George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Growth Mindset: A Driving Philosophy, Not Just a Tool

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Picture a high school ELA honors class full of amazing kids who came up through the grades without any struggling, kids who thrive in schools that believe these students would do just fine. It was a class of mine, students who felt initially uncomfortable but were ultimately able to come together and study Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-­Five, a novel that presented content and literacy challenges the students weren't used to.

How about my son, who entered first grade last year as five-­year-­old, not because I'm a crazy, achievement­-driven parent, but because we had just moved from New York to Massachusetts, which define cutoff ages differently? We thought to put him in with his age group, but the district saw that he'd do better in first grade (he actually tested past second), and his new teacher ran her literacy program using flexible grouping so that all the kids could continually excel as was appropriate.

There are also the children about whom we research and debate by statistically measuring their challenges and opportunities. These are the rural, inner city, low SES, ELL, and ethnic minority students who, for a wide variety of reasons, continue to show up toward the bottom of the achievement scales used by schools and American society.

Or the incredibly successful, well-­intentioned and high-­performing faculty department that is faced with changing student needs, mandated curriculum adjustments from the Common Core, and a societal call to leverage technology for a variety of reasons. Should they maintain the program they've always used since it's been so successful for so many?

These are just examples, but what do they have in common? The need to grow. Please note that I didn't say the need to meet some predefined goal or the need to adopt any particular program. I simply believe that all people, especially within the context of education, are learners with room for improvement.

Paradigm vs. Pedagogy

In the early 1800s, Henry Longfellow prompted readers "to act that each tomorrow finds us farther than today," defining a theme that runs parallel with Carol Dweck's 2007 milestone publication, Mindset. Both of these works push their readers, not to achieve any specific goals, perform at any specific level, or behave in any specific way -- they simply, brilliantly, and empathetically direct each person to believe in their own ability -- and the ability of others -- to become better at being themselves. In a very "Zen" or holistic manner, Longfellow and Dweck are prompting us to love who we currently are and to keep growing beyond whatever it is we've accomplished today. More so than any other field, the world of education must embrace this directive.

I am a die­-hard fan of the work being done by Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, and the many others who are considering and building on it. Clearly, if we don't believe that not only is it within our nature to improve, but also within our control, we will become paralyzed. We have to realize as well that growth, change, and progress all take patience and hard work. We can add the idea of resiliency into this mix, because struggle and outright failure are integral parts of these processes.

The issue that I'm finding -- and I'm not by any means alone -- is that growth mindsets, grit, and resilience are being championed not as paradigms that will take all people to whatever's next on their journey, but as pedagogical methods for classes, schools, and districts populated with students who don't achieve at the metrics we're using. This belief is problematic in two ways.

First, those who use growth mindset as pedagogy fail to dignify the lives and experiences of the students, who often show plenty of grit and perseverance in their home lives, much less their managing to make it through time in school where they're considered unsuccessful. If anything, it's actually the students coasting through our classes, schools, and assessments who don't understand what it is to work through adversity and need to be coached in resilience.

The second issue is that, although there are examples of growth as a valued indicator of success, too often we still use a limited view of achievement as our measure of success. I support the Common Core and newly adopted educator evaluation systems. I believe in the value of strong outcomes that represent high expectations, but I know that if we aren't applauding the processes along the way, we're setting ourselves up to fail -- some people's efforts will be devalued because they aren't achieving the defined goals in the given time. It also means that others will be allowed to coast, merely because they've already reached "grade level" standards, however those are defined, and regardless of whether those actually represent anything accomplished because of school.

5 Growth Mindset Practices

In their groundbreaking book, Professional Learning Communities at Work, Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker say it clearly when pointing out the issue that comes about when change initiatives are considered "a task to complete rather than an ongoing process." If we really want to improve our schools, our work, and the education of our students, we can do so by adopting a new mindset -- for everyone -- that would include:

  1. Being humble enough to accept that there are things about ourselves and our practices that can improve
  2. Becoming part of professional teams that value constructive critique instead of criticism
  3. Treating setbacks as formative struggles within the learning process instead of summative failures
  4. Realizing the restrictive role that timelines can play in reaching high standards, and using foundational philosophies such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to map systems so that everyone's growth is supported
  5. Create flexible grouping at all times so that nobody's trapped in any one course level or particular type of work.

How do you encourage a growth mindset in your school or classroom?

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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Patrick Tiernan's picture

Great piece, David. You highlight an often overlooked component of change; namely, the psychological aspect of growing in awareness of oneself, others and institutional life.

David Hochheiser's picture
David Hochheiser
Systems thinker, learner, student advocate, tech fan, literacy junkie

That's really well put, Patrick. If we aren't reflective and metacognitive about our position and our goals, who know where our concept of self is coming from. People who don't work at understanding themselves then also struggle to see their needs as things that can be overcome. It's a brutal cycle I believe education can help people avoid and escape.

Fernando Agramonte's picture

I love it. Unfortunately and embarrassingly, many educators will need to drop the hypocrisy of wanting our students to become lifelong learners and yet never voluntarily picking up a single piece of literature related to the improvement of their instructional practice. As a fan of attribution theory, the growth mindset philosophy harmonizes well with a belief that we must take responsibility for continuously improving our instructional practices and the systems within which we operate. We will continue the conversation another day and discuss ways that a master schedule can support or derail a growth mindset.

David Hochheiser's picture
David Hochheiser
Systems thinker, learner, student advocate, tech fan, literacy junkie

You're spot on, Fernando. The more we feel the joy of effectively growing, the more we're going to be willing and motivated to pay that forward to our students. If we think we already know it all, we are that much more likely to believe that our students' capacity is stuck at a particular level. Whatever courses we offer, we must put a belief that the students will continue to improve at their forefront.

Amy K Conley's picture
Amy K Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

David and Fernando, This made me think of the new article "The Power of 'I Don't Know.'" How powerful to model learning and growing to our classrooms? I think we're headed to a teacher as coach model.

parenting's picture
Passionate about parenting

Thank you for the great article. I hope schools will put these into practice.

gabrielle marquette's picture
gabrielle marquette
High school special educator and adjunct instructor

Our middle school principal has been hob nobbing with Angela and others over the past year and is working to implement these ideas into school culture. We taught a summer course and are teaching one this fall as well. Today, we asked students a question for which nobody had a quick answer and one student responded (after crickets) "mindset?". It may be a little contrived now but I imagine as we continue to talk about this at the middle and HS level, it will become more authentic and will show up in their achievement.

Since I posted this, I have launched a self-paced course called Teaching and Raising Successful Kids. I am convinced that a cultural mindset could seriously impact our system of education. I am seeing huge changes in my students from just small actions on my part.

David Hochheiser's picture
David Hochheiser
Systems thinker, learner, student advocate, tech fan, literacy junkie

Someone else - see above - brought this up as well, and I think you're spot on. Once people get used to using the language, they'll be able to more naturally live the message without having to mention their new "mindset." Soon enough, the way of life will be internalized. Your students are lucky that you're willing to help them begin their journey with this awkward stage of things. Well done!

David Hochheiser's picture
David Hochheiser
Systems thinker, learner, student advocate, tech fan, literacy junkie

I agree that it'll be great to see more schools live this message in their work and help students develop this path for themselves. The beauty of it is how self-directed it can be and that it can be supported anywhere and everywhere. If home, friends, coaches and schools all get on board, the effect on kids will be so positive. Dweck's book is a must read for anyone with kids, personally or professionally.

Abeckman's picture

I promote a growth-mindset in my classroom by actively modeling the idea of "everyone can learn more" for my students by sharing with them the things I'm learning everyday. Whether that is my decision to join an adult crew team or seeking their opinions on a new theory I learned in grad school, I'm showing them that it is never to late to learn something new. Part of our district mission statement talks about creating "lifelong learners" and as someone who loves the excitement and challenge of trying something new, I try to inspire that same excitement in my students. Along with the excitement of challenge however, we also talk about the reality of failure and how we need to be supportive of each other, so we have the courage to try again. Many of my students seem to get frustrated and quit trying after one attempt at something and that is where Dweck's mindset theory really comes into play. As you suggest, learning to see"setbacks as formative struggles within the learning process instead of summative failures" is a critical piece of transforming from fixed to growth mindset.

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