Growth mindsets are important for students (for more information on growth mindsets for students, see this blog post), but just as important is your understanding of your own mindset as their teacher.
Good intentions can backfire
We know teacher interactions with students are important. You want to have a positive impact on students’ lives – that’s why you’re a teacher. One thing that has come out of research done on growth mindsets by Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good and Carol Dweck1 is sometimes teachers’ comments, some of which are intended to help foster growth mindset, actually hurt more than help. The authors show some teachers’ inclination to comfort students when they don’t perform well can negatively influence motivation.
I found the research to be interesting because it identifies how the effect of a teacher’s action could be the opposite of what he or she intended. What an awful revelation – to discover that your heart-felt concern for a student resulted in lowering his or her self-confidence and motivation to improve!
The researchers looked at teachers’ interactions with students after their students performed poorly on a math assessment. Saying something like “not everyone can be good at math,” sends the wrong message and could result in the development of a fixed mindset for that student regarding math. Once I dug into it, the research and findings make sense, but it seems counterintuitive. The implied message when a student is comforted is more likely “I’m sorry that you aren’t good at this” and presumes lack of ability. Instead, researchers say teachers should focus on giving strategy feedback and offering support. For example, saying, “let’s try having you work in a group today and I’ll check in on you at the end of the period to see how it’s going,” could be more effective. This feedback offers a change in approach (group work) and continued support (I’ll check in on you).
Live by example
In addition to understanding mindsets, and promoting growth mindsets in students, it is also important to live by example by having a growth mindset yourself. As an adult, having a growth mindset involves having a process for reflection and as a teacher, the growth you produce directly impacts your practice and your students. Making this process visible to students can be powerful. It was for me when I tried it.
Last year, I wanted to try something new. I thought it would be a classroom management challenge, but I hoped the payoff in student engagement and critical thinking would be worth it. I wanted to use AVID strategies with sixth graders, in small groups, at whiteboard stations around the room, at semi-regular intervals throughout the year. I started with a lot of front-loading. I taught the strategies, the process, and the expectations before introducing any content. I was also motivated to try it because my PLC partner was excited to do the same thing in her classes and it seemed like it would be a fun, productive activity for students. The first time I tried it, it wasn’t perfect. Actually, it wasn’t even good. There was a lot of confusion and because it was the beginning of the year, the kids were reluctant to take risks and just wanted (constant) affirmation from me (and only me) that they were doing things correctly. With 36 students in nine groups scattered around the room, I was suddenly needed in all nine places the entire time and groups just seemed to forget everything we’d talked about leading up to the activity if I wasn’t right there to assist. Ugh!
I wanted to throw my hands in the air, telling myself the kids were too young for the complexity of the activity or I was trying to do too much too soon. Pretending the lesson went according to plan or simply reducing the complexity for the other classes for the rest of the day seemed like a good idea, too. But I’d worked with sixth graders before. I knew they could do it. The problem must have been in how I prepared them. And making the problem mine, and not my students’, meant I could improve their experience my improving my delivery.
So at the end of the period, instead of having students share out what they learned and discussed in their groups about the text they were working with, I instead told them I needed their help. I said the activity was one I had never done before. I told them I wanted to do it again, but I wanted it to be better. I explained my goals and my vision for the activity, specifically what I wanted it to look like by the end of the year. Then I asked them to talk in their groups and decide on one good thing about the activity or a goal I achieved, and one thing that didn’t go as well, and how we could make the activity better. The groups’ responses were fair, accurate and some ideas were rather insightful. I was even able to make some adjustments before the next group of students came in. I requested feedback after each period and the next time we were ready for the activity again, about a week later, students were excited and worked that much more diligently in an effort to see if the changes I made made things better.
In and out of your classroom
Hopefully, my students saw me as a person who was trying to grow and improve. Hopefully, they saw that even as an adult, I didn’t know everything.
I remember, during one of my first years teaching, hearing a student ask another teacher for help with math. The teacher informed the student that he wasn’t the right one to ask because he wasn’t “a math person.” He told the student he never was very good at it. I was working with another student and overheard this from across the room. I was bothered by it at the time, but I don’t think I knew why. Clearly it meant something to me because I still remember it. I imagine he helped the student find another person to help, but did my colleague, by displaying his own fixed mindset, plant a seed of a fixed mindset about math in that student as well?
So much of a teacher’s job is about nuances. Reflecting on the effects of actions, inaction, phrasing, and so many other things is an important part of the practice. Hopefully, regular reflection and mindset checks will help both students and teachers to continue to grow.
I found these tips from Christina Gil to include easy first steps: https://www.edutopia.org/article/teachers-need-growth-mindset-christina-gil
- Rattan, A., et al., “It’s ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.012
A link to the full report: https://scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Rattan-et-al.-2012.pdf.