Throughout elementary and middle school, math came very easily to me, and I excelled in class. I relished how quickly I could compute answers, delighting in the speed with which I could complete my work. I ended up being accelerated into an Algebra II class in seventh grade where things changed, and the material got hard, fast. I found myself being challenged in ways I had not before in a class where others around me were still thriving. I remember being fearful of asking for help, questioning my abilities in math and beginning to dislike the subject matter. Math had always come easily, but not anymore. By sophomore year of high school, I had completed AP Statistics in less than stellar form and decided I was done taking math classes in high school or college.
A decade later in graduate school, I remember learning about the research of Carol Dweck around the notion of the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset. For those unfamiliar with the idea of the growth mindset, I highly recommend this RSA Video by Dweck. In short, Dweck’s research finds that students who possess a fixed mindset, hold the belief that they are born with a set amount of an intellectual trait or talent and that’s that. Others hold a growth mindset where they believe that intelligence and talents can be grown by effort and learning. Looking back on my math experience, I immediately recognized in myself a fixed mindset that limited my growth.
The challenges with having a fixed mindset are many. In my case, I associated having to exert effort, asking for help, and struggling to understand a concept, as a sign that I was not good at math. I figured no one who was bright asked for help, so I didn’t. I did this in part because I was worried that others might think I was not smart. For many students, this misguided view of effort and concern about how they might look in the eyes of others are primary reasons they shy away from self-advocating when they need help from a teacher. The fixed mindset also causes students to “rule out” activities and interests because they view themselves as not having ability. Unfortunately this is it based on what is usually limited life experience and preconceived notions, shortchanging kids of opportunities for growth.
This fall in our before school meetings, our middle school faculty spent time as a group delving into the idea of the growth mindset and discussing how we might cultivate it in our students. Not surprisingly, many noted that we must first be sure to model it ourselves. Some ideas included sharing examples of perseverance in our own lives, embracing our own mistakes when they happen, and being willing to learn new things ourselves no matter how confident we were in our abilities, experience, or curriculum.
In advisory and middle school meetings, we’ve shared this idea with all of our students and teachers and explored examples of each mindset. Teachers have also followed up by having conversations in their own classes. We’re all working hard to correct kids when they say phrases like “I can’t do this…” by responding “You mean, you can’t do this yet.” This applies in all cases from a student trying to hit an overhand serve in volleyball over the net to nervous students ready to zipline or a challenging hike to a pesky math problem they can’t quite solve.
Our innovations curriculum in design thinking and robotics is also perfectly suited to cultivate a growth mindset where students learn about the iterative process and how to grow from setbacks. In the arts, it is with intention that we expose students to a trimester of art, music and drama for all three years, ensuring that they do not write themselves off too soon in an area without proper exposure.
In all classes, showcasing multiple approaches to success for a given problem or assignment helps promote an open mind.
With a mid-trimester now under our belts, goal setting can be explored through a new lens. In their reflection of the start of the year, students can look at mistakes and struggles not as a definition of them as individuals, but rather they become places for them to learn from and stretch themselves. Praising effort over intelligence and pointing to specific strategies and actions helps engender a connection between effort and success.
We are also making an effort to make it visible in our halls. The core value of perseverance you will find on our Middle School Constitution, a copy of which you’ll find in each room. A new display has been put up in the staircase proffering ways to change their mindset by changing what they say and how they respond to challenge. While we do not expect students to walk by, high five and instantly adopt a growth mindset when they see it, we do believe it helps in recalling all our conversations we’ve had. What’s on your walls is a good reflection of what you values I believe.
As parents, you can do several of the same things we’re trying to do as faculty. In particular, modeling a growth mindset and interest in tackling challenging endeavors, praising effort over intellect or talent, and encouraging reflection over the efforts that made students successful all are good measures to consider.
A growth mindset is not fostered overnight, but our hope is that our consistent efforts and conversations in a variety of places will help shape and re-shape our students’ mindsets so that they are poised to enjoy success and make the effort required to achieve it.