Growth Mindset: Embracing Struggle

This week’s post features an inside look at Brooke Charter Schools, where Growth Mindset is at the heart of their classrooms. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.  

| Co-written by teachers, Paul Friedmann & Kate Borne

Around the end of May of last year, when spring seemed it might actually be arriving, Kate found herself in the midst of a heated conference with one of our students, Jordan. The 7th graders were drafting their responses to personal essay questions commonly seen on independent school applications. The question they were working on that day was, “Considering all your classes, what has been the most difficult topic that you studied this year? Why was it difficult and what did you learn from the experience?”

Jordan was struggling. “I can’t answer this question,” he shrugged. “I just…I mean, I can’t think of anything to write about.”

“You know,” Kate reminded him, “just because you can’t instantly think of the perfect answer to this question, doesn’t mean you can’t answer it at all. You just need to take some more ti-”

“Oh, no,” Jordan assured her. “It’s not that. I don’t need more time. I just don’t think I’ve studied anything this year that’s been difficult for me. Or last year. So…yeah. I can’t answer this.”

After a few seconds wherein Kate freaked out and internally questioned everything she had ever taught, she immediately began thinking of all the ways- MANY ways- that she had seen Jordan struggle over the previous nine months. Struggles at times that were beautifully complex, like when Jordan attempted to write a collection of sixteen poems, each shaped as a letter that spelled out, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Struggles that were, at other times, completely glamour-less, like keeping his homework folder organized (it was perpetually several inches thick); His struggle to understand Jack’s complete savageness in Lord of the Flies; His struggle to show his work for math problems; His struggle to admit when he was wrong in a discussion.

Seventh grade had, in fact, been a year of struggle and difficulty for so many of our kids- Jordan included. Why, then, wasn’t Jordan able to think of any of these moments to write about? Had he forgotten them? Had he pushed them into the darkest corners of his memory? Why couldn’t Jordan see that these difficulties he had met, and sometimes had overcome, were part of what made him so awesome?

At Brooke, growth mindset is in our blood.  You can see signs of it in our organizational values, our character education curriculum (where neuroscience and the research of Carol Dweck are taught explicitly) and in coaching conversations with our scholars.  We use it to talk about everything from math to summer program enrollment to poor behavior choices to developing strong relationships with friends and teachers.  As a result, our kids are well-versed in its theories and can easily explain its benefits.

It would be great to report that our focus on having a growth mindset has helped us get every student on the right track.  For sure, we’ve made progress, but we’re not where we want to be yet. Of course, developing and implementing a growth mindset is hard.  It takes a lot of work that some may be unwilling or unable to put in.  It requires people to believe in their ability to get better when they feel like they can’t.

But we think there’s another fundamental reason that we’re not where we want to be yet: adolescents (heck, most adults) are not honest with themselves and/or others about who they are and what they need to work on.  We see this in scholars like Jordan, a brilliant kid who also refused to believe that he should do anything about his perpetually disorganized binders, homework folders, and cubbies (our locker equivalent).  Or the student who is always in trouble and never acknowledges that his choices need to change.  Or the scholar who breezes through 7th grade work, but completely shuts down when faced with a difficult SAT passage. What these problems have in common is a student who, at his or her core, doesn’t really admit that he or she has a problem that could be fixed by working hard at changing.

In our classroom, “Hamilton College,” we tackle this problem head-on on the first day of school when we introduce our classroom vision.  Built around the Friday Night Lights’* mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!” we express that being honest with oneself is crucial to success and to being courageous and hard working.  A person can’t engage her growth mindset unless she realizes that she needs to make a change.  In our classroom vision, we write:

At Brooke, every teacher sets aside hours each day outside of formal lessons coaching and conferencing with his or her scholars to help them master high-level academic work.  In Hamilton, we believe effective coaching requires us to be very direct with our students about how they need to improve. Take Emily, for example – she was a high-achieving, sassy, and “popular” student. She was also a bully, both socially and academically, especially when working in groups.  When we asked the class for partner preferences, not a single child chose her.  We decided to share this information with her.  While she was shocked, we hoped that being direct with her would help her have “clear eyes” and admit that she needed to change.  While we can’t say that Emily changed completely, we definitely noticed that she approached partner work more deferentially.

Developing “clear eyes” is only one part of the puzzle of getting kids to buy into and apply the concept of growth mindset to their academic and non-academic selves. It forces them to reflect on where they are in in that moment, and then look to what is possible.  

We think it’s pretty important because of kids like Jeslyn. Jeslyn’s older sister, an academic powerhouse, had been in our class a few years prior and had been accepted to an elite selective admission public school.  Unlike her sister, Jeslyn didn’t come into 7th grade seeing herself as an academic powerhouse.  She was quiet, unassuming and didn’t reveal much academic talent or personality.  Though she had technical skill, her writing was uninspired and Kate let her know it. Jeslyn shrugged, but not much came of it.  It looked like “clear eyes” wasn’t going to work on this one.  Then, Kate asked her what she loved to do outside of school.  

“Dance,” she said, taciturn as always.  

“Well,” Kate replied, “write about that.”  

It was in that moment that Jeslyn started her academic Great Awakening.  When she wrote about dance, she would get this little smile at the corners of her mouth and her pieces got a spark.  She was able to start seeing that her work could be fun and could lead to success.  Then it started to transfer.  Always a high skilled underperformer in math, she started to speak up more in class and ask for more help from Paul outside of class.  Soon, she was turning in more perfect papers than almost anyone else in class. In the end, having a vision of where she was and where she could get to if she worked was the catalyst. 

And that’s the best we could have asked for.  

2015-09-09T12:49:40+00:00