anticipated the cold weather quickly approaching. So I had the forethought in late August to purchase something to train on as I spent more and more time at home due to COVID. I don’t mind stationary equipment and have an elliptical in my small home gym already, but after downloading the Peloton app and using their yoga and meditation courses for a month, I was hooked.

Over the first week of having the bike, I began taking longer classes of up to 90 minutes and consistently increased my number of days on the bike since I first bought it. Besides offering suggestions on cadence and resistance, the instructors focus on skills, practice, and mindset. Perhaps I think of educational research too much (it also distracted me from the pain!), but as I ride the bike that goes nowhere, I notice that the instructors approach practice, skills, and mindset in the following ways:

Skills - The instructors model the form needed to ride the bike efficiently. Sitting upright, relaxed shoulders and relaxed handgrip on the bike. A constant theme they focus on is for those of us training to work on our skills at the beginning of the ride because our skills are what go first toward the end of the ride when we’re tired. Many times I may be singing to the music at the beginning of the ride and hyperventilating at the end.

Practice - Each instructor gives dozens of shoutouts to people who are on their first ride, 100th ride, or even those with well over 1,000 rides. Those same instructors often speak about consistently practicing three times a week.

Mindset - One of the areas they focus on is to switch our mindset from thinking we are merely exercising ... to believing and thinking that we are in training. At the time I began using the Peloton, I had no idea what I was training for, but I felt much more engaged when I switched my thinking from looking at the time on the Peloton as exercise and began looking at it as training, and that is how I approach it every single day.

Lesson. Is it possible to switch our thinking from COVID being a time to get through to looking at is as a time to learn from? We’re going to be in this for a while longer, and a switch of mindset might be what we need.

In the End: Elmore’s critique is correct. We need to eradicate our list logic. I understand it’s hard, especially during COVID, but this is a time when a blend of mindset, practice, and skills is going to help keep leaders going.

How do we do that?

Perhaps we try to engage in dialogue focused on learning more frequently with our staff at faculty meetings. We can develop our instructional-leadership practices through trying to focus on different instructional strategies at faculty meetings to inspire new conversations (click this link for a 4-minute video on reciprocal teaching for faculty meetings). We can collaborate with staff to delve into deeper learning walks (click here for a YouTube video on learning walks) where we don’t merely check something off our list but learn from teachers and teachers learn from us.

When we look at communities of practices approaches, like that of Peloton, we can learn a lot about combining skills, practice, and mindset to chip away at those systemic issues that Elmore believes should be our focus.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is an independent consultant and the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel. He is the moderator of Education Week’s A Seat At the Table.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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