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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Applying a Growth Mindset in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 21, 2015 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What exactly is meant by a growth mindset, what might be common misconceptions about it, and what could it look like in the classroom?

Part One in this series featured responses from Eduardo Briceño, Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Eduardo on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s post includes contributions from David Yeager, Debbie Zacarian, Peter DeWitt, and Barbara Blackburn, along with comments from readers.

Response From David Yeager

David Yeager is an Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-chair of the Mindset Scholars Network(@MindsetScholars). Prior to beginning his career as a researcher, he was a middle school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma:

What exactly is meant by a growth versus fixed mindsets?

The fixed mindset refers to the belief that intellectual ability is a fixed quality. It leads students to feel that intellectual struggle is a sign that you lack ability. A growth mindset is the belief that intellectual ability can grow and be developed. It leads students to see their challenges as part of a process of growth, rather than as a sign that they are deficient.

I’m a former middle school teacher. I’ve seen many kids feel they need to live up to the fixed mindset ideal of always looking smart and never putting your intelligence on the line. But the growth mindset feels liberating because students no longer have to operate under the specter of feeling “smart” or “dumb.”

What are common misconceptions about growth and fixed mindsets?

A first misconception is that the only thing students need is a growth mindset and then they will learn anything. But mindset programs are not magic. Mindset research often assumes that students are being given meaningful work. If not, then students may not need a growth mindset as much as they need better instruction.

A second misconception is that it is easy to teach a student to be in a growth mindset. Part of this comes from the fact that there are straightforward ways to teach a fixed mindset. A teacher could say “you are only smart if you get a 100% on this test” or “based on this test, I will know if you are AP material.” A student in such a class immediately knows what to do: don’t show any sign of weakness, or the teacher will think you are not smart.

But dispelling a fixed mindset and authentically creating a growth mindset is much harder. A few recent blog posts have addressed some reasons why (here and here and here by Eduardo Briceño, Dave Paunesku, and Carol Dweck, respectively).

What could a growth mindset look like in the classroom?

Just like there is no easy route to becoming a master teacher of math or history, becoming an expert in creating a growth mindset takes practice. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile.

A first step is to be aware of phrases or practices that could imply a fixed mindset. Do you praise students for getting answers quickly? I did, when I was a teacher--usually because I wanted to move on. But what does that communicate to the student who was thinking deeply? Or who hadn’t gotten it right yet?

We have much more to learn, but here are some places to start:

  • Provide challenging tasks. Students can’t learn unless they have challenging, engaging tasks that will enable them to do so.

  • Encourage intentional reflection. Teaching students how to apply effective effort is key to showing them they can get smarter. Expert tutors ask probing questions that invite students to problem solve and take a trouble-shooting, trial-and-error approach.

  • Link process to outcomes. Students aren’t always aware that how they solve problems and learn can matter as much as how hard they try. Teach students to break a task into steps, and tinker with the things they can control until they see improvement. This video and blog post offer specific tips.

  • Pair truthful feedback with high standards and support. Tell students the truth about their current performance. But show students that you will support them as they reach for a higher standard. This blog post explains why this is important.

  • Convey the value of mistakes. Celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn and teach students how they can build on their mistakes. This blog post describes this.

  • Reflect on how you evaluate students. Enabling students to revise and resubmit work conveys that you value growth over a snapshot of their ability at a given point in time. Grades that account for effort or improvement can also convey these messages, but they need to be paired with authentic information about students’ learning. This video shows how one teacher turned tests into learning opportunities.

  • Help students see struggle as a challenge they can overcome, not a threat. Letting students sit with struggle and work through challenges can make them feel bad in the moment but gives them confidence they can get smarter in the long run. In fact, confusion is the emotion that best predicts learning. To do this effectively, we need to help students learn how to deal with the emotions of learning and create a classroom culture in which students support one another. These videos (here and here) show what some teachers have done with their students.

Response From Debbie Zacarian

Dr. Debbie Zacarian is nationally known for her work in advancing student achievement with culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse populations. Her explanations of scientifically proven research about strength-based instruction, family-school engagement, and teacher evaluation are widely practiced. This response was drawn, in part, from her most recent book- “In It Together: how student, family and community partnerships advance engagement and achievement in diverse classrooms” (Zacarian & Silverstone, 2015). Debbie can be reached at debbie.zacarian@corwinlearning.net :

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, founder of ‘growth mindset,’ defines the concept as believing that every student can succeed and teaching them to believe in their abilities to:

  1. Embrace the challenges and complexities of learning
  2. Learn the positives of being persistent
  3. Value effort as a positive
  4. Be inspired to do more (2007).

She contrasts this to a ‘fixed mindset’ where educators believe some students can’t succeed based on their intelligence and circumstance and students may believe the same thing about themselves and others. According to sociologist Claude Steele (2010) these perceptions can negatively affect some students who perceive themselves to be in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic, or gender group that is not expected to show school success.

The same growth versus fixed mindset pertains to educators- as everyone has the potential to improve using the tenets of Dweck’s growth mindset.

One of the sharpest distinctions among students are those who possess the type of literacy practices used in school versus those needing to learn them. Generally, the former group’s families have higher levels of formal education, are familiar with school practices, use dialect skills similar to what’s spoken in school, routinely enact literacy activities (e.g., reading newspapers, recipe books), and engage children in school-readiness activities and an individualistic culture where children are expected to think independently. These practices often mirror ours, as educators, and our interactions with students and families reflect these commonalities.

Conversely, sociologist Geert Hofstede (2010) claims that most people, except Western European and US dominant peoples, come from collectivist cultures that favor relationships and interdependence. According to psychologist Mary Gauvain (2001), development focuses on providing children with rich narratives and explicit directives for being cultural members. Additionally, many families, according to Gauvain, educational scholar, Lisa Delpit (1995) and sociologist Barbara Rogoff (2003), have less formal education and speak vernacular language.

Dweck provides an example of how these cultural distinctions appear in classrooms. In a study of a Native American population, students weren’t engaged in a growth mindset when their teachers’ discussed how it would benefit their individual growth (e.g., your grades are improving, this is your personal best!). When teachers understood that contributions to the community were critical and shifted their interactions to how student learning benefited their community, students’ progress grew significantly.

As educators, our individual perspective is always missing something. It’s always a partial picture of any whole and requires the contributions of others to be complete. Teachers have a pivotal role in fostering an open and much-needed dialogue with students, families, the school community and community-at-large to ensure that education works. A first step is creating a classroom environment where everyone is seen as already capable, already learning, and already contributing. When we invite and are open to the cultures others bring, when we allow ourselves to be changed by different perspectives, and when we see these as gifts rather than obstacles, we embrace a growth mindset and, in turn, help all students succeed.

Response From Peter DeWitt

Peter DeWitt is a former teacher and school principal working as an independent education consultant. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog:

In education we love our catch phrases, especially if there are research-based excellent ideas behind them. Unfortunately, as those ideas grow they are like urban legends and take on a cult-like status. It’s just too bad that many of the people who use the ideas probably read or researched very little about them.

There is no one better to explain the Growth Mindset, then the author herself. In her Education Week Commentary (9/22/15) Carol Dweck writes,

“The growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning. When they’re stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

The Growth Mindset is probably one of the biggest ideas in education that have taken on a cult-like status. Teachers drop the words Growth Mindset in their daily conversations, and principals use the words in their dialogue with parents. Unfortunately, we all talk a lot about having a growth mindset, but the actions we take in our classrooms contradict the very words that come out of our mouths.

In July 2015 I wrote Why the Growth Mindset Won’t Work, and it was based on the work of educational researcher John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer. Hattie was giving a keynote in San Antonio, Texas and said that the Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset had an effect size of .19, which is well below is Hinge Point of .40. The Hinge Point is Hattie’s research, which is the largest meta-analysis ever done in education, is where students make a year’s worth of growth with a year’s input.

The interesting piece of Hattie’s research is that he often has found influences on learning that could work, but don’t. It doesn’t mean we give up on it, but we do have to understand why is doesn’t have the impact it should.

The reason why the growth mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that teachers and leaders talk a great deal about having a growth mindset but they treat students in fixed ways. Students are retained and their self-esteem never recovers; put into ability groups for math and reading, or they are placed in classes where they receive special services like Academic Intervention Services (AIS) and are never allowed to leave.

If we want students to really understand the growth mindset then we need to make sure our actions in the classroom or school building support our words instead of negate them.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Dr. Barbara Blackburn is the author of 15 books, including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word and her latest, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success. She regularly presents to schools and districts on rigor, motivation, engagement, and leadership. She can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

Reinforcing a growth mindset with your students requires that you have a growth mindset. It’s easy for us to hold subtle expectations that reflect a fixed mindset. For example, “They are doing the best they can” or “I heard that she wasn’t a very good student” or “He’s from that neighborhood, or “I just talked to her parents--no wonder she’s the way she is!”. When we say or think comments such as these, we hold low expectations, perhaps subconsciously, and we don’t believe in a growth mindset.

Then, we act on those low expectations. For example, if we believe students are stuck where they are (a fixed mindset), we tend to ask lower level questions, provide less wait time, and give less positive feedback. First, we will ask those struggling students a question like “What” or “Who” or “When”. Even if they answer correctly, we don’t push them to elaborate, as we would with our other students. In fact, our response to a student trying to learn is “I can’t believe they actually did that” vs. saying “I’m so proud of you for trying so hard. You can really tell you are learning the material.” The first represents the fixed mindset; the second a growth mindset. How can we encourage it in students if we don’t have it ourselves? Ultimately, the first step in building a classroom with a growth mindset is for us to evaluate our own beliefs, change those that reflect a fixed mindset, and then act on our revised beliefs in a positive way

Responses From Readers

Thanks to David, Debbie, Peter and Barbara, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including responses from readers in Part Two.

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