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On Tour with Carol Dweck

In the last week, I was incredibly fortunate to join Professor Carol Dweck and James Nottingham on their Mindset tour across Europe. This was a professional highlight for me because they have both been quite influential in shaping my thinking about learning and learners throughout my career. I started reading about Professor Dweck’s research in the mid-1990’s when I noticed that my gifted students were not taking advantage of the challenges that I was offering because they had a fear of failure. I was determined to push them out of their comfort zone, knowing that their first real challenge would be crushing to them if it came too late in their educational career. Their parents, however, wanted some reassurance that this was a good thing for their child. Apparently, the word of a 24-year-old brand new teacher was not sufficient! It was Dweck’s research on helplessness and mindset that helped me to convince them. In 2011, when I first saw The Learning Pit and began reading the work of James Nottingham, it was like an “aha” experience for me. The ideas I had about challenging students and the importance of authentic engagement began to take on a more coherent structure and expanded as I read all of the Challenging Learning books, including the Challenging Mindset book James wrote with Bosse Larsson, who I was blessed to spend time with on the tour!

I have followed Professor Dweck’s and James Nottingham’s work so closely, that I was not surprised by the fact that I did not hear a lot of brand-new ideas, facts, or concepts during their presentations. I did, however, gain new perspectives and I heard things in new ways, which caused me to reflect differently on what I was hearing. I came away with a lot of new thinking but have focused on two main takeaways that I wanted to briefly summarize here- one is how mindset relates to control and the other is what it takes to cultivate a culture for mindset.

The idea of control has an interesting dynamic in schools. We want children to have self-control in school, yet we allow them to control very little once they enter school. They are told when to arrive, what to do when they arrive, where they will sit, how they will sit, when they can talk, how they can answer, and who they will work with. Adults decide what they will learn, how they will learn it, how they will show that they have learned it, when they can show that they have mastered a concept, when they will move to a new topic, etc… It is not surprising that students may find it hard to comprehend that something like intellectual growth, is within their control. You see, they have been trained to believe that what happens in school is not within their locus of control. Most children, however, do crave the opportunity to gain control in any area of their life where they can.

Many of the change efforts that are taking place in education are, in one way or another, increasing the level of control that students have throughout their learning journey. Capitalizing on opportunities for students to take control of the factors that put them into a fixed mindset can go a long way in changing the narrative they may have in their head about not having control. One of the fixed mindset triggers that Professor Dweck mentioned was setbacks and criticism. This is not surprising if you consider the phenomenon of celebrating winning and shaming losing that James talked about during one of his sessions. Therefore, an example of an opportunity to capitalize on students taking control would be to be intentional about modeling and practicing the idea of turning losses and mistakes into explicit learning opportunities. Pull a small group of students who struggled to solve a math problem on an assessment- discuss the errors that they made, then ask question like- What did you learn from the errors that you made? What do you now know you need to work on? What might you do the next time you encounter a problem like this? Can you see any other ways to solve it? Would you like to try another one now or do you want to practice first? Then celebrate with them and emphasize the fact that the extra time they took to understand their error actually helped them to develop a better understanding of the mathematical concept. Encourage them to consistently take control of their learning in this way in order to increase their learning potential.

There were two quotes that rang true to me as I think about cultivating culture, one from Carol Dweck- “Mindsets take root only in fertile soil” and one from James Nottingham- “ You are stuck with the system, but you don’t have to be stuck with the thinking that created that system.” As an advocate for change, I have had this never-ending mantra of “we won’t see change if we keep things the same.” Just as a real change in learning will not occur by simply changing some instructional practices while maintaining a school setting and structure that mimics that of 60 years ago, a real change in mindset will not occur by simply teaching new language while maintaining practices and behaviors that do not model growth mindset.

Professor Dweck shared promising research about the positive impact on the growth mindset of college freshman who engaged in a short 50-minute training on mindset development. Children are malleable and can learn new ideas and skills- we know this to be true. On the other hand, she also says that an adult’s attitude towards failure is more visible to children than their mindset and is more likely to impact the students’ mindset. If we don’t talk the talk AND walk the walk, the effect of what we teach the students about mindset is likely to be trumped by what they observe in our behavior because it tells them what we really value and believe. Cultivating a mindset culture is much more complicated than a training, posters on the wall, using different words, or eliminating stickers. It is a deep transformation that includes a collective commitment to new values and a new way of thinking that influences the actions, practices and policies within the school.

Think about your own school or classroom. Would students feel comfortable talking publicly about their mistakes/failures and what they have learned from them, or is this something they are more comfortable doing in private? Are student and family challenges talked about as excuses or opportunities? When students do make mistakes, can they truly take advantage of an opportunity to show that they have grown (without penalty)? Do students seek challenges because they know they will help them to grow? Do they know how to use a challenge to grow their learning? Highweek Primary School in England reflected on their school and decided they needed a change. Through a Challenging Learning Process, they completely transformed their school in three years through the development of a shared vision. Jennie Carter and Judy Martyn from Highweek spoke at the opening conference on the tour and did an amazing job telling the story of how this transformation has benefited their entire school community. Here is short clip highlighting their exciting journey.