Sunday, February 14, 2016

From the Teacher's Desk- Growth Mindsets

I've got a few minutes this morning, so I want to continue my "Teacher's Desk" thoughts. But first, an apology. In my first post titled "From the Teacher's Desk," I had a parents vs. teachers mentality. I'm sorry about that. I recently read another blog post that was written from a parent perspective that made the teachers out to be the "bad guys." I recognized the tendency to do the opposite in my writing from time to time. Parents, I'm sorry. We're in this together. Parents and educators need to work together for children to develop the ability to thrive in this ever-changing, challenging world. I'm sorry for promoting and "us" (teachers) vs. "them" (parents) mindset in my last post. That's wrong, and I'm sorry. Let's be on the same team from now on. :)

So this morning I want to write about growth mindsets. The article that catalyzed this series of posts was called "Maintaining a Growth Mindset." A growth mindset means that one's view of oneself (and others) is not fixed. The article focused mostly on intelligence, so, in that context, a person sees their intelligence as something that grows throughout life. Rather than identifying themselves as "smart" or "not smart" sometime in school, a student sees their intellect as something that is capable of growing.

This resonated with me because it matches my personal experience. When I was young, I thought that I was "smart," but in high school I struggled with math. By the time I was a sophomore, I had labeled myself as a "humanities" kid. Math and science were NOT my thing. Senior year, I struggled so much in calculus that I lost my place in the National Honor Society and in my "exit" interview, the faculty advisor of NHS had a candid conversation with me that made a big impact. When she asked me what I wanted to do when I was finished with high school, I told her about my plan to go to N.C. State for vet school. She told me that I would probably not make it through my "weed out" science courses and  advised that I consider studying something that was closer to my natural ability- like writing. ;)

When I tell people that story, they're often surprised. Teachers rarely say things like that anymore. It was a tough conversation, to be sure, and it influenced where I went to college. I doubted my ability to be successful studying science, so I went to a liberal arts school. I think that if I had a conversation with a student under similar circumstances, I might word things a little differently than she did, but I see the good in what she was trying to do. She was trying to be honest with me. She was telling me what we both knew was true- I wasn't good at math. The thing was, we both had fixed mindsets. She and I both believed, at that time, that my native intelligence in the area of math and science was a fixed entity. It turned out that we were both wrong. By the grace of God, I ended up with a Biology professor and a group of friends at Wake Forest my freshman year who did not see things the same way. As I moved my way through Dr. Lord's comparative physiology class as a freshman at Wake Forest, things began to change. I understood the processes of biology better than I had in high school. My interest led me to Dr. Lord's office hours. I sat there on a regular basis, waiting to ask her questions. My curiosity and interest impacted the way that I studied, and the way that I viewed my aptitude in Biology. I went from C's to B's to A's. The same thing was happening to me in calculus. A combination of cognitive growth and hard work was changing the way that I approached math and science, the way that I learned, and my willingness to challenge myself in this area of study.

Transitioning from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset made a major impact on the course of my life. Here I am- a science teacher- and that would never have happened if I had remained in a fixed mindset. But research shows that the impact of fixed mindsets goes way beyond academic performance and career options.

Research shows that students who adopt a growth mindset are more willing to challenge themselves and end up learning more over the course of time. Fixed mindset students do not. The benefits of growth mindsets include broader and deeper knowledge, better performance and less anxiety. I'd wager the impact is even greater and affects self-esteem, relationships, character and value systems.

When I began to read the article, I first thought of fixed mindset students as those students who, like me, have struggled in some area.  But, actually, as I read on, I realized that fixed mindsets are more prevalent in some of my top students. Here's an example. If I give my students a challenge- let's say the challenge is to research something and then give an oral report before their peers- students will respond differently based on their mindsets. Students with a fixed mindset are anxious about this type of assignment. For the student who has a "not smart" fixed mindset, they might see the challenge as beyond their innate ability. They see themselves as incapable of discovering things for themselves, and will often struggle just to get started. Students with a "smart" fixed mindset will approach the assignment with a different type of anxiety. Because they see themselves as "smart" to begin with, it's almost mildly offensive to them to suggest that they need to research something. I realize that might sound odd, but in world run by Google, kids have access to a tremendous amount of information and you'd be amazed what "smart" kids think they already know, or ought to know.  This type of student will feel the pressure to perform perfectly to prove to you and their peers that they are "smart." They value the performance more than the process, and anxiously anticipate the grade that you will give them. It's the grade that matters to them most because the grade validates what they already know to be true- they are smarter than everyone else. Students with a growth mindset are free to go about this with a completely different perspective. They don't expect to perform perfectly because they recognize that they're in a process of growth. Their goal is to come out of the project knowing more than they did going into it, so they are not paralyzed by self-doubt or false-confidence. When the goal is to learn, the challenge is its own reward.

When you expand the idea of fixed mindset beyond the walls of a classroom, it's alarming. When students see themselves and everyone around them with a fixed mindset, then there is nowhere to go. Today is all that matters. How they look or perform, whether they are accepted or rejected, is everything. So when things do not go well, as they inevitably will from time to time, students are left in despair, questioning their worth and baffled by other students who are performing better at that moment in time.  And with social media, everyone is aware of one another's successes. Whether its a sports victory, a relationship status or even something as trivial as a new lipstick shade- everyone, everywhere sees it and compares themselves to it.

 Growth mindsets offer much more freedom. If something is academically challenging early on in school, the years ahead are an opportunity to improve.  If they go through a period of time when it's difficult to make friends, they can look forward to other phases of life when lasting relationships might be found. If they struggle with body image, particularly during the awkward years of adolescent, there's the rest of your life to develop into a lovely person, both inside and out. Growth mindsets don't count on every life event turning into an Instagramable moment. The rest of your life is out there, waiting for you to grow into it.

So, what can we do? As parents, grandparents, educators? Here are some practical suggestions:

1) Practice "process praise." This concept comes from the article I read. Process praise is when you praise children for actual effort you see them putting forth as they work toward a goal. Praise them for the hours of piano practice, not just the wonderful recital. Praise them for asking good questions as they work on a project, instead of just giving them an A and a sticker. Praise them for coming home from practice dripping sweat, instead of just telling them "good game."

2) Stop pretending. You know that car commercial with the participation trophy? Where the dad writes in "champions." That commercial nails this idea. When adults pretend like everything is a victory, then nothing is a victory. When you act like a kid did something amazing, when they really haven't done anything at all, you're sending them a message that says they're not actually capable of doing anything. This society has decided it doesn't want "winners" because that means that someone is a "loser", but only people with fixed mindsets are afraid of losing. Growth mindsets aren't fearful of losing, because a loss is an opportunity for growth, not static feedback on who you are as a human being. A recent example of this can be seen in the Carolina Panthers. When asked about their Super Bowl loss to the Broncos, Coach Ron Rivera said he hoped his team would learn from the Broncos. Two years ago, the Broncos suffered an embarrassing loss to the Seahawks, but they came back and won Super Bowl 50. He wanted his team to respond the same way. Growth mindset and great coaching. But NFL MVP Cam Newton? He couldn't even sit through a post-game interview. His fixed mindset about being a super-star cost him the opportunity to be a team leader and positive role model to young athletes. He can't see the loss as an opportunity to grow. He just pouted. He saw himself as unstoppable. They made commercials about it. Now, the loss is insufferable because his fixed mindset gave him nowhere to go. He had to keep performing as a super-star. To not be able to do that in the Super Bowl left him disillusioned and disappointed. It's really sad, and, honestly, I feel sorry for Cam. He's part of a generation of young athletes who believe the same way. Glad he has a good coach who can help him overcome that type of thinking.

3) Let kids fail. We all have to stop freaking out when kids mess up. When parents and teacher always rush in to "undo" a failure for kids, we're telling them that they can't get anything out of the negative experience. We're saying that the reality of disappointment is not livable, so we're going to make it go away. Seriously, guys, we have GOT to stop doing this. We all know that it's just not true. God is so clear that He allows his people to go through times of suffering and hardship and that He does that because he wants us to grow and learn to rely on Him. James writes, that testing produces perseverance..."let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Our kids are going to lack perspective, tenacity, humility, grit, determination and endurance if we swoop in an make it all go away.

Well, my time is up for now, but I hope this shed a little light on growth mindset. Let me know what you think!

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