The BERC Group staff was thrilled to see a Seattle Times article honoring a school we've worked with for School Improvement Grant (SIG) evaluation. Whereas many schools respond to low test scores by doubling down on skills-based remediation, Lakeridge Elementary School tried a different approach, emphasizing critical thinking and student collaboration. Their rising test scores show the impact these instructional habits can have on student learning.
School leaders and their staffs face change constantly, from small, incremental changes such as the rise of technology in the classroom to monumental changes like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Within classrooms, teachers may want to introduce new activities, such as exit slips or turn-and-talks, that students are not familiar with. All of these changes require people to think and act differently. A phenomenal book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, can help administrators and teachers introduce change in their schools and classrooms. Imagine peoples’ routines and attitudes as a large elephant with a small rider on top, lumbering down a jungle path. The Heath brothers describe managing change as a three part process: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. Successful change has to address all three of these elements.
Growing up in the country, I often heard, “When you fall off a horse, get right back on again!” Although my family did not have horses, only chickens and cows, I appreciated the message about refusing to give in to minor setbacks. Whether it is called grit, perseverance, or tenacity, the refusal to give up when faced with a challenge is a key component of success, both in the classroom and in the real world.
So what is grit? In a 2013 report called Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology defines grit as, “Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics.” Let’s unpack that definition to get a better idea of what grit looks like in the classroom.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard about Mindset. It was orientation day at graduate school and I asked one of the alumni what suggestions she had to prepare for school. She took one second to think, smiled, and said, “Read Mindset by Carol Dweck.” I did just that. Mindset changed my understanding of how people learn and, ultimately, of human potential.
If you are in the field of education, you are probably more than familiar with the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). You may also have a strong opinion of the STEM movement, as it is one more initiative you may have to accommodate among several other current major overhauls of the public education system, such as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the new teacher and principal evaluation requirements, and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment that is aligned to the new standards, just to name a few.
Over the last six decades, the American school system has been under fire and perceived as not preparing students well enough. It began with Sputnik and the race to the moon in the late 1950s and continues today as the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s answer to school reform through financial incentives. Throughout the history of the American public school system, the need for change or reform is prefaced with a crisis.
While researching for a project recently, I came across Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset. As more schools work to build 21st Century Skills in their students,greater numbers of teachers are trying to foster the growth mindset in their classrooms. Initially, I assumed a growth mindset had to do with students creating goals and monitoring their progress, either individually or as a class. I was wrong. So what is a fixed mindset? What is a growth mindset? According to Dweck’s website, in a nutshell:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
At The BERC Group, we visit many schools for many reasons. More often than not, they are struggling and under-performing. This fall, I had the privilege of visiting a once-failing school in a high poverty neighborhood. Despite its almost 100% free/reduced lunch status, extreme diversity, and high level of academic needs, the school had made great strides in improving student performance. Reflecting back upon many other schools I have visited, I wondered how the vibe at this particular school could be so different. Where were their excuses? Weren’t they frustrated by the deficits of the clientele they serve? Why didn’t they blame their circumstances like so many other schools?
One of the biggest differences I could identify comes down to a simple shift in philosophy: the leaders of this school ran it like a business, and everyone behaved like a professional. This is not to say that administrators and teachers at other schools are not professionals, but many schools do not adhere to such high standards. Let me see if I can explain the nuances of this difference.
Many educators ponder this question: “How do I get my students to want to learn?” Some students do not necessarily want to come to school every day and be challenged to achieve high standards. Traditionally, motivation has been applied with a simple input-output model. Teachers praise students for their hard work and support their motivation to persevere through difficult situations. This cause-and-effect model could very well work in many instances; however, educators and researchers alike need to understand that student motivation is more complex than that. Cause-and-effect may be easily replicated within a laboratory, but not necessarily in a classroom. Why? Because students come to schools with a host of social contexts, including religious backgrounds, family dynamics, race, socio-economic status, and other factors, which all affect motivation.
Washington State ASCD recently published the article below, written by Duane, on their Critical Question Blog.
Why does it seem like everything in education is changing? And, is there a way to think about the work that could make the work more manageable?
Good teachers know how important it is to give students regular opportunities to collaborate with each other. Small group discussions can be a fantastic way to challenge students to think critically, while giving them social support to work through their ideas in a circle of peers, instead of in front of the class as a whole. However, the first time I tried a small group discussion in class, I quickly realized most of my students were more interested in talking about the latest video game or weekend plans than their assigned discussion topic. Some teachers are wary of small group discussions for precisely that reason.
So how do you give students the opportunity to share their ideas with each other, while ensuring they are actually discussing the topic at hand? If a fail-safe way exists, I haven’t found it yet. However, I have found a number of strategies that help to keep students on-task.
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