Maintaining A Growth Mindset in a Seemingly Fixed World

A MiddleWeb Blog

One of my students had a melt down last week. Right there in the middle of math class. It was heartbreaking but hopeful, too. I’ll tell you why.

William (that’s what we’ll call him) is a 7th grader who has had a pretty difficult year (actually, his entire school experience since kindergarten!) trying to keep up with assignments, aligning his strengths (may I add, many strengths!) with the expectations of the general education curriculum, and making sense of the stress he faces at home. 

He is an intelligent thinker. He livens up all class discussions, adding his deep background knowledge base by asking questions and sharing meaningful comments.

William also has an irresistibly rich sense of humor. He has the desire to do well, but he just isn’t able to find the balance between his personal intelligence and the expectations of his home and school environment.

The Meltdown

And so there we were—in the middle of math class. The students just finished working independently on a math problem as my co-teacher and I walked around the room guiding one-to-one as needed. William was working silently and successfully.

bigstock-Front-View-Of-Boy-Sitting-On-B250Once we touched based with each student, it was time to review as a whole class. William sat up, eager to participate and follow along. As I reviewed from the SmartBoard, my co-teacher walked around the room—checking in with students. In the midst of it all, William, seemingly out of no where, sank down in his chair—pulled the neckline of his shirt over his head—and put his hands over his covered face. 

I finished up with this whole class review, and then we transitioned to the next learning concept. My co-teacher was now up at the board, and I walked to William to find out what happened. He was beside himself in tears. As I approached, he began to whimper, What’s the use? What’s the use?”  

He then pushed a unit test that was just returned to him by my co-teacher. It was a failing grade. As he cried, he said, “I don’t get it, I know the math, I go for extra help, I’ve been doing my homework—but I keep failing.”   

Believing you can grow when the world seems stuck

In my last blog post, I discussed the value (and necessity!) for teachers to cultivate a growth mindset in the classroom. And two weeks later I am standing on a higher soapbox to share the value of teaching our students not just what to think, but also how to be flexible, relaxed thinkers in a world where too many educators seem to be boxing students in.

A growth mindset requires parents and teachers to see the whole learner—it’s so much more than academics.  Teachers need to model the belief that learning is a process—that we learn from our mistakes—and we learn with a clear focus on mastering our goals along a continuum of learning experiences.    

Since my last post I have been doing a lot of thinking around how to bridge that lonely gap between living and celebrating a growth mindset and attending school every day in our current system, which is aimed firmly committed to a fixed mindset. With the overwhelming emphasis on grades, tests, and ultimately the product of learning, students are surrounded at home and in school by the wrong message. 

How do we bridge that lonely gap between living and celebrating a growth mindset, and attending school every day in our current system?

The message becomes all about a number to define who our students are. Students lose the thrill of learning, and they lose their confidence to put forth their best efforts—all due to a fear of failing yet again. As I watch my hardworking students master goals that support a growth mindset, they become encouraged and inspired to put forth their best efforts. Yet, when they continue to receive failing grades, that all-too-familiar sense of discouragement prevails. The reality of our current emphasis on grades—on products and on that one right answer for every question posed to them–just seems to win out.  

I’ve been wondering how my own idealistic (yet potentially quite realistic) view of learning and teaching fits into this educational system we find ourselves stumbling through.  I stand firm–we must instill a love of learning in our students. We must focus on the process, or we will lose the brilliant thinkers, like William, who become just too dispirited as the system keeps insisting that he fit into a box that is just too narrow and too short.  


Working behind the scenes

I’ve been working behind the scenes with my students to foster that natural growth mindset connection.  I work independently with them during extra help sessions and during our small group study skills class to guide them to apply the strategic thinking needed to experience positive task completion and an overall positive view of themselves as learners. 

boy-with-backpackSome students have bought into this and move full speed ahead during all phases of learning. These are the more resilient students who are met with a solid support system at home and in school. These students accept their strengths and approach any weakness as part of the learning process. They embrace the process of learning as a series of ups and downs. And when the going gets tough, they express their feelings, and seek out the support they need  — and then they get going!

As for William, the story is really a positive one. He has been exposed to the idea of a growth mindset since September. He believes in it. He is able to identify his mastered goals, as he directs himself toward new goals.

He celebrates his personal successes. He just so desperately wants all of his teachers to see these successes as well.  He is so much more than the number on any test—yet he feels that the number is all most of his peers and teachers see. He is a student who now recognizes and tackles his emotional  goals—and he has far exceeded his expectations this year.

With solid supports and strategies to guide him, William is now beginning to tackle his academic needs. He studies more, he participates in class lessons, and he seeks out support when needed. Since September, he has had only two meltdowns (including this one). Compared to last year (and previous years) where his meltdowns were daily—this is tremendous progress!

We can make this happen for more kids. In our classrooms, and specifically our inclusion classrooms, we must look at the whole child—a growth mindset must include more than academics as we nurture independent, lifelong learners. And we must make sure they believe that too.

What students come to mind for you? How have you maintained a growth mindset in your classroom?  

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

10 Responses

  1. sclibrarian says:

    I wonder how we would feel if we received bad news while working very hard on a current project. We are engaged and energized by the work we are doing, interacting with our peers, when a supervisor walks over and hands us a negative review. How engaged would we be in the current task after reading that review? How would we feel? Study upon study tells us that our self-efficacy is fragile. We can have 10 mastery experiences followed by one failure — what stays with us is the failure. Process and progress feedback allow us to focus on growth — it represents the truth about where we are on the road to mastery. If we could imbue exam grades with this “on the road” message, things might be different. Sadly, our educational system sends a clear message about failing grades on exams, and it is not about next steps or growth. If only the system could support your efforts — in the meantime, hold the exams for a private conference when you can provide a positive context and progress feedback to accompany that failing grade.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Thanks for your compassionate response! Once I saw that the test were given out as I was up at the board, my heart just sank. Again it becomes a situation where we find ourselves retrofitting to provide students with emotional and academic support. That is on my “what co-teachers should do” list. Returning tests in a sensitive manner–rather than smack in the middle of class! We must continue to move forward and make strides to make inclusion the positive learning environment it must be! So many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. Julie Rea says:

    I am an intervention specialist working with high school students in math. Both of the co-teachers I work with have adopted a standards-based, mastery grading policy. Because our students are assessed on standards, rather than chapter 3, we all know what they have mastered and what they haven’t. Because we believe that students learn at different rates, students can keep learning “second quarter” material during third and even fourth quarter. When they demonstrate mastery, we change their grades. In the school database! Students know that they have accomplished the goal when they master content, not when the test says 62%.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Julie, wow–this sounds like a dream! My wish is to create a learning environment where teachers are guiding learners to focus on the process of learning alongside an evolving product of mastery!
      Is your experience practiced districtwide? I would love to hear more! Thanks for sharing!

      • Julie Rea says:

        Unfortunately, no. A student transferred in from another school mid year, and asked if she should turn in classwork “for points”. I said no, there are no points in this class. She was completely befuddled–no points? How do I get a grade? Another student answered: you have to show what you have learned. She was still befuddled. Isn’t that a sad commentary? Just a few of us have been doing this for 4 years, and as new teachers come into the district, we have generated some interest. We just keep talking about it and discussing how eventually students begin to take responsibility for their learning without the carrot/stick approach. It has also been a boon for students with learning disabilities, English language learners, students with family issues, illness, etc. It’s a far more humane culture. I don’t think I could do it any other way now that I’ve experienced it.

    • sheryl adams says:

      I can see that this approach would help students continue to move forward. Is there a set number of concepts they have to master to move on? Students do need their own time to get mastery. I have had so many students who have just cheated to pass and have no mastery of math skills. It would be nice to see how you work it with each individual student and at what grade level.

  3. Wendy Heyd says:

    A powerful post and a wonderful follow-up to your earlier post. I am very interested in the work teachers like you are doing with promoting a growth mindset as I think it has tremendous potential to transform the school experience for many children. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. Colleen Mckeown says:

    The school that I currently teach at was introduced to the growth mindset model earlier this school year. I have always been a firm believer that students should be encouraged to try their best, yet understand that mistakes will be made and by no means is that a bad thing. On the first day of school, the teachers were taught that individuals with a “fixed” mindset do not believe that there is much room for growth. These individuals get discouraged when they fail, and often this leads to them giving up. As I listened to my principal explain these characteristics, I realized that I myself had a bit of a “fixed” mindset. As a teacher of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, I see “fixed” mindsets quite frequently. Many of my students see a challenging activity and they immediately shut down. I have been working on changing the mindset of my students from a fixed to a growth, but I recently realized that in order to change my students’ mindsets, I needed to change my own first. We live in a society where everyone is striving to be # 1. We assign grades to every assignment, and those red marks on a paper can be extremely discouraging to just about anyone. I do not allow my students to quit when they make a mistake. I encourage their mistakes, and I have also began to point out that I make mistakes too. One day in class, I kept a tally on the whiteboard of all the mistakes I had made that day. I explained to my students that even though I made quite a few of errors, I am still moving forward. I explained that it was my hope to do better tomorrow. I love that you mentioned that we must focus on the process of learning. William’s story is so encouraging to me, and I know that my students will continue to grow and make gains as well. I now must make sure that they believe this too.

  5. Christine Homan says:

    I have a second grade student who has been working very hard on mastering her spelling list each week for the Friday test. This past Friday she took the spelling test and stood next to me eagerly waiting for me to grade it. Now, we are a standards-based school so students don’t receive a letter grade for their work. Every week, she is eager to find out how she did because there is an extra incentive at home if she gets 100%. This particular test she got 100% correct, however she wrote one of the spelling words twice and omitted one of her weekly words in place of the duplicate. She was beside herself when I pointed out the mistake. I explained that while she skipped one of the weekly words, the good news was that she spelled the duplicate word correctly…. twice! The look in her eyes went from tears to a beaming smile. She DID spell all of the words correctly, and that is what we focused on rather than focusing on the skipped over word. She is so proud of her effort and so am I.

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