I've always been passionate about helping my students see potential in themselves and seek to reach greater heights. Getting students to truly believe they are capable of growing is a large part of why I became a teacher in the first place.
But it wasn't until I learned more about growth mindset that I started to uncover how to help students both grow and have the tools to be self-directed learners. Helping students develop a growth mindset -- the belief that your abilities can be developed -- has become a cornerstone in my practice.
In particular, growth mindset enables challenging tasks to be a welcomed norm. As a teacher, my job is not only to give my students challenging tasks, but also to give them the tools and strategies to tackle the challenge.
Provide Challenging Tasks
Challenges help students grow, so we must present them often. If we only present tasks that students are able to master, we aren’t doing our job. To my students, I liken this to going to the gym and only lifting a pencil to strengthen my muscles. This makes them giggle, but it’s a tangible way to illuminate that you need challenges to grow your muscles as well as your brain!
Normalize and Live in the Struggle
Before a task, I often tell my students I've been working really hard to find something super challenging for them because they've been growing so much. This gives them the right balance of praise for all their effort, plus encouragement to keep working hard. Acknowledging the challenge serves to excite my students. When I say the word "challenge," I've taught my students to respond with "I'm up for the challenge!"
I also help them focus on strategies by asking questions such as, "What can we do to tackle this challenge?" "What can we do when we're feeling stuck?" These questions presume that students will feel stuck, which is a natural part of learning. Students are no longer preoccupied with whether they will get the right answer immediately, but rather on how they will uncover understanding even when they get stuck.
Teach Students to Articulate Their Thinking
When we teach students to justify their own thinking, ask questions, and critique other students' thinking, we ensure that they really understand their thinking and are open to refining it. We promote a growth mindset by focusing students on their learning process and growth, rather than their performance.
- Justifying means that students are prepared to explain their thinking with concrete evidence (text evidence in reading; strategy evidence in math).
- Critiquing means that students are pressing one another and questioning a theory's validity, or a student's assertion. For example, in math, a student might question whether a strategy presented by a classmate is truly the most efficient way to solve a problem.
Being prepared to justify and being open to critique require a level of vulnerability that can only be developed with a growth mindset. When we cultivate a classroom that justifies and critiques, we are cultivating a class of students who are curious, engaged, and eager to learn from feedback.
Encourage Active Listening with Revoicing
Teaching students to be active listeners who are able to paraphrase another’s thoughts by saying, "I'm hearing you say…" focuses students on being engaged and willing to learn from all classmates. In developing discourse in my classroom, I always start with the expectation that we are able to revoice what another student has said at any moment because we are a class that always listens to what the speaker has to say.
Work to Understand
Pressing students to elaborate on their answers increases accountability and student understanding. When students press their classmates -- "Can you explain it in a different way?" "Can you say more about that?" -- they are working to understand for themselves as well as pushing the understanding of their classmates.
Sharing our thinking is hugely important in illuminating what we understand or misunderstand. When someone asks us to explain something in a different way, it ensures we aren't just regurgitating information, but rather extending our understanding by processing it more deeply.
Hone in on the Struggle and Give Wait Time
Too often, when we experience or see struggle, we want to move past it. It's uncomfortable to watch someone struggle, and it's uncomfortable to experience it yourself. But that's the good stuff. To extend the exercise metaphor, it's the moment when you’re lifting that really heavy weight and you’ve almost gotten it to the top. You may be sweating, but you feel great afterward because the struggle was worth it, as you know it made you stronger.
Instead of moving past the struggle, I suggest that we spend more time in it -- seeking it, delighting in it, and celebrating it. As teachers, we should be looking for those moments where we get to see our students in their sweet spot, about to get there! Help students recognize the struggle and seize it as a learning opportunity. Don’t steal that weight from them just as they are about to reach the top by scaffolding too heavily. Let students get there themselves as you spot them and cheer them on.
Many of the strategies I've discussed here are strategies I've always identified as great teaching: challenging our students, using academic discourse, giving wait time. But it wasn't until I learned about and developed a growth mindset in my students that I was able to implement them in a way that was significant to my students' growth. Developing my students' growth mindset through these strategies ensures that I am giving them habits of mind that will set them up for a lifetime of growth and success.
Maricela Montoy-Wilson is a third grade teacher, 2-3 Master and Lead teacher, and an America Achieves and PERTS Fellow. She has loved mentoring teacher candidates for the past three years from the Stanford Teacher Education Program, of which she is an alum. She is currently a Mentor teacher for the Aspire Teacher Residency Program. She has been teaching at East Palo Alto Charter School, an Aspire Public School, for seven years. She is passionate about creating a strong classroom community, rich with academic discourse, inquiry, and student-led solutions. Follow her blog at maricmw.tumblr.com.