Category Archives: growth mindset

Where did that teacher go? Helping students to make their own decisions

I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well.  The problems were hard!  They were tricky!  I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do!  And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate.  When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics.  In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together.  In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.

In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization.  She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!”  What was happening?

We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think.  So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well.  Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions.  Let’s look at two examples:

When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student.  The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose.  Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions.  It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem.  It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged.  It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually.  And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks.  But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance.  It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle.  It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle.  But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done.  Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.

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Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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Feedback, motivation and grades-some wonderings

Some teachers and I had an interesting discussion last week about how despite our best efforts at giving feedback, students weren’t so good at using it.  From that we evolved into a discussion about how kids cared about the mark, not the feedback, and how could we move towards kids seeing the intrinsic value of their work instead of the extrinsic reward of marks.

I really don’t know but I think it bears thinking about, so I did some and here are some of my wonderings, in no particular order.

When I think about the times when I receive feedback, it almost always feels evaluative  when it happens after the fact, even when it is not meant to be.  Although I listen and I make efforts to apply the feedback to the next time, it still makes me feel kind of lousy.  It doesn’t help me feel better about the incident upon which I am getting feedback.  So, although I know it is necessary and “good for me”, I will admit that I don’t like it.

When I get feedback as I am doing something, I don’t feel so bad.  I think about making pots on the wheel.  If my instructor tells me after the pot is glazed that the shape doesn’t quite work for the vase, I get it and try to remember for next time, but usually I end up disliking that vase.  But if he comes by my wheel as I am throwing the pot and tells me that a slight change will improve the form, and helps me do it, then not only am I more likely to appreciate the feedback but I can apply it right then and love the pot.

I hate starting over completely, even when I know I should.  Even when feedback is telling me I should.  I remember a time when I painted the entire basement the wrong shade of yellow.  The basement looked awful.  I went to the paint store, feeling disheartened, and the paint guru was able to help me figure out how to soften the paint colour with a glaze instead of starting all over with primer.  Her expertise helped me to make a big problem a littler problem.

John Hattie, an educational researcher, has looked at the effect size of common school practices.  The one thing that is found to be true the most often is that students are consistently very good at predicting how well they will do on a test or assignment—they don’t really need the grade to tell them.  So, I am thinking that somehow we need to get kids to change how they will do on an assignment before it is finsihed.  I think that we thought that the communication of learning goals and success criteria would help (and maybe it does to some extent), but if the student isn’t sure how to apply the success criteria to his or her work, it isn’t useful.  Again, we need to have the change occur immediately in the doing stage.

And I was thinking about the teachers I currently work with .   They have all made changes to their teaching practices in the two years I have been their principal.  They all appear to be making the changes willingly and with great enthusiasm.  They work together and talk about what is going on in their classrooms.  They support each other.  While my role has been that of coach, cheerleader and guide, I have never stated that such and such a change MUST happen by a certain date (I am not a principal who insists on particular practices such as posting learning goals).  They were not offered salary increases or rewards or even a gold star for changing your practice.  So why did they?  Why do we puzzle over things, try new ways of doing things, reflective on our practice and continually try to improve?

And finally, I was talking with a teacher today about collaboration.  She is in a board project that is focussed on getting kids to collaborate and was telling us the story of one boy, Billy, who is always distracted and off task but she liked her collaboration checklist because she could redirect him more specifically.  Good, I thought.  But then as the conversation moved on she began to tell us how thrilled she was with the Genius Projects she was trying.  Billy never needed redirecting due to off task behaviour then, because he was totally engaged and interested in what he was doing.  How important is engagement to the process of accepting feedback and the role of intrinsic motivation?

Perhaps as I muddle through this a bit more I will come up with some answers.  I’d love to hear what you think.

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Growth Mindset – Create an environment where anything is possible

I find the research around growth mindsets fascinating.  I catch myself praising students for intelligence now and switch it to effort.  I reflect on my own language when talking about students and try not to say things like “level 2 kids” or “IEP kids” as if they are labelled  for life.  I reflect on my own teaching practice and try to build in opportunities to look at mistakes differently.  And, I want to convey to students that grit, perseverence, effort and setting goals all make a difference.

But, I am also concerned how the educational community has jumped on the growth mindset bandwagon so quickly, as we in education are apt to do.  I never check my twitter feed without seeing new posts about growth mindset.  Teachers on pinterest are posting anchor charts and classroom libraries devoted to growth mindset.  I have been wondering how best to bring growth mindset research into the classroom.

As in many things (see my post: Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?) I worry that teachers may be laying the research too much at the feet of students.  I believe that all teachers should have a solid understanding of the current research about growth mindset.  It is our job to understand learning.  And, I don’t think it is a bad thing to let kids in on the information:  in small doses, as is age appropriate and not to the point that it overtakes the joy of learning.  If we really want students to believe in growth mindset, then we need to create a learning environment that supports it:

  • Teachers can ensure that they create open-ended and interesting tasks that are more likely to engage students in taking risks and persevering because they want to.
  • Teachers can ensure that they give descriptive feedback to students that helps them move forward and past the obstacles.
  • Teachers can help students to identify their own goals by providing exemplars, checklists and anchor charts.
  • Teachers can experiment with grading fewer assignments and giving effective feedback (not “good job!”) more often.
  • Teachers can encourage students during lessons to share both their successes and challenges.  There is great power in  students showing how they didn’t solve the math problem or asking their peers to help them rewrite the lead of their story.
  • Teachers can show students how they have developed their skills and grown over time.
  •  Teachers can plan recursively so that students have multiple opportunities to learn key concepts.
  • Teachers can plan activities that require a bit of struggle and let students struggle.  Students don’t really like tasks to be simple and boring–like anyone else, they enjoy challenge.

Students can learn about how feedback can help you improve a task (such as the famous butterfly example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms).    Students can read a book here or there where the theme is about effort and setting goals.  Students can celebrate when they have mastered something that was tricky before.

But, let us think more about how we as teachers create an environment in which students experience the benefits of a growth mindset over an environment where everything is about growth mindset.  Experience more than research is what will change a child’s mindset.   There is a plethora of children’s books about growth mindset but as a kid I wouldn’t want to read one every day.  Robert Munsch is probably still way more entertaining.  I would hate us to be so concerned with students believing in growth mindset that a parent-teacher interview started with:  “Jimmy just doesn’t seem to have a growth mindset and that is why he is not progressing as we would hope”.

Growth mindset is exciting research that may open up many pathways to students.  Our job is to embed the philosophy into our teaching, not teach the philosophy.  Let us create the conditions whereby students can’t help but believe that they can do anything.

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