I first heard of growth mindset about three years ago when I had to do a mandatory professional development module at the end of the school year for my district. At a time when I am usually run-down and exhausted, this learning exhilarated me: I realized growth mindset could be a game-changer in the classroom. Carol Dweck says, “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
If you agree with this thinking, it is perfectly alright not to be there YET. We can get there: it takes hard work, effort, the proper mindset, and celebration of failure, but we can do it. Could growth mindset be the secret ingredient to student success, I thought? Lightning in a bottle? The invisible X-factor? I resolved to embrace and champion growth mindset the next year in my 2nd grade classroom, and hoped for incredible results. YES! This was my key to the future as an educator. So I did just that. When the new school year started, I defined growth mindset for my students. We created Frayer Models to develop understanding of the concept and used the words often in our speech and writing. We read and analyzed literature with characters exhibiting a growth mindset who overcame great odds and difficulties to succeed. We made posters for our classroom reminding ourselves what growth mindset was. I praised effort. We cheered success! I mentally checked the box on embracing growth mindset in my classroom. But looking back, I am not certain I truly changed anyone’s belief in themselves. This critical question keeps me up at night: How do I really help my students develop and use an authentic, powerful growth mindset?
Every day in my classroom, I keep the notion in the front of my mind that many of my students may simply feel overwhelmed when confronted with a challenging task. Some visibly crumple when they are facing a multi-step math problem, complex text, or the prospect of presenting aloud in class. They look around nervously and then freeze when they see friends completing tasks more quickly than they do. How do I help them? How can I teach them? Growth mindset is the key.
One of the most valuable aspects of my Teacher of the Year experience was being introduced to some of the most innovative, passionate, highly qualified, expert educators from around the country. Several suggested embracing practices from the book, The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley. When these educators talk, I listen. This excellent resource shows educators how to help their students develop and maintain a growth mindset, rather than just talk about it. With activities and lessons for each month, it starts with teaching students how they learn. By understanding the science of the human brain and what happens each time you try and fail, students can attain a concrete understanding of how the synapses and neurons in their brains multiply and grow as you try, try, and try again.
This year, my students made charts of the steps they had to take to learn how to do something challenging, such as a cartwheel. One student noted that she first had to learn to balance her weight to walk, as well as understand force to even contemplate a cartwheel. Once she knew what she wanted to do, she studied countless how-to videos on YouTube and started to practice. She practiced some more, and then practiced again. She left 1st grade wanting to do a cartwheel and showed up in 2nd grade two months later with that new skill. Another wanted to dribble a soccer ball. So he, too, broke down the process, all the way back to learning how to walk, run, kick, working his way up to dribbling a soccer ball. Shortly after, we made Play-Doh models of the human brain so we could understand the parts of this critical organ and what each was responsible for. One of my students who struggles with recalling facts asked me what part of the brain is responsible for memory. Making models of neurons and synapses continued the learning around how our brains work. Did I mention all of this was highly engaging for my students? We basked in the glow of our new understanding….the how of it, the science of it.
This year, I have worked really hard to change the way my students approach learning in math. For students who need more time and support in math, they can be easily defeated when they see others that grasp concepts more quickly, almost giving up in the process. Upon the advice of some of my most innovative elementary math teacher friends, I started to look at the work of Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. One of her core beliefs is that a growth mindset is key to effective math instruction for every student. Check out one of her videos here that explains brain plasticity and the potential of all students to excel at math. I ventured into a “Week of Inspirational Math” from her www.youcubed.org program and was immediately hooked. Talking about the brain during math? Science and math? Mistakes help our brains grow? WHAT? My students and I instantly LOVED these ideas and concepts. We started having rich classroom discussions around mistakes, failure and learning. One student wondered aloud if kids who make more mistakes have bigger brains than kids who learn things more quickly. Such food for thought. Such a departure from traditional thinking. So refreshing. So interesting!
To complement this line of thinking around celebrating mistakes, I put two new posters up in my classroom and asked my students to analyze deeply why they made mistakes in math. One poster asks students why they made a mistake with the following possibilities to explain their errors:
- Silly mistake
- Didn’t answer the question
- Calculation error
- Didn’t understand it
This helped students to understand that often they really did know how to problem solve or show mastery with a concept but some small barrier to success existed that could often be easily remedied. This was also powerful learning for the future and helped them to see they could learn and avoid a defeatist mindset.
The next poster asks students what they need once they have figured out why they they made a mistake. Possibilities are:
- Time to fix my answers
- A student coach
- Time with the teacher
Coupled with our discussion around brain science, these simple signs helped us all to rethink our mistakes and what we need to move forward. We realized that often, mistakes come from not a lack of understanding, but rather, a lack of a certain practice in our work that let small errors slip by. This notion reaffirmed that very often the learning and understanding is there, even if the answer is not (yet!). An administrator recently observed my classroom during math and later commented to me that it was clear my classroom and teaching had been transformed over the last year. I agree. We talk about mistakes all the time. We accept that we all learn differently and at different speeds and in different ways. We understand the power of YET.
Armed with brain science, an active growth mindset (not just the understanding of what it is), and the ability to analyze tasks step by step on the way to success, I believe my students are able to navigate their own confusion more adeptly and lean in to their learning more powerfully. Actually, I know so. I have seen the power of these strategies work in my classroom and plan to continue using The Growth Mindset Coach, Jo Boaler’s work, and the incredible brain power of my students all around me to move all of us forward. You can too. Just make sure your own growth mindset is intact and ready to go. Read more about teacher growth mindset here.
Special thanks to my 2017 Teacher of the Year squad for your inspiration: Darbie Valenti (Missouri), Shelly Vroegh (Iowa), and Jessica Solano (Florida). They NEVER tire of talking about growth mindset and incorporating new practices into our elementary classrooms.
Thank you also to @joboaler, @msanniebrock and @heatherhundley3 for your incredible work. You don’t know me, but your vision and resources have helped me transform my classroom over the last year. Proof is above. I am #grateful.
Please connect with me on twitter @mrswendymturner and Facebook at www.facebook.com/2017DETOY/