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What I Learned About Growth Mindset When Students Taught Me

It's the start of a new semester at Harvest Collegiate, the New York City public high school where I teach, which means that I am about to meet a new set of students.

I love this time of year because it gives us all a chance to start over. This doesn't just mean that there are no missed homework assignments or behavior referrals. It actually gives us a chance to reshape our self-conception ("first semester me didn't do his homework, but second semester me will!). This kind of thinking can be incredibly powerful in changing habits and orientations (see this episode of NPR's Hidden Brain).  

It's this time of year when I like to talk a lot about growth mindset. I won't let students say they are "bad at math," instead I'll push them to think about problem solving as a "joyfully messy" process that will inevitably lead to them getting stuck in "maze moments."

I work hard to cultivate this kind of attitude in my classes, so I was pretty surprised a few weeks ago when a student accused me of having a fixed mindset.

She was doing a dance in our school's dance room and asked me to try. "Oh no," I said, "I can't dance."

I can't dance. She was right, that's clearly a fixed mindset. Shoot.

Impressed by the students' willingness to point out my hypocrisy, I took her critique to heart. "Okay," I said, "I do believe that I can get better at dancing, but I'll need your help."

The students assembled a teaching team and prepared their lessons. As they worked with me, I talked to them about my process of learning. To structure these conversations around David Perkin's Seven Principles of Teaching from Making Learning Whole, I got them to help me "practice the hard parts" by going over specific moves in the dance with which I was struggling. I had them force me to "play away games," bringing in other students who knew the dance to give me feedback and support.Screenshot 2016-02-02 at 21.50.33.png

My final performance assessment was to dance with fellow teachers at our morning community gathering.  Even our dance teacher told me that I had done a good job!

This experience changed my perspective on growth mindset.

Simply believing I could be a better dancer wasn't enough. I needed time with experts, structured feedback, and the space to make mistakes (these critiques of growth mindset are more clearly articulated here and here).

At the dawn of this new semester, I'm going to keep these lessons in mind as I speak to students about their journey towards becoming better thinkers and problem-solvers. To travel this path they must believe they can walk it, but that belief alone is insufficient. I'll need to provide structure and support along the way—just as my teachers did for me.

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