Misconceptions about Mindset, Rigor, and Grit
By Cheryl Mizerny
I am a full-time teacher with a passion for (and degree in) educational psychology. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with both curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.
Among the educational ideas that have gained momentum in recent years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas may have merit, as with all shiny new objects that attract our attention we need to proceed with caution and think about whether and why these concepts fit into our personal pedagogy.
Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.
MINDSET: It doesn’t thrive in a hostile environment
First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her.
The growth mindset framework is wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who has ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the school policies that work against the concept.
Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.
Growth mindset . . .
► Is not summed up by a grade. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes and if they practice they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying.
In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, students are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers: that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?
► Is not a now-or-never experience. In too many classrooms, something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.
► Is not a race to the finish. When we encourage speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration, we tend to reward some students for “perfect” products and fail to encourage effort and growth over time.
► Is not about intimidation. Students do not develop growth mindsets in emotionally unsafe classrooms where they do not feel free to take risks – where there is one “right” answer and only the teacher and certain students know it.
► Is not encouraged by lazy assessment practices. Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period does nothing to promote growth. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.
Reverse all of these behaviors, and we are really onto something!
RIGOR: It’s not a throwback to the “good old days”
I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition:
Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at a high level, and each is supported so he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level. (Blackburn, 2008)
I know that this kind of rigor is good practice, and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, however, many in education are still longing for the good old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned difficult material with ease, and knew their place in the scheme of things.
According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when they were in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that has made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society.
We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. The idea of increasing rigor appeals to these stuck-in-time educators. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.
Rigor does NOT mean:
- a classroom that resembles a bootcamp
- more and harder homework
- a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
- high expectations, but no support to reach them
So if you’re doing that, stop it, okay? Thanks.
GRIT: Maybe we need to just drop this word
I have to say the current buzzword that most grinds on me is grit. Maybe it’s because so many of the grown-ups responsible for running the world have so eagerly embraced it. Human society, they are sure, will be much more likely to survive if we teach these “lazy, spoiled, whiny” children a thing or two.
They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while eating acorns and tree bark during those first freezing New England winters.
If these “kids today” would only put forth that kind of effort, they would be more successful adults. These are the people who say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.
Misinterpretations of grit:
► If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base (through special talent or special circumstances). For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.
► Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is destructive to tell children that if they only tried harder, they would be successful. Realistically, that may never happen for some.
► Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.
► Now, if what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, then we must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need nearly as much “grit.”
► The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing, and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st century. Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.
► What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Creating an environment where students do what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.
Head-first and eyes wide open
There are often good ideas embedded in the educational jargon we serially embrace. Just be careful that when you decide to try something new, you understand the research and the actions required to make the ideas work. Be sure you’re ready to make the changes in your own practice necessary to support the concept.
Keep your eyes (and heart) wide open and your students’ best interests front and center. Then dive in!
Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 20+ years experience–most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher and is a regular contributor to the SmartBrief SmartBlog on Education. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.