Above the wall of windows in my classroom is the phrase that has had the greatest impact on my teaching, on my classroom climate, and on my students’ learning thus far. It is a simple phrase, derived from the Mindset work of Carol Dweck, and it says, simply: “We believe in the power of YET…” This seemingly simple phrase has touched every aspect of my First Grade classroom and, although I originally posted the phrase as a reminder to myself, the way my students have connected with it, on multiple levels, is nothing short of amazing.
I had heard of “Growth Mindset” before. It’s been around for quite a while. Dweck’s book, Mindset, was published in 2006, and schools all over the country have been “teaching” it for years. Seeing posts about it on social media, activities posted on TpT and blogs, and poster sets for sale in every teaching catalog, led me to believe it was just another gimmick. I saw it as one more thing teachers were being required to throw into our pedagogical soup to show we were educating the whole child. I admit it – I was more than just a little cynical. But then, I read Neuroteach and I attended the CTTL Academy, and I began to see what the hype is all about.
Over the course of my studies and experiences this summer, I began to see the power in relying more on effort and progress and less on talent and success. I have always believed that process should be valued over product, and that learning is an ongoing journey and not a static destination, but this is a bit different. This “Growth Mindset” gives us permission to accept where we are in that process and on that journey, allowing us to persevere when we might otherwise choose to quit, to see the benefit in continuing to try.1 I knew there had to be a way to translate this to my classroom, but how?
The most important concept I took away from the CTTL Academy was the idea of neuroplasticity – the brain’s amazing ability to change and grow (or shrink) – depending upon how it is used. So, this is where I decided I needed to begin. Once I found the book, Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain2, I was off and running. This illustrated book does an amazing job of showing young children how their brains learn and grow. I was able to find a few related lessons online and then I created a few of my own. I ended up with a unit based on the book that allowed my students to see just how powerful their brains are and, more importantly, how much control they had over that power.
Combining our learning about neuroplasticity with the growth mindset geared math activities from Jo Boaler’s You Cubed website3 produced a fantastic energy in our classroom. Students began to add yet to any sentence containing the words “can’t” and “don’t”. They began praising one another for their perseverance. Most importantly, they really began to see their errors as opportunities to learn instead of as failures. In fact, I have one little girl who, upon witnessing anyone making a mistake, proudly proclaims, “Good for you! Your brain just grew!”
I worked hard to provide opportunities for my students to fail and grow. I purchased storybooks that exemplified the “Growth Mindset”. We solved many trial and error type problems and problems with multiple “right” answers. I structured tasks to show the benefits of repeated practice. I worked on raising the bar and lowering barriers. I banned, “I’m done!” and insisted they could always find something in their work upon which to improve. I was really proud of the progress my students were making, but something started to bother me.
I was feeling like, “This is all well and good, but really, so what?” I wanted my kids to see themselves as learners and to understand that failure was part of the process, but I didn’t want them just accepting failure. Some were even making mistakes on purpose to make their brain grow! Nope! That was NOT the plan! I needed a next step. Googling “Growth Mindset” got me going. Dweck, it turns out, is a bit frustrated by the way her work has been interpreted. She calls it “False Growth Mindset”4 and the more I read, the more I understood what I needed to do next.
I started to push my students past “the power of yet” with this question, “So now what?” Seeing a mistake or a failure as learning was fine, but it couldn’t stop there. I needed them to persevere long enough to take the next step on the journey. This is where the power of feedback comes in. Not just any feedback, but specific and honest feedback. Kids need real feedback that will help them in working through the process. They need honesty and specificity, but more importantly, they need to know that the feedback comes from a place of love and belief. If a child knows she is cared for and believed in, then the feedback can be accepted and applied.
So now, I’m working on my ability to give specific and honest feedback and to teach my kids to do the same. Watching the video Austin’s Butterfly5 was an enlightening experience for me during our last session with the CTTL, and my class has had a similar reaction to the video. They formed an immediate connection with Austin and became fascinated by the way he was able to take each new piece of feedback and use it to further improve his work. We have watched it several times now and we continue to find new things to discuss. The students are currently working on giving feedback to one another in very informal ways and they can appreciate that my feedback is meant to help and encourage. It is all still a work in progress, for my students and for me, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it is supposed to be.
1 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2017.
2 Deak, JoAnn M., and Sarah Ackerley. Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It. Little Pickle Press, 2017.
3 Boaler, Jo. “Home.” YouCubed, www.youcubed.org/.
4 Gross-Loh, Christine. “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 Dec. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/.
5 “Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work.” Vimeo, 18 Feb. 2018, vimeo.com/38247060.