Opportunity context plays a large role in a person’s confidence, and therefore, learning. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where all influences encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Not only was I taught to go after my dreams, I was told that I would reach them if I put my mind to it with practice and determination. I could be anything I wanted to be with the right amount of studying and schooling. I never had to question what I was capable of because of the mindset instilled in me since birth.
As early as Kindergarten, it is clear who comes in with a work ethic to persist through challenges, who is learning that practice leads to growth, and who already believes that “you either have smarts or you don’t.” Growth versus fixed mindsets within students not only affect their overall confidence, the type of mindset a child carries also affects his or her level of academic achievement. Students who don’t believe they can grow come in believing they will not be successful, and their mindset causes the outcome to be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”- what they believe about themselves comes true. For many students entering Kindergarten, school is a foreign concept. Not only is picking up a pencil a new thing for some, but following multi-step directions, asking for help, and independently taking responsibility for personal items are all brand new concepts. It takes practice for many students to adapt when they have not been to school at all, did not receive quality preschool with valuable Kindergarten preparation, or did not go for the length of time of their peers. Children are aware of this gap, and many of those who have not had as much school and academic exposure seem to believe that they will always struggle. Many are scared to try new things…like tracing the letters in their name or raising their hand to respond to a question. They see others doing it with such confidence and believe “they just don’t have it.”
Here are some quotes, some amidst tears and hyperventilation, that I have heard this year reflecting a fixed mindset:
“I can’t do it.”
“This is too hard.”
“I’m scared…I can’t….”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Oh I wasn’t raising my hand…I wouldn’t know that answer.”
“I’m always gonna have bad days and everyone else is always gonna have good days.” (referring to behavior)
This fixed mindset in students becomes a problem. And Kindergarten is the pivotal age to begin addressing this issue of mindset, as the achievement and opportunity gap begins dividing students from the first day of K on. Their beliefs about themselves are holding them back from where they could be. Research shows that when we practice a skill, our brain gets stronger and more proficient with that skill; and the more we get into the habit of absorbing new information and taking part in the struggle of the learning process, the better we get at new skills and at learning in general. Contrary to what was believed for many years, there aren’t “math” people or “word” people…we can all be any kind of people we want if we practice and persist through challenges.
This year more than years past, it was clear that I needed to teach students about the science behind their brains. Many students weren’t going to do much growing until they believed they COULD grow. So here are some ways that we are learning about and practicing a growth mindset on a weekly basis:
–Morning Meeting: Morning meeting is a time to come together as a class each morning, greet one another, share out, and focus our day for a successful start. Morning meeting has provided a lot of outlets for focusing on growth mindset. We have used this time to learn about a growth mindset, and that intelligence is not fixed. Additionally, when sharing out, students often respond to mindset prompts and share with others what they are proud of, something that is a challenge for them, something they can’t do YET, etc. We also use morning meeting to reflect on growth and show new student work compared to previous student work, giving students visual evidence that their brain has grown.
–Class Dojo Videos: This is where the bulk of growth mindset instruction took place and how students learned about the secret behind their brains. Even if your school does not use Class Dojo, these videos can be located on youtube as well. These videos have given us the language (matched with visuals) to talk about how our learning can change, rather than our learning being fixed. The first video showed us Mojo’s (the main character) original thinking: that you’re either good at something (like math), or you aren’t. His thinking isn’t resolved until the 2nd video. After watching the first video, I took a vote to see who believed that “smarts” are either something you have or you don’t; and who believed you could get better with practice. Only 2 students originally believed you could get better with practice.. A couple weeks later, I took the vote again, and everyone unanimously believed practice helps you improve and learning is not fixed. Below is the first of the five growth mindset videos, and the first of three perseverance videos.
–Language: The videos we have watched and conversations happening in our morning meeting have transformed our overall language. Now you might hear an “I can’t do it…YET.” And if that yet doesn’t make it to the end of the phrase, you can bet the people sitting near that student will chime in with a YET to remind their friend of a growth mindset. Another phrase we love and have adopted from the Class Dojo videos is to “take the challenge,” rather than run away or give up. That has really taken the place of “this is too hard,” as students are now inspired to “take the challenge” and get better at whatever skill they are practicing. A fellow K teacher on my team, Claire Morrison, does an amazing job instilling a growth mindset in her students! She has also adopted similar language with her students through the Class Dojo videos, and they took the phrase to the next level and made it their class motto (see below). It is hanging in the front of the room signed by all the students in her class. Also, check out her anchor chart (see right) on transforming language to reflect a growth mindset! This anchor chart is our next step during Morning Meeting this week…thanks, Claire!
–Focus on practice: We talk about practice all the time now. Students are seeing that the learning activities we take part in throughout the day ARE practice that help us learn. Tasks are no longer scary, they are practice. And students are less scared to take risks, because they know that trying it is how you learn. This has been a big mindset shift. A couple of students have used the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and are usually now stopped by other students who remind them, “there’s no such thing as perfect…we can always get better!” Once recently, a student got an answer wrong, and another student giggled. One student got very defensive for her peer who had gotten the answer wrong, and said “It’s not funny! He is learning, and you have to try it to learn!” In another instance, a couple of students were questioned by another student for having to complete their work at a teacher’s table for extra support, an outsider listening in again jumped to their defense, saying “They may not have had as much practice as you before…sitting with the teacher helps them get better practice to learn!” As a group, our language has transformed, and when we go back to “old language,” you can see how other students jump to the defense.
–Activities where learning isn’t easy: Various 4C/STEM activities have helped us practice using a growth mindset. These activities really show students what taking on a challenge feels like. And we have seen, just like in our videos, that just because you take on a challenge does not mean you’ll get it figured out in the snap of a finger. You have to persist through the challenge even when it continues to be difficult, or even when you sometimes fall into “the dip.” We are finding that learning can feel like a struggle, and not to run away from the struggle.
–Reflection: After these challenging STEM activities, it is always important to reflect on the activities and on student mindset. We ask what was easy, what was hard, and next steps. Students are now identifying times when they went into “the dip,” or when they really had to show perseverance to get through a challenge, or how they still need a little more practice to master a skill. Reflection is also what we do in our Morning Meeting, when sharing personal experiences or responding to Mojo’s experiences in the video clips we watch. We reflect orally often, and at this point in the year, have also started reflecting using self-assessment exit tickets after a lesson. We’re seeing how reflection helps us identify areas of struggle so that we can improve.
Taking some time out of the day to teach growth mindset has been critical to my students’ learning this year. You can see through the above example descriptions the new and improved ways students are talking about and approaching learning. Growth mindset, in essence, embodies the #kindersCAN movement – a belief in the capabilities of our youngest learners, and consequently, a belief in all learners and ourselves.
During my first year of teaching (around 3 years ago), growth mindset was a big district push, and I learned a lot about it; but this is the first time I have shared about it with my students, and the outcome has been amazing: students are learning how to think of themselves as learners, but also learning character strengths that will bring them success in life. I believe that growth mindset is a springboard for overall confidence which, in many senses, is vital to a person’s success. Confidence- a belief in oneself- is what makes someone unstoppable, and confidence starts building from birth on. Often, confidence makes the difference between thinking you have value or not, being able to effectively defend yourself or not, creating aspirations you want to live up to or not, turning that tassel or not, going to college or not, following your dreams or not, maybe even taking a path no one else in your family took or not. It is easy to take confidence for granted when it was instilled in you since birth, but more than any other content I learned in school, I recognize that confidence is what got me where I am now. Growing up, I didn’t realize how privileged I was to always know in my mind that I would be successful if I put my mind to it (aka confidence)….and to never worry about whether taking a risk could result in complete failure, or whether I’d have to defend a questionable choice I made, or whether I’d be capable of making it through school. I always had confidence I could do it all, and it is vital to remember that not everyone’s experiences instill that level of confidence! Building up confidence in learners from day one is really more important than anything else they could learn; and it is part of what many groups or students need in order to be on an equitable playing field with their peers. So before assuming students “can’t do it,” help them believe that they can; give them the right level of instruction, tools, and opportunities for practice; have them reflect on what they can do when they have a growth mindset; and work with them to build confidence that pours into all the areas of their lives. That’s one of the best ways we can ensure equity and genuinely change lives in this profession.