Growth Mindset – It’s not that simple

guitar

Photo Credit:  Flickr user “WoodleyWonderWorks”

I am often not on the intellectual cutting edge. Pretty much any idea that I’ve had, someone else has had before. Usually lots of people, actually.

This discussion of growth mindset is no different. The Atlantic (specifically Christine Gross-Loh) and the Harvard Business Review (written by Growth Mindset author Carol Dweck) beat me to this one. And that’s okay. They have folks whose job it is to write. I do this as a hobby. I’m just grateful for their shoulders to stand on.

Growth Mindset is becoming a fad. Of course, Dr. Carol Dweck (who is responsible for coining the term and the supporting research) understands this better than anyone. What will happen to the term “growth mindset” when it gets unleashed on the public and Twitter gets a hold of it?

Well, certainly the nuance is gone. The public arena (and it’s right arm: social media) tends to treat nuanced arguments like they belong on a dollar-store clearance rack. So, at the very least, you can count on growth mindset being over-simplified (probably quite significantly at that).

With over simplification comes the inevitable misunderstanding. If all you know about this idea a series of talking points laid out 140-characters at a time, the chances of you missing an essential component are quite good. Of course accidental misunderstanding is independent to one’s confidence to propagate their (mis)understandings on the topic.

And of course, researchers have a love-hate relationship with this phenomena. On one hand, they are getting often getting criticized for statements made by people who don’t really understand the actual point they are making. Not fair, but common. (Ask our Lord Jesus Christ, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther…).

On the other hand, your idea becoming a household-familiar is evidence of success. The constant (though flawed) propagation of your idea means you’ve created something that’s resonated with the masses. (Or, as Chamillionare said, “Weird Al isn’t going to do a parody of your song if you’re not doing it big.”)

And of course, this explains why growth mindset is talked about with such a wide range of implications. Sometimes, it takes more than Yoda and Darth Vader posters to explain complex topics… particularly topics wrapped around the way an individual sees the world around them.

Says Dweck (in The Atlantic article), “Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew.”

As with most things, in order to experience the full benefit, there needs to be fidelity with the implementation. Otherwise, what gets left out might be the thing that makes it effective.

From The Atlantic article:

But Dweck recently noticed a trend: a widespread embrace of what she refers to as “false growth mindset”—a misunderstanding of the idea’s core message. Growth mindset’s popularity was leading some educators to believe that it was simpler than it was, that it was only about putting forth effort or that a teacher could foster growth mindset merely by telling kids to try hard. A teacher might applaud a child for making an effort on a science test even if he’d failed it, for instance, believing that doing so would promote growth mindset in that student regardless of the outcome.

Or as Dweck says later in the piece:

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, there’s a little more to fostering Growth Mindset than “praise the effort, not the outcome.” A lot more, it turns out. From Dweck’s article in Harvard Business Review:

“Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed-mindset triggers.”

It involves really understanding our own inner balance of fixed and growth mindsets. Growth mindset isn’t the easiest way. It’s the most valuable way. Are you sure you really want a growth mindset? Remember, thinking you’ve maxed out your ability provides a neat little excuse to only “do your best” as opposed to what WMU football coach PJ Fleck regularly calls “changing your best.” And even if you are convinced in the value of growth mindset, you still have to convince your students.

Dweck beat me to that one, too. From the Atlantic article:

Finally we talked about why someone would want a growth mindset. We realized that some kids would be overjoyed to hear you can develop your intellectual abilities, but others might not think it was the most exciting thing. So we then had a whole section on why you might want to develop your mind. Teenagers are really excited about the idea that they can do something to make the world a better place. So we asked them what they want to make their contribution to in the future—family, community, or societal problems—and then talked about how having a strong mind could help them make their future contribution.

Nestled deep within growth mindset is “growth”. Growth toward what? Well, certainly away from what we currently are (because it’s not good enough yet) toward something else (presumably something better.) This mindset is fundamentally at odds with a philosophy that says, “Don’t worry. You’re perfect just the way you are.” If that were true, why would we need growth? Why are we trying like crazy to help our students “grow”? Why should we be trying like crazy to model that in ourselves?

Certainly because we’re not all “perfect just the way we are.” In fact, in a time of struggle, it might be more helpful to be told, “perfect or not, you’re not stuck the way you are. You can be more. I’ll help you. And if you try for it, your effort will be rewarded.” That’s what growth  mindset brings to the table.

So, how do you operationalize that? We’ll have to save that for another post. (Although, as usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

 

Investigating the shadow

I relearned an important lesson about students today. And, as is often the case, the lesson was learned while visiting church. But, it wasn’t the priest who taught me the lesson. Not the deacon, not a Bible study leader… not even a human.

It was a candle that illumined me.

See, in our church, there’s candles. Candles do a variety of different things. The most obvious of these is they produce light. But this isn’t all they do. See?

img_20161129_190036795

Actually, maybe you don’t see. I mean, when you are used to looking at candles like this, then the light is probably the most obvious effect. I suspect if you are close enough to it, you will quick recognize the heat as well.

But those candles are doing more than that. (I’m not trying to get all spiritual on you here. I’m talking physically.)

Can you see it? Maybe you need another picture of the candles.

img_20161129_190051749

So, this is the same set of candles, but see? I took a picture of the shadow the candles cast on a nearby wall. See the distorted image vertically rising from the candles? There’s something happening to the light that passes through the space directly above the flames that messes with the light as it passes through.

But you can’t see it here. I mean, I guess maybe if you stare at it long enough… maybe…

img_20161129_190036795

Anyway…

By now, it would be reasonable to ask why I was so interested in candles. And the simplest answer is that I saw something that intrigued me.

Is this the way it is with our students? There are lot of things they are doing that are obvious. They are loud or quiet. They are successful or struggling. They are social or reclusive. These things are obvious. These are the flame of the candle. Any teacher paying any attention to their students would see these things.

But what we don’t see are the hidden effects.

We don’t see that the successful student is working like crazy because of the pressure her parents are putting on her. (It’s not work ethic… it’s fear. Be prepared for what that looks like when the struggles come.) We may not see that that student who is struggling is a skilled leader on her soccer team. (There’s a lot of usable strengths if you can just create classroom situations that use them.) We don’t see that the student who we don’t think is paying attention could design and implement not less than 3 effective fixes for that wobbly stool in your classroom. (How can you sell your content on that student?)

To successfully support these students, we need to see their shadow along with their light.

How do you look at your students differently? There’s a variety of different ways, but the first is that you need to be interested. You need to be willing to see something that intrigues you. Find ways to see them differently. In general, school mostly expects students to do the same sorts of things. But you don’t HAVE to do it that way. Challenge the successful student. Innovate with the struggling student. Chat with the quiet student.

Remember that their “shadow” would almost certainly reveal plenty of things going on. Important actions, skills, impacts that you aren’t aware of. How would the classroom experience improve, both for the student and for you, if you knew what those “shadow” effects were?

Undoing Old Expressions ( #MTBoS30 )

During my undergrad (a decade or so ago now), there was a fairly common expression that I believe was designed to comforting interns who were struggling with classroom management and student engagement.

“No activity will work for every kid.”

It played like, “Hang in there, no one’s perfect. You did the best you could.” Nice enough message, I suppose. However, we need to be careful that a second, much less productive (and potentially harmful) message doesn’t begin to run parallel to it.

“No activity will work for every kid” is just a short morph to “understand that a certain number of disengaged students is just the cost of doing business”. And the latter is an extremely risky mindset. While students are going to struggle to stay fully engaged 100% of the time given our limitations as instructors, that should never stop being the goal. “No activity will work for every kid” might need to get reworded into “Make sure your classroom activities have the POTENTIAL to meaningfully engage EVERY student in class, and don’t stress over factors beyond your control.”

That’s a message that is much trickier to morph because the first portion drives so much.

Every single lesson plan for every single class period should include opportunities for each kid to meaningfully engage. What does that look like?

Well, every struggling learner will be supported every day. Every excelling learner will be challenged every day. Every fidgety kid will get a chance to get up and relocate every day. Every kid will get a chance to practice and get feedback every day. Every kid who needs some worked examples will have ready access to them every day. Every kid will be held accountable for their participation every day. It’s a mindset. Does my lesson have the potential to engage 100% of the learners?

It looks like every question being answered by every kid. It changes from “Any questions?” to “All right, take 3 minutes, solve these two problems and I’ll walk around and look at them.”

One formative assessment attempt is okay with disengaged students. No news is good news, right? The other formative assessment values each student’s thoughts. Okay, yeah… the second one takes a minute or two longer. But then again, the students are much more likely to learn something. That seems like a fair trade to me.

It looks like removing assumptions. “Okay, so back in 4th grade, you were taught area or rectangles, so…” falls away and “Okay, every one draw a 3 in by 5 in rectangle. Use a ruler. Try to make it perfect. Oooh! Look, Alex used graph paper! Nice move! Now, let’s see if we can find the area. No discussion right now. 60 seconds of silent, individual work. What’s the area of that rectangle?”

 

One sets up a barrier for students who don’t know, don’t remember, or weren’t taught. The other leaves nothing to chance, demands that each student demonstrate their skill set and gives opportunities for reteaching as needed.

It looks like creating expandable experiences. “All right, once you’ve finished 3-13 (odds), you’re done for today” falls away and “Okay, so, if you can get through 3-13, I’ve got the answer sheets floating around. Make sure they’re right and then come and see me. I’ve got a challenge for you. Remember, you knock out 5 challenge problems during the quarter and you get a…”

One generates rush to “get stuff done” with lack-of-productivity being the reward. The other creates incentives for pushing yourself.

And no. These plans aren’t going to work for every student. There. I said it.

But they are ways to make sure that each student will have something meaningful to engage it when they decide to.

The environment for risk-taking

Yesterday, I was in a local elementary school having conversation with grade-level teams about their students’ math learning. I heard something that I found incredibly impressive.

In one particular grade level, there was a small number of students who were still not quite mastering the targeted skills, but were getting really close. Many of these students had begun the year with a long way to go, so this is a very impressive amount of growth for these students. (In some cases, some of these students experience a year’s growth in their math abilities during the first semester.)

We started examining what had led to such growth, one of the classroom teachers remarked, “Well, they really try hard. They like to work problems out in front of the other students. They make mistakes, but the other students correct them.”

I paused.

Think of that. Just… do me a favor, will ya? Go ahead and picture the typical struggling math student. Got the image? I’ll bet you that student just LOVES putting their math skills on display for the whole class to see, don’t they? I’ll bet that student loves letting the other students in the class critique his/her work. (Sarcasm may not come through real well in the blogging medium…)

Seriously?

I asked this teacher, “You’ve created an atmosphere the atmosphere in your classroom that makes that student feel safe to make mistakes in front of the other students?”

Teacher shrugged as if it were really no big deal. “Mmm-hmm. Yeah.” (As if to say, “Sure, what’s the big deal? We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can.)

I love that it’s no big deal to her and her colleagues. But that is not common.

Believe me, I am convinced in the power of students examining and critiquing each other’s work, but ordinarily there is a bit of strategery involved to keep the pieces of work anonymous. (See Best Reflection for an example of what I’m talking about.)

But that’s not the case for this teacher. What a vision for a classroom. A place so safe and so locked into the mutual learning process that there is no need for anonymity. A student can stand up in front of his/her peers, submit their best try, the peers appreciate the sincerity and can offer feedback.

It’s just no wonder that the students who entered that class behind their peers were catching up so fast… and imagine where they’ll be by the end of the year.

We’re not just teaching math…

The old adage goes “I don’t teach math. I teach children.” That line typically gets used when an educator’s focus is a bit out of balance with respect to empathetic student-centered attitudes and content-driven, fidelity-to-curriculum attitudes. There needs to be a balance and it can be tricky to find sometimes.

In addition to that, there is another balance that needs to be struck. The balance between the math content in a curriculum and the other skills the students are going to need to learn the math content. Some of these skills are considered “soft skills” by some. These are things like communication skills, presentations, research, teamwork. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “soft skills”. (We can talk more about that another time if you want).

Beyond those, there are some “hard” skills that some math teachers just feel isn’t their job to teach. These are things like technology skills, reading, writing, and supplementary (often much lower-level) math skills. I’ve been in a variety of math classrooms talking to teachers of high school math who feel like they just shouldn’t have to teach fractions, long division, and reading.

Yet, increasingly math classes are starting to look like this.

2014-02-20 10.41.53

We’re not just teaching math…

And those skills, be them “soft” or “hard” will directly impact our students’ ability to learn the math content that we are hoping they’ll learn. I think it is important that we math teachers simply expect to have to teach our students to do everything we need them to do to be successful in our math classes.

And this includes remembering that teaching and learning have some recurring patterns when done successfully: teacher modeling, student exploration, student individual practice, formative assessment, feedback. These are things that exist in every successful math class I’ve seen. (Depending on teacher philosophy, the order of the steps might not be the same in every classroom, but the steps are all still there.)

Very few teachers will tell you that you can skip that teaching-and-learning process for the math content.

Many more will skip that teaching-and-learning process with the “softer” parts of their curriculum.

Perhaps, I should back up and discuss how I see “curriculum”. From the teacher perspective, curriculum includes both the “what” of the learning, but also the “how”. And if a math teacher has students whose math experience looks like this…

2013-10-24 13.04.22

… as is increasingly becoming the case, then the curriculum probably includes three fairly broad categories.

Math Content: This would include the primary learning targets for the course, but also the prerequisite math knowledge that the students need to advance successfully to the new content.

Learning Tools: Depending on the class this might include a couple of devices (calculators, iOS devices, laptops, Chromebooks) and any other manipulatives (Alge-blocks, patty paper, compasses, protractors, etc.). If the learning will require the use of these tools, then the learning of these tools is every bit as much a learning objective as the math content.

Classroom Procedures: Where will the schedule be posted? Where will handouts be made available? How does a student turn in assignments? Where should a student look when he/she has been absent? What does a student do when they are trying to work at home and find themselves paralyzed by confusion?

If a student struggles to learn well the content in any of those three areas, that student will start riding the struggle bus pretty quickly. The first step to avoid this is to recognize that we are going to have to actively teach all of the things students need to know to be successful in our class. How many of us run a formative assessment where the learning target of the assessment is “Students will be able to use a compass”? How many of us give feedback on the learning target “students will know how to create table with ordered pairs on Desmos”?

Remember, we don’t teach math. We teach children to learn math. And that requires us math teachers to remember that there’s actually a lot more than math knowledge that students will need to be successful in our classes.

How the other half works

I was a classroom teacher until this past November. The last 6+ years were spent in the high school math classroom. I got pretty comfortable in the high school classroom. In my new role, I’m collaborating with teachers at all levels.

In fact, I was fortunate enough to explore the extremes of that spectrum in the last week. A few days ago, I spent about a half-hour brainstorming with a teacher regarding his calculus class. He had some outstanding (and quite lofty) goals about integrating STEM ideas of authentic problem-solving and authentic assessment, experimentation, design and engineering into his calculus class. I didn’t have much to offer him, I’m sorry to say. I’ve never seen a class operate in the way that he was hoping.

Two days later, I was observing a math instructional strategy for about a half-hour in a kindergarten classroom. The teacher was fantastic: talented, warm with her students, and quite skilled in the areas of classroom management and math instruction. I was observing her class as they explored some quantity discrimination with manipulatives. Beans for counters and a spinner to determine whether that pair of students would express a “greater than” or “less than” sentence. I really enjoyed this teacher’s style. She chuckled as she said, “whoever decided that beans and spinners should be used together with kindergartners really should have rethought that.”

It got me thinking about my own background. Teaching is immersive. It isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Even aside from all of the time a teacher spends in his/her classroom (or working outside of their classroom), the work is very stressful and requires a lot of mental energy. Teachers seek other teachers’ counsel, other teachers’ advice.

In the end, no one can help a frustrated teacher quite like another teacher who has walked a mile (or seven) in the same frustrated shoes.

This reality leads to two very understandable outcomes. First, many teachers I’ve talked to have expressed that advice is only helpful when targeted directly to their specific situation. (“Well, that fella had some good things to say, but has he ever tried to teach Algebra I? No…” I’ve heard different variations on this many times.)

Second, there is often a huge, HUGE disconnect between secondary teachers and elementary teachers. Since 2005, I have been a team member in three different districts as a secondary teacher (one very big, one very small, and one medium) and I can think of exactly two times… TWO… that I was in a instructional math meeting that involved bringing any elementary teachers in.

Both times, the vibe was very much, “Hey listen, you elementary school teachers are making our jobs harder, so I tell ya what: why don’t you let us tell you how this should be done and then we’ll all get back to work.” I’m sorry to say that I’m not blaming others. I know this is how I was in those meetings.

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who were struggling to understand that 5 x 2 = 10. Sure, I had students who certainly didn’t know their multiplication facts, but I never had to build 5 x 2 = 10 as new knowledge. What’s that like?

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who needed time to develop the understanding of the statement: “If you are counting objects, the last number you say is the number of objects there are.” What’s that like? How do you structure that lesson? How do you differentiate that?

I’ve never watched a student struggle to learn a new topic only to realize that the reason they are struggling is that they don’t know how to read or conceptualize that the two digit number they are seeing on the page in front of them. I had some students who didn’t read well, but I don’t recall having a student in class who didn’t know what 12 meant.

But there are places where this is commonplace. And I’ve learned so much by having to consider what math education looks like at this level. And it makes me wish that I had been forced to walk a mile or two in their footsteps while I was struggling to understand why my students couldn’t understand fractions.

In the modern times, it seems there is a resurgent appreciation for collaboration, classroom observations, and teachers learning from each other. I wonder what value it might add to a teaching staff to have the teachers from the high school take a day to watch expert practitioners at the elementary level? And what value might it add to have the kindergarten teacher sit-in on an Algebra I lesson?

Flipped Learning and a bit on Zaption

You know, flipped learning is a precarious structure. In some sense, it seems quite progressive, empowering to the student, allowing the student to take ownership of his/her own learning. In another sense, though, it replaces live teacher lectures with video-recorded teacher lectures, which actually seems like a backwards step. Clearly not all instructional models that include videos are created equal.

Now, I have been an advocate of a while of using video to enhance instruction, if for no other reason than that a properly-chosen, properly-timed video can grab students attention really well when they are tired of interacting with me and with each other. However, videos largely have the problem of being passive activities for the students.

I’ve tried a variety of different things to attempt to add some interactivity to videos. There’s the ol’ pausing-the-clip-every-90-seconds-to-engage-the-students-yourself technique. I used this move when I taught physics. “Hollywood Physics” was where we’d watch a clips filled with delicious energy transformations or breakdowns in Newton’s laws. Lots of pausing and discussing.

I’ve also used tools to try to embed questions that break the video up and make the students reflect or predict. This little ditty from 2011, The Bowl Problem, although not my best work, reflects a desire to try to create a video that has some interactive elements to it. That was created with a digital camera and PowerPoint. It was prohibitively time-consuming. There has to be a better way.

And Zaption might be it. I’m not a spokesperson for these folks. In fact, they are not the only service out there that embeds interactivity into videos (Educanon and Bubblr are two others). I just found Zaption to be the easiest to use and the most useful as a formative assessment tool.

In trying to learn how to use Zaption, I made this quiz video. Go ahead and give it a try. (I’ll be able to tell you more about the built-in, free analytic tools if I can get lots of people to take the quiz. So please, give it a try.)

You don’t get to see your results, which will bother some, but the results are tallied and shown in a series of well-made reports that has the potential to inform a teacher about how students engaged the video (it shows how long the video was watched, how many times each questions got skipped, etc.), and give you some insight as to their understanding of the content.

It’s not a perfect tool. If you wanted to use it in an actual quizzing/grading type set-up, the grading of the results might be a little tricky. Additionally, this, like every bit of instructional tech, has a learning curve. Having said that, though, I found that choosing the right video to practice on was the slowest part and that the process of creating the questions to be pretty easy to pick up.

Flipped learning has its critics (I have been among them at times), because there is a demand for instructional technology to get implemented meaningfully. Instructional technology isn’t a savior. However, the effective use of instructional technology does have the potential to make a huge dent in some of the improvements we need to make. We want it to give us a chance to do things that we previously had to work too hard to do. Tools like Zaption help make a previously passive activity, like watching a video, potentially more active for the students and informative for the instructor.

 

Update on 2 Jan:

Since posting this, I’ve received a tweet about an additional software to embed instructional items into videos. And since I’m mentioning Zaption, Educanon, and Blubbr, I figured it was only fair to add this one. I’ll just show you the tweet.