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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: ‘Growth Mindset Starts With Us, Not With Them’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 19, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

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 features 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.

Before I get to today’s guests, though, I’d like to share a few comments of my own....

I’m a big believer in the benefits - to students and teachers alike - that can come from emphasizing the idea of a growth mindset (originated by Professor Carol Dweck, who wrote a previous guest column here titled Classroom Strategies To Foster A Growth Mindset) in schools. Simply put (in my understanding, at least), it means that success is based on effort and learning, not on “natural talent.” No one is born “good” or “bad” at something - a belief that you are is considered having a “fixed mindset.” Those with a growth mindset are more likely to view obstacles and mistakes as just common occurrences that are expected and that can be overcome. This mindset is exemplified by what a former colleague of Mahatma Gandhi told me years ago, “The key to Gandhi’s success was that he looked at every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain in the butt.”

I’ve found that my English Language Learner students have particularly been positively affected by learning about this concept, and I hear many of them referencing it when pushing themselves - for example, when entering International Baccalaureate classes at our school even though they are fearful of the language challenges they might face. Interestingly, recent research has found that learning another language promotes the belief that more things can be learned and fewer abilities are innate - a key tenet of growth mindset theory.

Guest contributors to this series will speak far more eloquently (and perhaps share more effective instructional ideas) than I on how to implement a growth mindset in the classroom, but I would just like to briefly share a few suggestions about what has seemed to work in my experience. Direct links to supporting research, as well as to practical classroom examples, can be found at my post, The Best Resources On Helping Our Students Develop A “Growth Mindset.”

These strategies include:

* Teacher feedback focusing on praising effort and hard work (“I noticed that you were practicing pronouncing the words and asking your partner for advice before you read that passage to the class, and it really showed”).

* Teaching about how the brain grows by learning.

* Creating a classroom culture that recognizes mistakes as learning opportunities on the natural road towards ultimate success, and not as a cause for punishment or ridicule

* Communicating high-expectations and confidence in student success also helps students develop a growth mindset. I’m particularly impressed by the work of Zaretta Hammond in this area.

* Encouraging perseverance (see the three-part series in this column on “grit”).

* Explicitly teaching about a growth mindset.

At the same time I espouse its benefits, however, I have to say that I also believe that a growth mindset can be oversold at times. It’s one of many strategies that can be effective in the classroom and, like others that fit under the umbrella of Social Emotional Learning, can be used dangerously to push what I call a Let Them Eat Character agenda. Fortunately, Professor Dweck seems to be fighting back against misinterpretations of her work.

I hope this two-part series can also contribute to this public conversation about a growth mindset through clarifying misunderstandings and offering practical guidance.

Previous posts on aspects of Social Emotional Learning can be found under the tag Student Motivation.

Coincidentally, RSA Animate just released this short animation of a recent speech by Professor Dweck:

Response From Eduardo Briceño

Eduardo Briceño has been immersed in growth mindset research and practice since he began working with Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell in 2007 as the Co-Founder & CEO of Mindset Works. His growth mindset TEDx talk is widely used to increase growth mindset awareness and understanding, as are Mindset Works’ teacher training and curriculum resources.

Eduardo is the Co-Founder & CEO of Mindset Works, which he created with Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackwell and others to help people develop as motivated and effective learners. Carol Dweck is still on the board of directors, but has no financial interest in or income from Mindset Works. The ideas expressed in this response are entirely Eduardo Briceño’s:

Growth mindset is a seemingly simple concept, but in fact there is a lot of nuance to it, and misconceptions are common. Here are some distinctions that people come to understand over time, along with implications for the classroom:

Growth mindset is a specific concept

When people first learn about the growth mindset, they frequently feel that they’ve known it all along but didn’t have the language to refer to it. But when we then ask them to describe what the growth mindset is, they often describe something else. This is very understandable, as we humans always learn new ideas by connecting them to what we already know. If someone believes that perseverance is important, then that person may conclude that growth mindset equals having high perseverance, since the terms are related. But growth mindset is not having high perseverance, or working hard, or maintaining high expectations. Growth mindset is the understanding that personal qualities and abilities can change.

It is difficult to foster a growth mindset if we are not clear on what it is. Growth mindset research has shown how important it is to change our understanding about the nature of abilities in order to develop learning-oriented behaviors such as challenge-seeking, openness to feedback, and resilience. If we think that growth mindset means to work hard, then we may encourage students to work hard, which is not a bad thing to do, but it’s an incomplete approach if we’re not also deliberately working to change their understanding about the nature of abilities.

As educators, we must deeply explore this specificity of what a growth mindset is and then address that precise understanding in ourselves and with students. We can study the plasticity of the brain or how top performers built their abilities, for example. When we speak with students, we can listen for their underlying assumptions about the nature of abilities, and we can deliberately send the message, through what we say and do, that abilities are developed through effective effort.

Growth mindset informs everything we do

Growth mindset practice is not just about praise, or about what we say. Growth mindset informs everything we do.

Praise is a common entry point for people to start learning about mindset because it highlights something often done that inadvertently fosters fixed mindsets, given how prevalent it is to praise others for being smart. This draws people in and encourages them to start learning about growth mindset, which is a lifelong journey. But praise is just a small part of growth mindset practice.

Aside from praising students, we can ask them questions that prompt them to reflect on their process. We can ask them about what they want to get better at, and we can share what we’re working to improve upon. We can talk about mistakes we’ve made recently and what we’ve learned from them. We can reflect on what learning strategies we’re using, what’s working well and what different approaches we might try. We can reward (socially or otherwise) when students ask questions, share their mistakes so everyone can learn from them, revise their behavior or work to incorporate feedback, give us feedback we can learn from, help others learn, and do anything else that is learning oriented. We can focus our feedback more on the substance of work or behaviors and less on the letter or number. We can search for new ways to give such feedback, such as by recording our voices for students to listen to, which leads us to give more substantive feedback and them to pay more attention to it. We can model being learners by visiting other classrooms so we can observe and learn from other educators, and then ask them questions and share ideas for improvement, doing so in front of students so they know we all learn throughout life. We can talk about what we’re learning outside of school and why we’re interested in it.

Growth mindset starts with us, not with them

When we work with schools, we encourage them to first train their teachers on growth mindset understanding and practice, so that adults can begin their growth mindset journeys, and then to teach students about the malleability of abilities along with effective learning strategies. We avoid simply giving teachers a laundry list of growth mindset “do’s” and “don’ts” because this work is more effective when we develop a deep understanding of mindset, so that we can incorporate it into everything we do. We can then explore our own mindset and its implications, which allows us to better empathize with students’ thinking and to better support one another to become more learning oriented over time.

It is difficult to foster a growth mindset in others if we haven’t engaged in the hard, reflective work of identifying our own fixed mindsets, observing them mindfully, and working to shift our thinking over time. We can reflect on whether we truly believe that all students can learn effectively, and whether we are energetically trying different approaches so that we can reach more students and attain higher levels of success. Do we believe that we can improve the way we teach, make learning experiences more relevant and meaningful, better differentiate instruction, develop more positive and close relationships with students and their families, and become better mentors? And do we act on those beliefs or do we become complacent and do today what we did yesterday?

Growth mindset practice is the start, not the end, of learning

While a growth mindset is a foundational part of learning and something I think we should all strive to cultivate, it is not the end of learning, but the start. A growth mindset puts students and adults into learning mode. Adopting a growth mindset doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly know how to do differential equations, or from one day to another become master teachers, or know it all. I’m grateful for that, as otherwise the rest of life would be pretty boring. A growth mindset prompts us to set challenging learning goals, seek effective learning strategies, focus on what we are looking to improve upon, reflect and learn from our mistakes, and make greater progress. A growth mindset steepens the slope of our learning curve.

Growth mindset is a journey, not a destination

Through time, we develop a deeper understanding of growth mindset and its implications, and we learn how to better manage our learning processes. For example, early on we may learn about the value of mistakes and start emphasizing a simple message like “mistakes are good.” But then we may get disappointed when students make lots of mistakes in a test, or when they make the mistake of punching a peer. This may confuse students because we told them that “mistakes are good” but then we didn’t like it when they made some mistakes. Situations like this may lead us to explore mistakes more deeply and start differentiating stretch mistakes from other types of mistakes.

When we work to foster a growth mindset in ourselves, over time we get better at getting better. In a growth mindset, we can find more fulfillment and become more effective in the hard work of learning and improving. If we’re not working hard to improve our teaching, then I invite us to work on our mindset and its resulting behaviors.

Response From Kristine Mraz & Christine Hertz

Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz are teachers, educational consultants, and the co- authors of A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful Independent Growth (Heinemann). You can follow them @MrazKristine and @Christine_Hertz:

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success has transformed the way teachers, parents, coaches and students themselves think about learning and growth. Dweck’s theory is that people with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence is something that can be changed and developed, while people with fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is fixed and cannot change. Dweck has found that a person’s mindset is malleable and can change and that developing a growth mindset makes children- and adults!- more successful and happier.

Recently, in a September 2015 article for Education Week, Dweck addressed the nuanced nature of our mindsets. She wrote, “Let’s acknowledge that (1) we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, (2) we will probably always be, and (3) if we want to move closer to a growth mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds.” Additionally, Dweck cautioned educators against relying on effort alone to boost students’ performance. “Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck.” Dweck writes, “They need this repertoire of approaches--not just sheer effort--to learn and improve.”

Peter DeWitt, who works with John Hattie at Visible Learning, echoes Dweck’s call for strategies and feedback. In a recent article in Education Week DeWitt writes, “The problem with the growth mindset, and why it’s sometimes a low-hanging fruit, is that school leaders and teachers do a book study on it, but their practices really don’t change as much as their monologue does. Talking about a growth mindset is easy, but having one is harder than we may think.”

So what might teaching the growth mindset look like in the classroom? How do we change our instructional practices to effectively develop a growth mindset in our students? How do we walk the walk without just talking the talk?

One approach is to complement teaching the growth mindset with Art Costa and Bella Kallick’s longstanding work on habits of mind and metacognition. By teaching students to be flexible, persistent and optimistic in the face of challenge, teachers help students develop a repertoire of habits and strategies to turn to when learning gets challenging. But habits alone are not enough- a classroom that fosters a growth mindset must be one that meets students where they are. As both Dweck and DeWitt have noted, a growth mindset does not mean effort alone. Nor does it mean persisting in the face of an impossible task or blaming a student because they are “just not trying hard enough.” Creating a classroom of risk, resilience and growth means that teachers create “just right” learning opportunities to challenge students in their zones of proximal development.

Once a teacher has developed “just right” challenges for students, whether it be in their play, reading, math, or social interactions, it is essential that there are strategies in place to support children as they take it on. In our classrooms, we have found that explicitly teaching positive self talk, crafting personal narratives of success in the face of challenge, setting goals, and reflecting on growth to all be effective strategies in supporting children develop and maintain a growth mindset.

Thanks to Eduardo, Kristine and Christine 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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