My growth mindset journey began 5 years ago when I started co-teaching with Jenn Maichin, a veteran growth mindset practitioner and Mindset Works Professional Learning Specialist. At the time I knew nothing about Jenn’s teaching philosophy. I felt excited but nervous; if I only knew that I would grow so much as a teacher that year.
As Jenn was working with a small group of students in the back of the room, I overheard her engaging with one particular girl. The young 6th grader was struggling with her multiplication facts, and needed help with 6 x 7. Rather than giving her the answer, Jenn asked, “What are you going to do about it?” And so the young girl started listing her multiples of 6 until she got to 42. That simple, yet effective question has changed my teaching exponentially. I quickly came to realize that this was teaching at its best.
After that first year of co-teaching together, Jenn brought me a gift. It was Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. She said that if I really wanted to shift my own mindset, then I should read the book. I knew I had to find a way to help my students believe that they had the ability to change and grow. I had to show them that it’s a choice, and if they choose to put in the effort, learn from failure, and work really hard, then they will thrive. When I started reading Mindset, that’s when I knew I was all in.
As teachers, it’s our passion to help kids. That’s what we do. This is why we chose this profession, right? It’s natural for us to want to do things for them. But as I started to develop my own growth mindset, I came to understand that I was enabling this learned helplessness behavior for a long time. I’m not going to lie, in the beginning, it was very difficult for me to watch my students’ frustration when they didn’t understand something, or couldn’t solve a math problem. They would look to me for the answer. I wanted so very much to tell them how to do it, and I thought that was teaching. What I came to realize was the importance of teaching my students to work through their struggle by putting in the effort. Then I knew I was helping them in more ways than one!
Khan Academy plays a huge role in how I integrate growth mindset into my classroom on a daily basis. My learners work on skills at their level for a specific amount of time per week. They set goals for themselves and record their data every day. As part of our daily routine, we pull up the Khan Academy dashboard and celebrate the students’ effort and progress, never their ability. Whether we have learners performing on a 4th grade level or as high as an 8th grade level, it doesn’t matter. We establish a growth mindset culture from day one, and celebrate their efforts; NOT their abilities. By focusing on effort and growth, my learners take more risks, accept more challenges and step out of their comfort zone because they know this is the only way to get smarter.
From the moment students’ step foot into my classroom, we create a common understanding that we celebrate effort, never ability in my classroom. To celebrate the learners who put forth a great deal of effort, we have a stuffed neuron, named Sparky, as our class mascot. Students who put in the most effort on Khan Academy receive the neuron for the day. Trust me, even with sixth graders, earning the right to get Sparky has become a point of pride! The entire class will softly “buzz” as a way to suggest the neurons firing in the brain and then when the deserving student catches the neuron, they all shout “ZAP!” The kids get excited when we celebrate one another. This ritual helps us collectively celebrate effort and in doing so helps us build a supportive growth mindset classroom culture and learning community.
One lesson that’s resonated with me over the years while watching Jenn is the importance of reframing mistakes and providing feedback for learning. Making a mistake is step one of the process. When my students make mistakes, the feedback that I give is critical to foster growth mindsets, persistence, and grit in my students. Specific feedback allows the students to focus their efforts on how to improve. One strategy I have incorporated in my classroom is Stars and Steps. This individual feedback might sound as simple as praise (Star); “I love how you used your math notebook and looked back at how to find a common denominator.” Sometimes the feedback needs to be more specific to help improve their progress (Step); “Let’s look at a strategy you can use to solve this problem in fewer steps. Try to simplify the fractions to make the numbers easier to use.” This feedback, along with other learned strategies, allows the learner to understand the mistakes they are making and gives them an opportunity to try again through deliberate practice. These skills that I’m fostering in my learners are embedded in all areas of instruction and are transferred over to everything else they encounter. It’s very empowering for learners to get the answer on their own, knowing they made a choice to get smarter by putting in the effort and hard work.
This shift in my own mindset 5 years ago has led me on a journey for which I am forever grateful. I’ve grown to understand that it’s not really about the math I teach. It’s about teaching my students how to become learners, and this is the most important life skill I can give them. Now when my students say, “This is hard!” my reply is, “Good! Now what are you going to do about it?”
About the Author:
I am a middle school math teacher for the Mineola School District in Mineola, NY. I am beginning my 25th year as a teacher. My purpose in education is to help my students engender a growth mindset in all aspects of their life. I encourage them to truly believe they have the ability to become learners no matter what the task is.