For three years I worked with hundreds of educators to create classrooms where students are better able to persist when their school work gets hard. As the standards are raised more students are struggling and many of our students are shutting down in response. We worked to shift mindsets so that students would believe that they could overcome these challenges, and would be willing to keep going when things got hard.
As is true with all work done in schools, some educators took it on, grappled with it, made shifts to their day-to-day life and had transformative effects. I’ve heard stories of students who had never worked independently before suddenly asking questions, finishing their work and doing revisions! Those stories are amazing and they make the work worth doing… but let’s not forget that there are also schools where nothing really changes. Though the schools have new data, classroom cultures aren’t shifting and students aren’t transforming. Why?
One root cause: the educator’s belief about her own potential
At the beginning of every year we start with a survey of the educators’ beliefs about themselves.
- Does the teacher believe that she, herself, is capable of growth in areas in which she has struggled? Does effort feel like the good blood, sweat and tears needed for progress?
- Or does she believe that intelligence is a God-given gift and that having to put in effort is proof that she, in fact, just didn’t get this gift. Does she declare herself, for example, “just not a math person?” Or “just not creative?” Or “just not an exercise person?”
Carol Dweck refers to these as two distinct beliefs about intelligence. The first represents a “Growth Mindset” and it supports persistence when things get tough. The other is a “Fixed Mindset” and works to shut down hard work in the face of challenge.
Not surprisingly*, most teachers believe that their own intelligence is something they can’t really change. What’s critical here isn’t whether a teacher began with a mindset open to growth (few do), but rather how they respond to the news that their mindset is fixed.
- Some teachers learn this about themselves and then take on the work of examining their mindset and working to shift it. It takes time, but these teachers begin to reframe the way they see their own intelligence and the concept of intelligence more broadly. Their students, right alongside their teacher, begin to see their own intelligence differently and the whole class begins to celebrate effort and persistence in a way they never have before.
- Other teachers hold hard to the idea that this work is about their students’ mindsets, not their own. They do the surveys and activities but it falls flat and nothing really changes. Is it any surprise that students don’t buy this message from their teacher who doesn’t buy it?
It’s difficult to shift your mindset about intelligence, make no mistake. It’s a culturally bound idea and it’s reinforced by our culture every single day. That means that it’s challenging for you to take it on, AND challenging for your students to take on. They need you to model for them how to grapple with and shift their mindset. If you don’t do it, they won’t do it. It’s that simple.
*It’s not surprising because the majority of people in the west hold a fixed mindset about intelligence. Western cultures glorifies the idea of exceptional people who discover, create, and innovate with ease. The truth, of course, is that exceptional people are mostly exceptional in that their willingness to work really, really hard and fail.
Do it for your kids, sure, but most of all do it for YOU
I know you find it compelling to do something on behalf of your students. As educators, we are wired to take on challenges on behalf of our students. In fact, we often do so much for them that there’s very little left for ourselves. This is not one of those times. Shifting your mindset will make your own life so much better!
- What have you always wanted to do but were afraid to try? A growth mindset helps you to be brave and take it on. You could learn to draw! Or bike! Or do Tai Chi! The world is your oyster when you allow yourself to try.
- What have you always struggled with and now you don’t even try? A growth mindset allows you to open your mind to a new perspective. Maybe you are a math person after all. Imagine that!
I believe that the key to transformation in education is transformation in educators. Educators who feel empowered, take risks and try new things will create classrooms where students do the same, and that’s great. Nay, it’s amazing!
But also- educators who feel empowered, take risks and try new things get to have fun! They get to live rich, fulfilling and adventurous lives inside and outside of their classrooms, unshackled from their fear of failure. And that’s at least as amazing.
Now it’s your turn. Take this quick 3-question quiz (it’s free) and find out your mindset. The quiz includes information about the psychology of the Growth Mindset and includes practical tips for shifting your own mindset. Armed with this information you will be able to create the classroom you’ve always wanted… and the life you yearn for.