From "I'm not good at this" to "I work hard"

Developing a growth mindset builds positive connections to learning.

Changing a Mindset

For Middle Level

Roger's involvement in class fluctuated from Day One. He engaged in some community-building activities but kept himself out of others. Like many eighth graders, he sometimes wanted to avoid notice, perhaps to hide some holes in his knowledge base or skill set. In his first reading survey, he did not seem deficient, though he was weak in drawing inferences. Then, over the course of the first quarter, Roger withdrew from academic participation.

Starting with communication

When he started to fall behind academically, I knew I had to intervene. We met for a conference to help him get on track. From the outset of the meeting, he was defensive. He denied having any problems and rejected offers of help. Finally, we set a simple goal: to check in at the end of the day so we could stay in communication.

Roger was concerned about how he looked to the other students. He needed to save face. For example, I suggested the use of an iPod so he could hear tests and assignments read aloud at his discretion, but he declined. Everything I suggested, he rejected. He was slipping deeper into a hole, one he would have a tougher time getting out of if he didn't open up. I decided on a different tack that made use of a book I had recently read: Mindsets by psychologist Carol Dweck.

Set in his ways

In comparing Roger's behavior to descriptions in Mindsets, I felt that Roger had what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. He seemed to believe in natural talent and predestined effectiveness, i.e., "Either I'm good at something, or I'm not." Even though people with fixed mindsets want to look good in the eyes of their peers, they put little effort into what they do because they don't see any benefit to effort. They tend to be afraid of failure and therefore won't take healthy risks.

When Roger did poorly on a test, he would blame it on a lack of ability and become even less motivated to improve. When he did finally buckle down and work on a project with a partner, he would try to do most of his work outside of class, so as not to show anyone his reading difficulties or the effort he put into the work. He often simply refused to try, saying, "Why should I? I am not any good at these things."

Open to growing

According to Dweck, people with a growth mindset are prepared to start with the hand they are dealt, put in effort, and make progress. Life and learning are a journey, rather than a thing to be coped with.

Armed with the insight that effective learning mindsets can be cultivated, I was reenergized. But the road with Roger continued to be rocky. My next few attempts to communicate with him were unsuccessful because I was unable to crack his fixed mindset. The more direct I was, the more he pushed back.

Using advisory

I tried a less direct, whole-class approach. Our advisory group explored the characteristics of each mindset during one session. Then each day I read a short biographical sketch of a famous athlete. Considering Roger's interest in basketball, I thought Michael Jordan's description of being the hardest working athlete in the league, as well as his habit of redoubling his effort after failures, would be sure to inspire Roger. But he appeared completely unmoved. The other students were interested, though, and we had many great discussions.

We conferenced again. Roger agreed that he avoided work. He said he did this because he did not see the value of putting effort into something he was not good at. We used the bio pieces, especially Michael Jordan's, as talking points. He still did not see that his problem was lack of effort; he simply wasn't a good student. This whole thing was proving to be a challenge!

Even basketball

Basketball season came along. It was his time to shine. Until this year, his natural ability in basketball had kept him in the front of the pack. This year, though, other boys and other teams had caught up to him. He struggled in practices and in games. He blamed the coach, the other teams, and this or that physical ailment. "Oh, no," I thought, "There must be some way to reach him!"

Then I watched the movie Surf 's Up, about an Emperor penguin named Maverick, who is determined to compete in a surfing contest despite having no surfing experience. He will compete against a surfing champion named Tank "The Shredder" Evans. Tank, it turns out, has a classic fixed mindset and Maverick, a classic growth mindset.

A breakthrough

I showed the first part of the video during an Activity Plus advisory (the Activity Plus advisory format provides extended time for activities like watching videos). We had a lively discussion about the two characters and their mindsets. Later, we watched the outcome of the contest and how the decision-making generated from each mindset affected the results. Roger seemed to make a connection. Finally!

Roger started to improve. He accepted reading help, albeit reluctantly. To help him feel better about needing help, we agreed he could use me as a scapegoat and tell his peers that I made him do it. He stepped up the quality of his work and passed all his spring classes.

Lessons learned

Roger taught me about the challenge of changing one's mindset. I never gave up on him, perhaps evidence that I myself have a growth mindset. In the end, the surfing movie seemed to do the trick-or was it that Roger was finally ready to rise to my challenges? I believe his improved performance was at least in part because he was beginning to switch over to a growth mindset.

This experience also helped me realize that everything we say and do in our classroom could move students in tiny ways toward one mindset or another. For example, if I say to a student, "You're smart," she might consider her capacity a done deal, something she simply "is" and doesn't need to cultivate. If I say, "You worked hard, and now look at the payoff: you've learned a lot!" she might begin to connect effort with success-a valuable connection to see.



Growth Mindset

The growth mindset is the space of possibility that we hold for students, created by our belief in their capacity for growth toward responsible independence and achievement. When teachers have a growth mindset, they operate out of the belief that all students can grow and that effort, not primarily talent, is the path to mastery.



Matthew Christen taught eighth graders at Logan Middle School in Onalaska, Wisconsin, and is a Developmental Designs workshop facilitator.  

Published August 2012