Modeling the Growth Mindset

Growth mindset. If ever there was a hot topic in education, this would be it. Multiple times a week I come across articles discussing it, and have even written about it in ”Reconsidering the Avoiders”. One of the biggest factors of implementing the approach is modeling it for students: showing a growth mindset in ourselves and how we approach learning.

Quick summary: a growth mindset believes that learning is always possible, and that one’s ability is not dependent on or limited to innate qualities.

While my school talks about this mindset and encourages staff to foster it in students, I’ve noticed significant challenges in doing so. First, because of the nature of who is drawn to teaching, not all teachers have a growth mindset — or they forget it sometimes. Second, the intense time pressure of school makes implementing these practices tricky.

Teachers are, generally, people who like to be in control and the center of attention. While this manifests in a variety of ways, few people who don’t like to be in charge find themselves leading a classroom in a traditional school. This need for control can inhibit a growth mindset, and I think the struggle is particularly true for elementary teachers. As a third grade teacher, I share concepts that are considered simple by the rest of the population, and I often take for granted that I will either know the answer or will be able to immediately figure it out. Of course, this doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes, I discover that I have helped a child land on a wrong answer. On a recent math test, I counseled five different students through a particular problem before realizing that I wasn’t doing the problem right at all. Fortunately in this instance, I was able to call them back and share my mistake while helping them see the correct path. But other times, feeling duped by a worksheet or poorly phrased question, I go in a completely different direction, insisting that the seemingly odd answer is indeed correct. A recent matching sheet about Charlotte’s Web asked who pledged to save Wilbur and was missing the choice “Charlotte.” Rather than allow the flummoxed students to cross out Fern, I rationalized how Fern could have been the correct answer and argued with them until they relented. I try to employ a willingness to share my mistakes with students and let them see that I am frequently wrong, but in the moment it’s hard to do so.

This is especially true because we are constantly pressed for time. With the students I led astray in math, I wish I could have spent even more time explaining what went wrong and why the new way made sense. But with four other students in line and a limited window for the test, it didn’t seem possible. Daily, there are situations that could warrant a debate over a question or answer, but my schedule doesn’t allow for such discussion very often.

To adopt a growth mindset, my students need to change their attitude towards mistakes and new challenges. The phrase, “this makes no sense,” has become so prolific in my classroom, and causes me such anguish, that the students who hear it anticipate my reaction and start chuckling at my caricatured frustration. Some even respond to their classmates, “Ms. Schultz doesn’t like when you say that.” These words hurt my soul (almost as much as when they use library books for umbrellas), but we have yet to have a class conversation about why the phrase is so detrimental — there hasn’t been time.

Surely, helping our students vanquish this attitude has as much value as being right on a worksheet. We need to admit our own shortcomings if we are going to be the models our students need to adopt a growth mindset.

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