On Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Thursday, September 03, 2015 0 Comments A + a -

It has been an exciting first week!

It's always great to reconnect with colleagues on that very first day, Teacher Orientation Day.  When we meet in the Nipmuc Auditorium as a district in the morning, I first introduce all of the new staff, then I deliver some comments regarding big ideas/themes that the district will be working toward in the coming school year.

This year, I chose to comment on notion of adopting a growth mindset toward all things teaching and learning.  Below is a portion of my comments.

While the additional funding is an enormous win, the heart of the matter is still what we do in our classrooms everyday.  I do want to touch upon a work that the district leadership team and I read and studied this summer, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It was written by Stanford research psychologist Carol Dweck and recently, has been given a great deal of attention by educators nationwide because it has enormous implications for teaching and learning.  I know that Maureen and our principals will be using its ideas as a theme throughout the year.

In the book, Dweck’s basic premise is this:  we approach situations and people in our lives with one of two mindsets:  either the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.  The reality is that most of us are probably a mix of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset- and the mindset varies based upon the situation.

Dweck writes that an individual with the fixed mindset believes that all traits such as intelligence, abilities, personality, etc. are static… and they cannot be changed. People with a fixed mindset may be very smart and talented, but always wants to look smart… so they have a tendency to always want to prove themselves.  Her research shows that this tendency leads to a whole cascade of negative behaviors- such as avoiding challenges, giving up in the face of adversity, not believing in effort, ignoring constructive criticism, and always trying to find excuses or ascribe blame when things go wrong.

Think about it… You may know someone with a fixed mindset.  You might even work with someone with a fixed mindset!  You may have children in your classroom with a fixed mindset, who come from very fixed mindset parents.  What does it actually look like in practice?

In the book, Dweck likes to use famous athletes as examples.  If you’re my age or older, you probably remember watching Tennis Hall of Famer John McEnroe play many great matches in the 70’s and 80’s.  I remember his matches at Wimbledon and the US Open were must-see TV… to see some great tennis, but also to see his many meltdowns at referees, line judges, and even his opponents.  Even to this day, when you Google his name, the word “tantrum” auto-completes!  Here’s a brief snapshot of the types of tantrums he used to throw… 

Dweck says that McEnroe was the epitome of the fixed mindset in that he had an incessant need to always prove himself to be the best.  Look at some of the negative behaviors:  finding fault with the judges, expecting them to be perfect- they’re the blame for his poor shot, and so on.  She notes that while he experienced a great deal of success, McEnroe admits his playing years were the most miserable years of his life.

In contrast is the growth mindset.  With this mindset all traits- such as intelligence- can be developed.  Effort is seen as the key element of growth, and thus, there is a tendency to want to learn.  The growth mindset results in the types of behaviors that we as teachers want to see:  embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, reflecting on failure, and acting on feedback.   All of it hinges on the premise that EFFORT is a PROCESS, and that PROCESS is the KEY TO ACHIEVEMENT.  

Dweck uses probably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, as the model for the growth mindset.   He has the mindset that every successful athlete who has had long-term success has. It says genetics may determine the starting line, but hard work determines the finish line.  Not as a surprise, 15 years ago, Nike ran with this growth mindset and made a commercial out of it.

With the growth mindset, failure isn't just accepted; it's expected. When you stretch yourself past your current limits, failure is inevitable. It spawns growth.

These are simple enough ideas to understand, but then I think of our schools and our students.  I think of structures and practices- such as tracking and the need to give so many mandated assessments- that lean more toward a fixed mindset rather than the growth mindset.   I also think of the statements that our students make in our classes.  Take a look at these…. Do any of them look familiar?  I know as a high school chemistry teacher, I heard at least 4 or 5 of them on a regular basis… I wonder if kids become more fixed in their mindsets as they become older… Note that all of these statements, even the one positive one, speak to the idea of the student having an innate ability that he/she believes cannot change.

In contrast, look at the same statements from students- now flipped to the perspective of the growth mindset.  Note that all of these statements speak to a process… one that involves effort to get to an outcome.   As Dweck notes, a growth mindset amongst students is likely to encourage them to develop feelings of empowerment – that they are in charge of their learning and hence are motivated. 

Throughout the year I have the honor to go in classrooms at Clough, Memorial, Miscoe, and Nipmuc where the growth mindset is the norm.  In these classrooms learning is predicated on risk-taking and mistakes.  They are safe learning environments where students are pushed to ask questions, research effectively, collaborate with peers, and present their work in a variety of ways.   

It is my hope that together we can build a district where the growth mindset is the norm… for every teacher, for every staff member, for every classroom, for every student.   This only can be achieved through tending to our own professional growth… and acknowledging that we all have a lot to learn to get better at our craft.  I know as superintendent I still have a LOT to learn, and that my mistakes are plentiful.  I am excited for our journey to begin tomorrow- our first PD Day- with an outstanding keynote speaker, Alan November, and then something new… an EdCamp model that will be completely driven by you and your learning needs.