My professional philosophy of education changed forever on the day I learned of the Growth Mindset concept by Carol Dweck. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset” (p.5).
What I took from this concept is no matter how good I think I am, I need to be open to the idea of improvement. When I applied it to my teaching practice, things really began to change for me.
In the beginning of my career, I was committed to the idea of strong structure in the classroom and in my lessons. I developed a firm and unyielding warm-up system to begin each class. I had desks organized in a particular order – even going so far as to mark desk locations right onto the floor. I arranged student seating in a particular way. I had a rigid system for students exiting the room (involving discrete hand gestures and an exit log to be completed). I also had a strict no-tardy policy whereby students who were late to class were locked out until I felt the time was appropriate for them to be allowed into the room.
Now, none of these practices are bad. In fact, having a predictable set of expectations for students can be helpful. Students will never be shocked or confused when you have a coherent and regular system of classroom behaviors. The downside of my systems was the issue that I was very rigid about them. I was inflexible and unforgiving. I may no effort to allow for special circumstances, nor was I open to occasional changes. These concepts were not off the top of my head. They were based on the writings of classroom discipline gurus, like Dr. Fred Jones and Ron Morrish, who were very influential back when I began my teaching career in 2001. Jones’ mantra “Discipline comes before instruction” guided the way I set up my classrooms and how I organized student learning. I was fixed on the goal of management first, and then learning second.
Then, through the Twitter site of a former colleague, I was introduced to Carol Dweck. My friend’s tweet contained a chart outlining the differences between what Dweck called a Growth Mindset and what she termed a Fixed Mindset. The illustration revealed to me that I had locked myself into a mode of teaching and that I was closing myself off to new ideas and possibilities.
One of the areas that this mindset change affected in particular was the area of needs. All throughout the early portion of my career, I was focused on my needs. I needed students to arrive on time. I needed students to sit in orderly rows. I needed students to be quiet and focused. I needed students to work hard and be focused on success. What I never considered was the needs of the students. What was in this for them? I recall walking down the hall of my school in Kuwait and seeing an 8th grade student walking to the washroom. They were walking slow, obviously dragging out this journey. I snapped at the student, encouraging them to pick up the pace and stop wasting valuable school time. But after the Growth Mindset experience, I looked at this kind of thing much differently. Now when I see a student walking slowly to and from the bathroom I consider the trip from their point of view. Clearly, this student is not just going to the bathroom – they are taking a break. And when I think about student workload and how early my school begins, I see that sometimes students feel exhausted and even overwhelmed at times. And, with all their personal time regimented and compartmentalized by our schedules, when else will they find the time they need to decompress or just be. Now I don’t say anything to students I see in the hallways. I let them take their breaks because maybe that student just really needs a break.
Another area of student need that changed when I discovered the Growth Mindset concept was student need for control over their learning. For too long I had controlled how and what students learned. It was time for me to let go of the proverbial reins. In 2014 I began to experiment with tests that provided students with assessment options. I created tests that had three options for determining their understanding: a multiple-choice version, a short answer version, and an essay-style version. Students could then decide which way they wanted to showcase their learning. Each option had a different point value, so if a student wanted to push themselves for more points, they could do so. But, if a student felt confident or was busy working on something for another class, they could take an easier route. Recently I went to a conference and learned that education researchers, such as Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda, are taking this concept to a new level – why not provide even more choice? Why not have students design their own assessments? I have just begun to explore this idea, having discussions with particular students to get their input on how I could roll out this idea and how students might react. Hopefully I can test an actual student-designed project before the end of this year.
Another area of student need that I am now focused on as a result of Growth Mindset is student opinion. Because I am paying closer attention to my students now, I began to notice behaviors and comments that raised red flags in my brain. To get to the bottom of these issues, I conducted a student survey at the beginning of this year. Lana Danielson, in the article Fostering Reflection, called this idea “deliberate thinking” (p. 4). If some sort of issue is raised among students, a teacher cannot simply ignore it or push it aside, as I had done in the early part of my career. Instead, Danielson recommends, a teacher should seek greater understanding and later, in the dialectical thinking stage, address the concern. I have taking this idea to another level and am creating a program whereby I interview so-called problem students to get a better understanding of why some students seem to be checked out of education. Where along their school journey did they come off the rails? This is something I never would have done earlier. Then, I would have labelled this kind of student a quitter and given up on them.
Before Growth Mindset I was a content delivery mechanism. I had a list of curriculum objectives to achieve, and structured my classes to load students up with my course content. That has now changed. I have broadened my content to make better connections to the world in an effort to make history more relevant. In addition, I am also focusing on student language needs and include academic language (focusing on discussion opportunities) into my lesson plans to ensure my students do more than just sit and take notes in my class.
My hope is that by role modelling Growth Mindset, I can change the way students think about themselves. Rather than thinking they are smart and fixed in a particular manner, I can show students that we are all growing all the time and can change our paths. This should have a dramatic impact on those students who have been labelled as “losers” or “failures” by their peers or teachers, inspiring them to work towards success.
Tice, Julie. (2004). Reflective teaching: Exploring our own classroom practice. Retrieved from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/reflective-teaching-exploring-our-own-classroom-practice
Danielson, Lana. Educational Leadership. (2009, February). Fostering Reflection. Retrieved from: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb09/vol66/num05/Fostering-Reflection.aspx
Wilson, Reid. (2014, December). Growth vs Fixed Mindset For Elementary Students. Retrieved from: https://wayfaringpath.coetail.com/2014/12/02/growth-vs-fixed-mindset-for-elementary-students/
Jones, Frederic. (2000). Tools for Teaching. F.H. Jones and Associates. Santa Cruz, California.