We have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle—the more it’s used, the stronger it gets. But we’re still trying to figure out how to push students to exercise their muscle to build deeper learning. According to Stanford professor Carol Dweck, every time students take on something they thought they couldn’t master and master it, they get smarter and more confident in their ability to learn. This orientation toward learning is referred to as a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset means once you have tried, you’re done—regardless of whether you were successful. A growth mindset says, “If I work harder, my brain will become more agile and I’ll be more successful.” Students with a growth mindset possess the courage and determination to tackle weaknesses. Students with a fixed mindset are confined by current limits on what they know and are able to do.
Dr. Dweck’s studies have honed in on two elements of classroom culture that give students a reason to try. First, is the good struggle. In a classroom where the “good struggle” holds sway, students are applauded for their planning and persistence. We hear teachers say, “There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It’s part of learning.” Students are prodded to keep going through effort-focused praise and growth-supporting activities.
The second element is a belief that fast learning is not necessarily the best learning. In fact, when students take longer to complete a task, they tend to understand it at a higher level. Instead of saying to students, “Hurry up and finish,” we must encourage learners to proceed thoughtfully. One way to get students to slow down is through realistic pacing of assignments. Another is to introduce historical figures who weren’t “fast” learners. Albert Einstein, for example, pondered the same questions year after year—and it’s good for us that he did.
When we change our reaction to
failure, it reduces the pressure
students feel to be right.
Part of the “good struggle” formula is to promote responsible risk taking. If you want students to be innovative, you must convince them that mistakes are not only welcome in the classroom but are expected as part of the learning process. Next, you must place more emphasis on effort than perfect performance. Finally, you need to pay closer attention to how you respond to failure. Because failure is generally equated with intellectual inferiority, students fixate on success. Changing your reaction to failure reduces the pressure students feel to be right. Four strategies foster a “good struggle” classroom. First, you must tell students why you are challenging them. When introducing a new topic you can say, “This concept will cause you to stretch your thinking. The reason I’m challenging you is to wake up your creativity. If idea A is uninspiring, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet.”
The second strategy is to teach students to turn defeatist self-talk into positive thinking. A good exercise is to create a class poster entitled: What Can I Say to Myself? Label the poster with two headings: Instead of Saying This…I Will Think This. On the left-hand side, have the class list defeatist statements you hear, such as: I’m not good at this, I give up, this is too hard. I can’t make this any better. I’ll never be smart. On the right-hand side, ask students to identify positives they could think: What am I missing here? I know I have a few more ideas in my toolkit. This task is going to take a little more time and effort.
A third technique to support a “good struggle” classroom is to use reverse brainstorming. In reverse brainstorming, students approach problems from the opposite side of commonly held beliefs. For example, most of us believe that reducing pollution is beneficial to the environment, that war is bad for a country, or that studying more will lead to better grades. But how about asking students to brainstorm ideas about why we should increase pollution, have more wars, or study less? Generating ideas contrary to popular thinking builds fluency and flexibility. Consequently, students develop a new perspective that causes them to consider a problem in a different way. Reverse brainstorming promotes original ideas that may feel wrong but ultimately can lead to something right.
The fourth strategy is to provide feedback that focuses on process over product. In our results-driven climate, this may seem counterintuitive. However, there are many things beyond a final grade that are important to learning. Effort, challenge-seeking, and persistence breed success too. Giving feedback around these qualities helps students see the importance of their own actions. When you praise students for things like grit, creativity, and hard work, it reminds them these attributes are within their control. Effective effort and the descriptors that reflect this effort should be included in your scoring rubrics.
The Master Teacher knows
that real learning starts when
students feel stuck.
The Master Teacher knows that real learning starts when students feel stuck. That’s why he or she fosters an environment where all students feel compelled to give their best effort. Mistakes are used as diagnostic tools to tell students what they still need to learn. In a good struggle classroom, learning goals, such as mastering algebra, are more powerful than performance goals, like getting an A. While the difference may seem subtle, it can forever change how students interpret and respond to situations. The Master Teacher knows students’ brains are malleable—and it’s up to us to help students shape and remake them.
To learn more:
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.