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Growth Mindset: Teaching Your Students to Be Expert Learners

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
September 18, 2017

When I taught English years ago, I was dealing out tattered paperbacks of the classics like it was my life’s calling. The whole class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then the whole class read Old Man and the Sea. I excitedly circulated the books, week after week, to groaning middle-schoolers slumped in their chairs. After we read, I gave a test and some students got As and others earned Fs and they were all left feeling like being a good student was a prize. Good grades were bestowed upon those students who either a) were proficient readers or b) were creative enough to come up with another strategy, like watching the movie or reading Sparknotes. There were always a handful of students who failed.

Sadly, we didn’t talk much about what it meant to be a learner and why it’s important to persevere and fight through challenging text. If we did talk about that, I know some of my students probably would have told me, “These books are torture. How are they relevant to me at all? Who cares about this?” Touché.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that provides a blueprint for educators to design teaching and learning opportunities so students can personalize their learning. At its core, UDL is about providing options and choices to students so they can set meaningful goals for how they will meet the standards, determine the methods and materials they need to reach their goal, and express how they met their goal in standard, authentic ways. To do this, students must become expert learners. Growth mindset is critical in expert learning.

Growth mindset, the belief that success is far more about effort than innate talent, is the brainchild of Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University. This concept – that success is something that can be achieved with persistence and motivation – is the foundation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Dweck classifies all goals and activities into two categories: things we can do already and things we can’t do yet. The theory is that anything is achievable with the right mindset and the right strategy. Dedication to committing to a task, learning from mistakes, and sticking with goals despite barriers is the key to turning not yet into already.

An expert learner may not be the best student, or have the most innate talent, but that doesn’t matter. An expert learner is motivated, gritty, perseveres through problems, learns from mistakes, and keeps on trying new strategies until goals are achieved. This creative problem solving is sometimes called 21st Century Thinking. I’m always amused by this definition since it implies good problem-solvers and critical thinkers didn’t exist before our time. The Einstein’s, Edison’s, and Graham Bell’s of the world were always expert learners, and embodied the concept of growth mindset as they were the original Design Thinkers and continued to tinker, take risks, and make mistakes until they reached their goal.

So, how do we foster growth mindset in students? First, we teach them about the importance of growth mindset, struggling to achieve goals, and the gift of failure. Next, we must allow them to personalize their own learning. In order to optimize growth mindset, we have to motivate students so they understand why the distress of not knowing how to do something is worth pushing through. Students are not going to use necessary coping mechanisms to persist if they don’t care about the end goal.

When I first began teaching English, I was not promoting the growth mindset. Students were asked to complete lessons because “they had to” or “it’s a requirement” without really being motivated to learn why the lesson was important. Without a growth mindset, students may be hesitant to take risks, try new things and challenge themselves to accomplish more. If they aren’t willing to be open to uncertainty, persist despite it, and overcome their missteps, true engagement is unlikely. If a student believes there is no light at the end of the tunnel or that success is not possible when things get hard, he’ll likely quit and start to believe that he simply “can’t.” This is a fixed mindset.

But what about the standards, you ask? How can students possibly personalize their learning if the standards outline what students have to do? Glad you asked! The standards do not mandate specific learning or assessment strategies; rather, they provide a destination for the learning journey. If we step back and are truly objective, we find that the standards are much more flexible than they are interpreted to be. And, better yet, the Common Core State Standards endorse UDL as best practice to teach the standards. By that very endorsement, they highlight their own flexibility.

Are you fostering growth mindset in your class? If you’re doing all the work to design lessons and students don’t have the opportunity to personalize their education, you’re not there yet. How can one learn to set challenging goals when everyone in the class has the same goal, but all students are different and need different levels of challenge? How can they learn from mistakes when we design lessons that end once mistakes are made, as we prepare to move the whole class on to the next lesson? How can we expect students to fight and persevere to understand when the work is meaningless? We can’t.

If we want real change – real passion and real growth mindset from our students, we have to put them back in the driver’s seat of their education so they have something worth persevering for. We aren’t there yet… but we can be with UDL.

For more information on UDL, including ways to integrate it into your classroom, check out UDL Now!

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