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.
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.
Once 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.
Some 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?