“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~Albert Einstein
Lately, I see more memes and posters with this quote than ever. While I agree with the sentiment of not judging intellect based on weaknesses rather than strengths, I think it tells our students that they can acknowledge something is a weakness and call it done. If a proverbial fish out of water truly had a need to climb a tree, and the fish believed he could determine or learn a way to accomplish this task, he would indeed get up that tree somehow, even if by adaptation. However, our kids aren’t fish.
When students enter any intervention class, but for our purposes, a reading intervention class, they feel like a fish out of water. They don’t need to learn to climb a tree. They need to get back in the water a lot more and perfect skills they need for survival.
“I am not good a good reader.”
“I don’t like to read.”
“Reading isn’t my thing.”
“I am good at math, not reading.”
Readers-in-need are “fish” who’ve been allowed out of water too long, and they no longer know how to swim effectively in the new, more aggressive pond (Tired of this analogy, yet?) Many of our intervention students had one or both of two types of experiences, and these will be defined too simplistically. First, they experienced a developmental challenge with reading early and found themselves in pull-out interventions that did not have actual reading at the heart of the process. As a result, they were in a perpetual gap. Second, as they got older, they weren’t required to read much for learning or found ways to avoid it, (and possibly suffered from the first situation), so they aren’t convinced of the value of challenge in reading. They now lack the skills to be successful. One outcome of those two situations, is that students often think they can’t read well, that it can’t be changed, and they don’t want to keep engaging in risky attempts that make them look foolish or feel inadequate. Some pretty outrageous classroom behaviors are born from these beliefs.
The majority of our reading intervention students suffer from what Dr. Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. All too often, in the name of support, students are told isn’t their fault that they struggle (and it probably isn’t) and they can’t really do much about it because that’s how they’re built. The fallacy being supported, mostly through actions more than words, is that the students can’t learn to be as good at reading (or wri
ting) at the same level as their more successful peers. According to Dr. Dweck:
“Growth-mindset teachers tell their students the truth (about where they are) and then give them the tools to close the gap (where they CAN be)…Not just lip service to the idea that children can learn, but a deep desire to reach in and ignite the mind in every child.”
Depending more on Dr. Dweck to expand a point, I would like to share the following coaching anecdote from her 2006 edition, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential (2006). In her chapter on the impact of growth mindset parenting, teaching and coaching, she shares a comparison between two coaches (Bobby Knight & John Wooden) and how their coaching style impacted player growth, especially players that weren’t perceived to have the highest levels of talent. Sometimes it’s our fixed mindset that might be the obstacle. Consider the following (insert readers for players):
“Don’t you have to go with your talented players and give less to the second stringers? [John Wooden] didn’t play all players equally, but he gave to all players equally. For example when he recruited another player the same year as Bill Walton, he told him that he would play very little in actual games because of Walton. But he promised him, “By the time you graduate you’ll get a pro contract. You’ll be that good.” By his third year, the player was giving Bill Walton all he could handle in practice. And when he turned pro, he was named rookie of the year in his league.”
Are we teachers with a growth mindset, for ourselves and our students? Do we coach/teach all students as if at the end of the day our goal is to see them be as successful as any other student? Do we believe that we can grow all students: the high, the low, and the poorly behaved? Do our students believe that it is within their power to have all they can image out of their literacy lives? If we believe it, we can help them believe it. They have the power to change their stars even if they gave up hope a long time ago. We just have to reignite the hope. The recipe: a strong relationship with a motivating, interested adult, an understanding and belief in their own powers to grow and learn, and the skills required to develop.
Let’s clarify the terms. The definitions of fixed and growth mindsets wer
e established through the aforementioned research of Dr. Carol Dweck, but the working definitions below are taken from The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve (Brock & Hundley, 2016):
Fixed Mindset: “The belief that we’re born with fixed amount of intelligence and ability. People operating in the fixed mindset are prone to avoiding challenges and failures, thereby robbing themselves of a life rich in experiences and learning.” As a result, individuals with this mindset may seek constant praise for the skills they believe they possess innately (extrinsically motivated).
Growth Mindset: “The belief that with practice, perseverance, and effort, people have limitless potential to learn and grow. People operating in the growth mindset tackle challenges with aplomb, unconcerned with making mistakes or being embarrassed, focusing instead on the process of growth.” As a result, individuals with this mindset tend to be rewarded by the growth challenge and overcoming obstacles (intrinsically motivated).
It is not my intention to tout another series of buzzwords, but this concept applies
heavily to our students. I do not visit a classroom where I do not hear concern over motivation. In our district, our intervention model reinforces a belief that without motivation and a positive self-perception/self-efficacy it is difficult for secondary students to close the gap in their literacy skills. Much of our students’ motivation is zapped by a fixed mindset that has been reinforced by years of inadequate progress.
Ok, how do we do it? Well, just like anything else that really works for students, it depends on the individual. Part of our district intervention, is helping students learn who they are as learners so they can leverage that knowledge by identifying their strengths to repair their weaknesses. This is impossible if students don’t think that kind of power is even attainable. The first thing they may need to know about themselves is their current mindset, and how that affects their success.
So I challenge you to do some research of your own. Intentional effort spent on relevant challenge is something our kids deserve to experience and need to truly thrive. In our district we often repeat the phrase, “literacy is a civil right.” I believe that, but more than that the skills to change and grow and overcome obstacles are life skills school SHOULD be providing all students as well.
There are some initial resources to consider. I started with the 2006 edition of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, but there is a newer edition published in 2016. I have intervened for teen readers for most of two decades, and I the book kept me rapt. The concepts are so central to working with underperforming students. The second edition provides some new research and new insights about aspects of mindset that weren’t being used effectively. If the book is too big a bite during the school year, start with Dr. Dweck’s Ted Talk: “The Power of Believing You Can Improve” and an article from Ed Week, “Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset.” Even if you have seen a lot of general information and posters about growth mindset, it requires some authentic research to internalize its breadth.
For a practical support for practical application in the classroom, I recommend The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students Achieve by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley (2016)
If you are already engaging in this work with students, let us know what is working. We have to be in this together.