Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Contextual Growth

Growth mindset is a concept coined by Carole S. Dweck of Standford University's Psychology department. Essentially, it's the idea that a mind is capable of developing new skills or improving old ones without limitation. This stands in contrast to a fixed mindset that believes the mind has finite limitations for learning.

Dweck argues that a growth mindset is essential to deep learning. When a student has decided, they are just not capable, but they lose motivation to learn. On the flip side, when a student believes they have learned everything about a subject, they also stop learning.

Of course, that is the simplified explanation-- not everyone has the fixed or growth mindset all the time and the growth mindset can be developed. Context is important.

The concept is appealing to educators because it means, in the right conditions, students can flourish. They can become learners.

Unfortunately, some educators bought into the "cliff notes" version of the growth mindset, focusing their energies on praising effort. In an interview with Christine Gross-Loh, Dweck explains:
Yes, another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.
The mindset ideas were developed as a counter to the self-esteem movement of blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not. To find out that teachers were using it in the same way was of great concern to me. The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success. 

Writing my dissertation about student engagement, I've definitely been interested in what Dweck has to say about mindsets. I also think back to my own education as a "terrible math student."

Math + Me = X

I wasn't particularly bad at math until 10th grade. I had suffered through two years of the same teacher whose teaching methods were dry and difficult to follow. Sometimes, she even incorrectly solved problems on the board. By the time I got to my junior year Algebra II class, I was convinced I was just bad at Math-- the fixed mindset. I was pulling in Cs on my report card, and on my mid-term, I got an F. I had never seen an F on my report card in my life, and it was startling.

My math teacher gave me some tough love. She would start swinging by my desk and asking me about what I was doing, not just seeing if I had any questions (students never want to ask questions). She walked me through complex equations step-by-step. She encouraged me to just practice lots of problems, saying that would be the only thing that would help me learn it. She didn't falsely praise me or make a big deal out when I did get things right. She didn't coddle me. The week before the final exam, I crammed. I did pages and pages of practice problems on my own.

Last day of school, final grades were posted outside the classroom. I got a 96! I gave her a hug and teared up a little. She didn't take any credit. She said I worked for it and praised my process.

The next year, I opted out of math. They put me in Pre-Calculus anyway. I was saddled up with another "lecture while staring at the board" teacher. I didn't understand anything she was explaining. I told her I hadn't expected to be put in the class. After a few days, she told me to "go down to the guidance office and change classes because you're wasting both of our time." And I did. I took one semester of simple math in college, and that was the last of my formal education in mathematics.

I still don't particularly like doing complex math. I often get answers wrong. But thanks to Mrs. Lenihan, I know it's not because I'm just "bad at math," but because I'm out of practice and because I chose to stop learning more.

As an educator, I also now know that those teachers need to improve their practice if they want to engage students, but they were operating from a fixed mindset:

  • Some students will get it; some students are just not cut out for it
  • This is my method, and it either works for you or it doesn't

Despite this, I also realize that sometimes, I have a fixed mindset. It's not something that just magically disappears all together. I can be stubborn at work. I get fixated on specific ways of doing things that work for me. I am afraid to try new challenges, so I do the same things over and over again (rereading the same introductory paragraph and rewrite it 16 times instead of finishing the chapter).

Some simple ways to foster growth mindset

Through leading professional development and teaching, I've stumbled upon some methods of teaching that foster growth mindset. They're not perfect, and they don't work for every one in every context, but here they are anyway:

  • Feedback that focuses on specific actions rather than "good" or "bad." EX: Instead of "Much better!" explain, "You included a lot of specific detail in your description that helps me to understand the character's motivations."
  • Low-stakes assignments and time for practice. Imagine if professional teams only ever played in big games and never had time to practice their skills?! That's what it's like when students only get to demonstrate their abilities on exams or large end-of-term papers.
  • Talk to students about their process. Ask a lot of "how did you come to that conclusion?" and "why did you make that decision?" Too many students are afraid of asking questions in front of their peers. This will help you understand their process and help them adjust as needed.
  • Make action plans for working on their weaknesses. Many times students/employees know they're bad at something, but don't have a real idea or any guidance on how to fix it. Having actionable goals, and checking them off, is incredibly rewarding. It enables the feeling of accomplishment and shows that improvement is possible.