Aug 27, 2008

training for a "growth mindset"

Friend and blog-neighbor TRP wonders why he gets great evaluations from students who amiably fail his class.
So here's what I don't get.

Both research and common sense show that students do better work when they like their teachers. I think all of our personal experience supports this, whether we were A, B, C, or marginal students.

But even a cursory look at my evaluations reveals that I have a significant subset of students who really like me--often effusively so--but who don't do a damn bit of work.
I know what that's like. I wonder, too, how I can model, teach, infuse, or otherwise inspire the friendly failures to succeed.

Is it hopeless? I hope not. Research seems to support my optimism. Peddlers of "positive thinking" and its ilk are on to something: attitude equals potential. Carol Dweck is perhaps the world's leading psychologist of motivation. In an interview with NewScientist, she shares some of her most recent findings [sub. req.]. Here's the passage that struck me:
What is your advice to parents who want to avoid trapping their children in a fixed mindset?
First, teach your child the growth mindset, and then praise effort, strategy and improvement. Do not praise intelligence and talent. This harms them.

How easy is it to influence people's mindsets?
We have shown that you can put college students in a fixed or growth mindset by having them read compelling scientific articles that support one view or the other. After the students read the articles, we gave them a difficult reading comprehension test on which they did poorly, and asked them afterwards: "Would you like to look at the tests of people who've done worse than you, or better?" The students who had read the articles supporting a fixed mindset chose to look at the work of people who had done worse. It made them feel better about themselves. But the students who had read the literature favouring the growth mindset overwhelmingly chose to look at the tests of people who had done better, so that they could learn new strategies. They also felt better about themselves.

Could more be done to foster growth mindsets in school?
In our study of the transition to junior high, a control group was given extensive training using study aids. The experimental group got those study aids but they also got several workshops in the growth mindset. They were told that every time they stretch themselves, the neurons in their brain form new connections, and over time they get smarter. They were also taught how to put that into practice in their schoolwork. Their grades rebounded, while those of the control group continued to decline.
A "growth mindset" is a basic belief that learning and experience can mold one's intelligence and achievement. It is highly predictive of academic success in a secondary environment.

I'm going to try this approach at the start of the school year, first finding, exploring, and presenting the data on a "growth mindset," then reinforcing it throughout. I'll report back and discuss whether it's working.

For more, read this older interview with Education World.

Update: In this video (which, for me, had mismatched audio, but was worth a listen) Carol Dweck explains her methods in more detail.


TeacherRefPoet said...


Send me any lessons or ideas you try. As you read, I'm working on anything I can.

I already do the trick of never calling a kid smart or intelligent, but only praising work ethic. I'll continue to do that.

But I need a way to get that work coming in consistently. I'm simply not succeeding with any kid who doesn't turn in work, and the reasons behind it don't matter (except insofar as they impact my next efforts).

Jim Anderson said...

I wish I had a quick, easy answer.

If your experience is like mine, the problem is 90% about homework. In-class work is a totally different story for me--I have almost never had a student who just sat there and did nothing during class. But writing that paper, or reading ahead to the next chapter.... a whole different universe.

I read something interesting about due dates and calendars. It involved literature circles. Instead of providing a calendar--read to chapter 2 by Wed., to chapter 3 by Fri.--give students the book and the date they have to finish it and a blank calendar. Have them break down the pages or chapters and sort out the intermediate dates themselves. I wonder if such a technique would work for longer projects and papers. More decision-making = more responsibility?

Along with my explicit instruction in affective and motivational research, I'm going to repeat an experiment I tried last year, calling every single parent before our September Open House. I want the first contact home to be unequivocally positive. I also want to know which parents "have my back."

This year, I'll also be a freshman advisor, and I'll get to see how our "Student Led Conferences" are run. Apparently they are much more successful than the classic kind. Anything that respects and encourages students' autonomy can't be bad.