The fixed mindset often appears in my classroom, compounded by the fact that many students have significant gaps in their education due to their experiences prior to, and within, the foster care system. Students are often resistant to even try to learn. These students will eagerly will show what they can do but avoid the challenge of learning new skills. The following are examples of how students’ mindsets appear in my classroom.
As a simple assessment of my students’ experience in reading and writing, I often ask new students about their favorite books. I occasionally I hear a simple, “I don’t read.” John was one of these students. But, he did more than just not read--he did not want to do anything in English class. He said he did not “do English” and avoided writing tasks by distracting himself. He refused to read aloud. When pushed, he talked on and on about one novel he read in sixth grade. When given an independent reading assignment, he purchased the same book and asked to re-read it for high school credit. His behaviors clearly stated that he did not want to do the work because he did not know how, but he was unwilling to utilize the resources around him (including upperclassmen tutors and teachers’ assistants who offered to work with him in a private setting). John’s fixed mindset convinced him that he was incapable of learning more. He successfully read that one novel and clings to it. He did not pass my class. Currently, I am attempting a new approach by asking John to read a graphic novel with a teacher’s assistant. Even though, this reading task may provide some success, I can better support John by teaching him about mindsets and creating opportunities for him to grow.
When Steven entered my class as a freshman, he was barely able to decode words. When reading silently, he was able to comprehend at a fourth-grade reading level, but he would pout or walk out of the room if asked to read aloud. A few weeks into the fall semester, I noticed that Steven would sneak into the back room during silent reading. It seemed as if he was trying to focus, but I soon discovered that he was actually using technology tools to improve his comprehension. He found audio clips of the novel that we were reading on YouTube and he was listening to them as he followed along in his text. In cooperation with the campus literacy coach, his houseparents, and upperclassmen tutors, we were able to provide Steven opportunities to read aloud. By the conclusion of his sophomore year, Steven was independently reading grade-level texts, especially teen romance novels. This spring, he passed the California High School Exit Exam on the first try and earned a 4.0 grade point average. He is open about his progress and loves to tell his peers about his improvement. Stephen’s commitment to working hard to improve his skills exemplifies his growth mindset and is becoming one of the most respected students on our campus.
“I won’t even try!”
The majority of my freshmen students have very little experience with expository writing--a few even claim to have never written any type of essay. When Manny asked “Do you want me to include the counterclaim in this body paragraph or do you want me to make a new paragraph for it?” I was taken aback. By inquiring about his educational experiences, I learned that he attended a middle school with high expectations. His eighth grade English teacher had emphasized expository writing. I told Manny that I was excited to read his work and challenge him to improve his writing. But, within a few weeks, Manny shut down. He stopped writing. He withdrew from the class. He became defensive when I attempted to help him. I set up a meeting with his clinician after school one day. Manny begrudgingly participated in the meeting, but became visibly upset after I kindly explained, “You are fortunate that you are entering high school with advanced writing skills. Your strong critical thinking skills are evident in your participation in class discussions. The door to college will be open to you. I am looking forward to helping you get there.” Sounds nice, but that conversation led to a six-month shut down. Even after many meetings with campus adults, Manny refused to participate in class. Manny has a fixed mindset and my comments about his innate intelligence and potential put too much pressure on him. When he faced a challenge in class, he stopped trying because it caused him to feel like I had lied--if he was smart he would have been able to accomplish the task without support. Fortunately, semesters end and courses can be retaken. Currently, Manny is beginning to accept support from adults and is pushing himself to earn high grades. However, I need to be mindful of his fixed mindset and praise his growth in skills instead of his talents.
Even though many of my students seem to demonstrate fixed mindsets, the adults at San Pasqual Academy can help them to develop growth mindsets. As Dweck explains, “Every word and action can send a message. It tells children— or students, or athletes— how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed-mindset message that says: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them. Or it can be a growth-mindset message that says: You are a developing person and I am interested in your development” (2008). This reinforced the previously mentioned practice shared by experienced campus adults; balance care with challenge. To support the growth mindset, we need to emphasize development. By doing this, we help our students to overcome trauma and the fixed mindsets frequently instilled in them by their previous caregivers.
Dweck, Carol (2006-02-28). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.