Guest blog by Katie Bergvall, Elementary Instructional Specialist from Midlothian ISD .
At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, I was fortunate to be on a founding team opening our district’s 7th elementary school. Elementary #7 was designed with the future classroom in mind and staffed with visionary educators. Students and teachers would be surrounded by great leadership, cutting edge technology, collaborative spaces both in and out of the classroom, and led by a principal who encouraged both growth and mistakes. It was the most ideal teacher environment for the beginning of the school year. The focus, for once, was on the needs of learners and not the content. Coming from teaching at a traditional campus, I was quickly motivated to change my teaching style as a 5th grade math teacher and step outside of my comfort zone. Like Dorothy in the land of Oz, this wasn’t Kansas anymore, and I couldn’t wait to walk down the yellow brick road!
In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, I learned about the power that comes with having a growth mindset. For those who embrace it, basic abilities developed through dedication and hard work, become just the starting point rather than the end goal. By avoiding a fixed mindset, learners of all ages are able to flourish in new possibilities and ideas. Failure is encouraged and expected. This view is widely accepted by teachers and creates a love of learning and a liveliness that is essential for great accomplishment. I’ll admit, I was riding strong on the growth mindset bandwagon. After following Twitter posts, researching blogs and reading books, I was determined to introduce this metacognitive approach to motivation and learning with my 5th-grade students. I spent time planning lessons focused on expanding student’s cognitive development and fostering mistakes. Students were encouraged to not give up when math got difficult. I wanted them to know that the process it takes to reach the final goal is just as important as the goal itself. Beginning on the first day of school, at an innovative campus, I was beyond pumped to begin this new journey in our classroom culture.
After the first six weeks, it became clear that I needed to tweak my delivery. If having an open mindset would remove barriers from learning and encourage failure, why were my students quickly giving up when the math got hard? I overheard many students express, “I’m just not a math person and that’s why I can’t do this.” I realized I had reverted to praising student effort and their processes alone. While this has the potential to promote a growth mindset, my “Good Effort” exclamations were becoming simple ways to mask the student’s who weren’t learning. I wasn’t being truthful with my students.The ones who needed me most in helping them to discover their own capabilities, I was just passing over because on the “average” scale they were fine.
Carol Dweck’s book spoke about the possibility of developing a “false” mindset and without fully reflecting on my instructional practices, I could have easily overlooked this flaw in my teaching. This was only the first of my “ah-ha” moments. Could it be possible that I was using a fixed mindset when it came to planning lessons? What if I was the problem? It was time to take an honest look at what I was doing. The lessons I planned didn’t promote students to use their own knowledge and problem solving skills. I was hand feeding them all the information they needed and striking them from the potential to find information on their own. They weren’t trying to “Find another way” when solving math problems that got difficult. My student’s weren’t taking the initiative to self evaluate their work or ask themselves, “ Is this the best I can do?” They were turning in work that was average at best. While this is okay for some, I had higher expectations.
I began to revisit my lesson plans and while talking through my frustrations on the lack of growth my students were showing,quickly realizing it was not their fault. They were not being given the chance to show their potential. They were not given the chance to sit and ponder a way to solve difficult math problems because I would revert to my old habits of just answering the problems for them. While there is a positive to supporting our students every need, I was also depriving them from working with peers and pushing them to their own frustration points where they are to rely on each other. For the student’s who claim they are not “math minded” were never given the opportunity to dive in and find their potential. Each student has the capability to be the ‘math person”, they just need a teacher to help them find it.
My classroom had the best of the best technology and ample amount of resources, but I hadn’t changed my own personal mindset. I thought by creating anchor charts that showed a fixed vs. growth mindsets was going to be enough and students would automatically make that shift. How naive I was. I continued to provide the same instruction from workbooks that I received as young student. The math problems were average at best and didn’t relate to any real world applications. I was still using materials that were relevant 6 years ago and uploading PDF’s (aka worksheets) for students to complete on their iPads didn’t require any higher level thinking that I had intended. I knew online worksheets were not going to be the way to get my students future ready.
My approach had to change. I had to let go of the mindset of “That’s how it’s always been done” and “My student’s test scores are great so why should I change?” But our world is changing. Students need to believe that effort is huge key to success and not just how talented they are. We need to educate students on how to be problem solvers and how to effectively use their creativity. We assess students on what they know, but we rarely assess students on what can they do with what they know. In the modern world, people are rewarded for using their knowledge and taking it to the next level .The modern world does not reward for what you know but rather what you can do with the knowledge you have. Students are growing up with Google in their pocket. The necessity to hold all the knowledge is no longer the desire but rather what can you produce with the knowledge that is given. We should be teaching our students be critical thinkers, problem solvers and to build a mindset that supports failure as growth. Student need to believe that the effort they give is a key to success not only talent alone.
I wish had the magical potion on how to educate our students to succeed in their future with this vision in mind, but I do not. I do know, that it starts with a change of mindset. Teaching is hard and all the technology and resources isn’t going to be the answer to preparing our students. As teachers, we should surround ourselves with other educators who have the same intentionality for their students to be more than a test grade. We need to encourage each other to step outside of our classrooms and be comfortable with making mistakes. Failure promotes growth and that’s what we want for our students.