Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Matter of Mindset

Image Source: In Search of Growth Leaders, WSJ 
The "growth mindset" has received increased attention in the last few years especially related to how schools can build this mindset in students. While this is important topic, most administrators and faculty may be unclear with how to get started. Shifting learning from teacher-centered to student-centered is one step in the right direction but much more is needed to shift student and faculty minds to the growth cycle. Administrators should help their school demonstrate the virtuous cycle of belief's and behaviors vs the vicious cycle that discourages growth thinking.

The vicious cycle in a classroom or school develops an environment where students and/or teachers view "life as a test" mixed with fear, avoidance and narrow thinking. With so much focus on testing in schools, its not hard to imagine why so many students are graduating high school with a fixed mindset. The ASCD (2010) said that students with a fixed mindset tend to not handle setbacks well because these setbacks call their intelligence into question and they become defensive. I know we have all taught that student. There is such joy in helping students move from this defensiveness and fear to a place where students can respond to obstacles, try new strategies to succeed and use all the resources at their disposal for learning. 


So why aren't more schools training teachers and focused on this very important element to student success? Furthermore, time and time again research and workforce development reporting shows us that plenty of jobs in the future will require workers with an "innovators DNA" which includes a growth mindset as a key ingredient. Schools and classrooms that succeed at building the growth mindset as part of school culture focus on learning being a journey, lifeline and put plans in place to support, seek and embrace change. Growth-focused schools and classrooms broaden students' thinking by creating opportunities for voice and choice in learning where building empathy is at the center of learning. Students are not simply memorizing facts and taking standardized tests. Students that are taught to have a fixed mindset may not be provided or overlook growth opportunities. Furthermore, faculty in fixed-mindset schools are slow to adopt changes that are needed to transform teaching and learning in the 21st century. So where does one start to break the pattern of the vicious cycle? Building culture. Building culture that embraces ambiguity, inquiry and diversity. 

Administrators have a responsibility to build a school culture that is focused on the virtuous cycle where both students are faculty have the skills to detect new growth opportunities, have a bias for action around change, learn to make "bets" and "fail fast." Administrators that support this type of culture building create schools where students and faculty often succeed more often in new situations. Building growth mindset into the culture of your school requires intentional strategy. Carol Dweck's research shows us that this vicious cycle stems from a static definition of self. Many students, particularly students of poverty and trauma may enter our classrooms with this static definition of self. 

A recent post on the popular blog Getting Smarter suggests tactics like flexible student groupings, passion-based project based learning (I like to use design thinking as the framework for this type of PBL), student-led conferences and opportunities for personalization. I would add building a strong advisory program with well-trained and staffed coaches. In my school we call this role a "learning coach." Students meet with their learning coach three days a week in an advisory where they learn their strengths, build trust and have the opportunity to loop with their learning coach for three years. In advisory sessions we call "learning hub" coaches support development of a student's personalized passion pathway as well as access to resources to support their social emotional needs and other social services challenges like mental health, drugs/alcohol and food scarcity. Innovative classroom teaching and curriculum isn't enough to build a culture of growth thinking in your school. Find out what your version of the learning hub is in your school. 

While putting supports in place to help students enter the virtuous cycle of thinking, we can't ignore faculty. Teachers must be on board with building culture if your school will be successful at building a positive culture. Some strategies for building growth-mindset in teachers are co-teaching, personalized PD and ability to take risks and be backed-up by administration. You might offer development programs that provide release time - like Google's 20% plan. Innovation fellows, grants, professional development and action research teams that use design thinking to identify and solve problems in your school. Something as simple of scheduling and classroom spaces can support developing a growth-focused culture. For example, at my school teachers have 4-6 hours a week for professional development and collaborative planning. This time is necessary because of our very project-based and interdisciplinary curricular program. Additionally, with exception of a few courses, all classes in my school are co-taught by teams of educators focused on thematic-based learning. Faculty as well as students write WOOP goals using the framework provided by the Character Lab

What ideas do you have to build a growth-focused culture in your school?

If you are at SXSWEdu - find me (@Learn21Tech). I would love to hear what you are doing in your school. If this topic interests you come see me and my colleagues for our panel, Culture by Design. 


Not at SXSWEdu? Read this excellent article from ASCD on Growth Mindset.

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