Growth Mindset Intervention

“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.

Motivation Starts Here

In our district, secondary literacy intervention teachers are asked to focus on three elements of development for a productive literacy learning community:  skill, motivation, and self-perception/self-efficacy.   Secondary struggling/striving readers are unspecified-5a complicated lot.  Many factors have contributed to their general lack of success with reading and writing.  Lack of skill and the reasons for that are important.  However, students must feel motivated to give the effort required for growth, and they must believe their effort matters.  That needed motivation is significantly fueled or hindered by a student’s perceptions of who he is as a learner, more specifically, as readers and writers. Students must find what intrinsically motivates them, or we need to help students determine what intrinsically motivates. According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive,  “humans are built to be intrinsically motivated, but have been taught to be extrinsically motivated through years of overt control applied to ‘encourage’ us to work,” or in this case learn.   Do offers of rewards or threats of consequences ever do more than get kids to comply?  The evidence suggests that learning is rarely the outcome of extrinsic motivators. 

Motivating a middle or high school student is no easy process.  Their journey has already been long and arduous.  Along the way students lose track of why reading is matters to anyone, and more personally, why it matters to them. We have to presume that many other capable teachers have attempted to build literacy skills in our students and many have tried to convince students that the extra effort will be beneficial.  More often than not, the students have decided that their ability level is a pre-determined, innate part of them. They are not readers.  They aren’t built to be good writers.  Their future will be built on something that requires some skill they innately possess, and reading or writing isn’t it. Now, after multiple years without proof to the contrary, a secondary literacy teacher is telling them that being a proficient reader is a life skill and that they must possess it to be successful.   Worst of all, it is going to take many challenging hours of practice with skills built around the very things our students have learned to despise: reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing.  

Relationship building is the first step, no matter what the next steps are.  The next steps may be more influenced by the motivation philosophy you accept, but relationships are first.  I’ve yet to see a student authentically motivated without the foundation of a positive relationship.   We’ve all heard that students need to “know that you care, before they care what you know.”  That is never more true than with adolescent students-in-the-gap.  A great deal of what we do and say to convince students that the effort matters to them, must be built on acceptance from the student that the message comes from a credible, fair and consistent source holding high attainable expectations. They must believe the message is built on sincere love and respect for students.  That’s heavy stuff.  Nothing life-changing really happens before that exchange of positive beliefs occurs.  Often, when an adult reflects on the place in their journey when they found focus and direction for life, it was through the relationship with an excellent teacher.  (No pressure, right?) 

Resources for building relationships with resistant, challenging students: 
Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students
The Teacher as Warm Demander

So I am on a rabbit hole journey through the concepts of motivation, habit development, and growth mindset.   My hope, over the next few months and through this blog, is to make practical connections between effective classroom instruction and the research on how motivation and growth mindset happen for humans in general. There is a great deal being published about these topics. Theories and research can seem overwhelming and difficult to apply.  However, above all else, teachers seem to want to understand how to motivate students and help them build the skills needed for an information-rich society. Frequently, teachers feel forced to desperately offer extrinsic rewards for short-term gains, but their sincere efforts rarely lead to good habit development, stronger motivation to engage or a change in the students self-efficacy.

Personally, I don’t believe that the universal struggle to motivate our readers-in-need is simple or easily assigned as a characteristic of a generation.  I am driven to help teachers address the causes and effects for our students.  I would appreciate hearing from you about your questions and concerns for your under-motivated students.   I will use the questions you offer up, along with the ones from my colleagues, to guide my posts about this topic over the next few months.