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4 core mindsets for learning

I am greatly encouraged to hear more and more educators express their enthusiasm for Carol Dweck’s research on fixed and growth mindsets. Teachers are beginning to talk to students in a different way; avoiding praising them for their intelligence and instead acknowledging their effort and explaining the benefits of persisting on challenging tasks. Dweck’s research demonstrates that these relatively small changes in language can yield significant improvement in student achievement.

I am troubled, however, by some interpretations of this research. Instead of taking it as a cue for changing interactions with students, some educators have instead emphasized how students need to change their mindsets and learn to try harder. Some have even interpreted this research as being especially applicable to students who are struggling academically. In some instances, students’ effort and persistence are now being evaluated or given grades as way to get them to improve their performance on tasks.

There is one important question, however, that is seldom raised and discussed in relation to this research: How do students get a fixed mindset? From my own experience as a parent, an educator and from my reading of the research on human development, it is clear that children are born with a growth mindset. Children before they enter formal schooling spontaneously play and engage in “challenging” activities willingly and freely. Watch a young child build a tower of blocks over and over after it topples. Observe how they persist at puzzles, or nesting cubes. Watch their pretend play where they rehearse life and act out what they see in the world around them. This is what is learning is for them, until they enter most of our schools.

In school, they discover a different version of learning. They sometimes encounter an environment that essentially tells them what to learn, how to learn it and sets arbitrary time limits for learning it. Their learning is evaluated in relation to others, so they quickly find out that some children learn better than others. Most students figure out how to learn this way in order to avoid negative consequences and gain approval from their teachers. Other students appear to lack motivation for learning but in reality they are just motivated to avoid putting themselves in jeopardy of being negatively judged or labeled by those in authority and consequently their peers. In sum, the fixed mindset is a result of learning being changed into performing as the key component of their school experience.

The true application of the research on mindsets clearly points towards making changes in schools, and those changes should be in how educators interact with students. Schools need to let students learn and not just perform. Students should not be expected to change — they just need to be the recipients and hopefully the beneficiaries of educators re-examining and subsequently changing the assumptions and practices that guide what most of us consider “education” to be.

How can educators make the changes the students need for a growth mindset? Some of the answers can be found in the research that has followed in the footsteps of Dweck, specifically the work of Greg Walton, Geoffrey Cohen and David Yeager among others. This research has expanded the concept of mindset into four different but interrelated mindsets (with the growth mindset as one of them). The four mindsets can be stated as positive affirmations that student should be making about themselves and their relationship to the learning environment:

I belong to this school community. Membership in a school community cannot be conditional. Students must feel accepted as people even if their behavior is not acceptable. The students with the greatest needs often rejected and isolated yet they are the ones who need the most support and acceptance. Belonging cannot be a zero sum game with some students feeling more accepted than others. A true community is where each member cares about what happens to every member.

My effort leads to greater growth. Although many of the features of schooling are difficult to change, e.g. grades, tests, time limits, educators can find creative ways to redefine and expand student’s understanding of what success means.

I can direct my success. Students need a sense of agency: feeling in control of their learning. They must have a voice and a choice in what and how they learn. They need to feel that success is more than just meeting the expectations of those in authority. Educators need to coach and mentor rather than just control and manage students. In this way, students attribute success to their efforts rather than external factors.

My work has meaning, value and purpose. Although students still need to learn things they might not freely choose to learn, when teachers they trust provide a meaning and a purpose they become open and available for new experiences. Teaching is all about making learning meaningful, purposeful and valuable and not just about delivering content to students.

Right now, the focus of school reform efforts has been on raising student achievement within the current design of schools. As a result, schools have developed a variety of tools to motivate students and teachers to perform better. A simpler and more effective alternative is possible; one that is based on the primary assumption that all students want to learn and they are just waiting for the right conditions to be put into place for them. These four key mindsets can be the path to follow for redesigning the school experience for students and making them places for learning.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.

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