Magic Pills and Coattails

By Tony Coppola

I listened to another interesting podcast the other day. Fellow teachers Chey Cheney and Pav Wander of The Staffroom Podcast ( host a weekly show where they dive deeply into and reflect on topics and pedagogies surrounding teaching and public education in general. It’s a fun, informative podcast that I’ve been enjoying and learning from over the past year or so. A neat thing about the podcast, amongst many neat things, is that the topic typically comes to bear by way of shared personal experiences of both podcasters, “… just two middle school teachers from Toronto, Canada.”

In other words, the podcast is genuine in nature, and is typically just the beginning of a learning journey. Anyhow, this particular podcast was on the infamous topic, … Growth Mindset!!

Those of us with more than at least a decade of teaching experience know there are no magic pills when it comes to student achievement. Admittedly, we still wake up many mornings hoping and praying for a little extra magic. A silver bullet of an idea that helps us to know exactly what to do and when to do it in order to see ALL of our students experience success and super abounding achievement. Even on our best days, each of us feels we could have done better. Like we could have nudged the learning farther. Like we could have broken through that invisible barrier a handful of our students have between them and the utter joy of learning. We know we have failed to achieve what seems ever so possible.

Listening to the podcast, I recalled when I first learned about Growth Mindset. My wife (My bride, my inspiration!!) came to me with a new book she was reading; a common occurrence in our house. I sighed knowing I would be busy for at least an hour hearing and learning about yet another “fantastic” strategy to use in the classroom. I was trapped, as I often am. And yet, like normal, my ears soon perked up listening to Debbie so passionately teaching me about this Growth Mindset thing.

At one point she drew a model of a stick person in a pit (a learning pit if you will) and then proceeded to explain how getting out of the pit led to more learning. How it led to more achievement. How it led to higher “intelligence” by way of a healthy work ethic rather than by way of a high self esteem, which ultimately failed at facilitating higher achievement for all students. In fact, that movement led to generations of us thinking we were better than we really were. Growth Mindset, in contrast, showed how the willingness and desire to do harder things leads to higher achievement, and ultimately success. Maybe Growth Mindset is encouraging us to value having an ACCURATE SELF ESTEEM so we know where to focus our improvement?

Against my better sense, I filled with excitement hoping THIS was the magic pill we’ve been waiting for. What about you? Did you have the same hope and expectation?

Fast forward to episode 83 of The Staffroom Podcast, and here we are talking about how Growth Mindset, although a valid tool in our teaching toolboxes, has fallen short of meeting our high hopes and expectations for higher achievement for ALL students (like many models for learning prior).

No magic pill.

And yet, as I listened and pondered and meditated on what Chey and Pav discussed and brought to surface, I started to get that excited feeling again. As if they were dialectical archeologists carefully moving away the dust and dirt off of an artifact so that we can possibly discover, in a new way, what the model is trying to teach us.

What if I’ve been misinterpreting the research, not yet fully understanding what the model could be teaching us? Why do I observe some students embracing or exhibiting Growth Mindset language and behaviors and not others? Why have I not yet mastered the art of nurturing these attitudes and behaviors for some of the students in my class?

I wonder if it has something to do with my tendency to focus more on The Pit and reaching success rather than on the process of getting out of the pit? That question led me to start thinking more about the strategies we could explicitly teach our students, that are available to them, for getting out of The Pit. Otherwise put, what does the model explicitly say we can do to get ourselves out of The Pit beyond adding “yet” to the end of our sentences? Beyond praising hard work over results (especially when we are looking for certain results)? Most pointedly, what does Getting Out of The Pit look and sound like to my students? There’s got to be methods and approaches out there I haven’t seen or heard about yet, right!?!

I mean, if my best PD these days is listening to my students then I’d better get hopping on that with regard to Growth Mindset. If I’m going to get out of The Pit of failing to nurture Growth Mindset in all students, then I’m going to need some help. And probably the best place to start is from dialoguing with those most impacted by my efforts.

The Fixed Mindset is a beast.

Yes, we all know the value of hard work, especially when it’s in a learning environment full of student agency. But how do we explicitly teach what it means to work hard? I’ve worked my tail off to get to where I am. I’ve had to experience many uncomfortable situations in order to feel success. Haven’t you? Do we not value hard work? But, what does that mean to our students? And how do we nurture that same value in them?

As Chey and Pav so eloquently discuss during this episode, I think we are also in The Pit as teachers with effectively diagnosing what being in The Pit looks like for many of our students. We are failing to be culturally aware and sensitive with recognizing “Pit” behaviors and thus, punishing certain students for what appears to be misbehavior rather than recognizing that our instruction is missing the mark somehow. This to me is critical, and both understanding this problem and developing pedagogy to address it is paramount.

For example, juxtapose Vygotsky’s learning model with Growth Mindset. If good first teaching and sound learning pedagogy says that learners make their best growth in The Zone of Proximal Development, might it be that those students rejecting Growth Mindset are being asked to engage in learning activities outside of what they are ready to learn? Could it be our one-size-fits-all curriculum implementation models are guilty of driving students away from experiencing activities that facilitate Growth Mindset? Are we nurturing Fixed Mindset by providing instruction students aren’t yet developmentally ready for? Without prerequisite knowledge and skills, how are our students going to embrace the Growth Mindset attitudes and behaviors that show up when instruction is in their learning zone?

I think maybe this is where we have failed to understand the model most, and more so, where public education continues to fail in general. What does “Pit” behavior look and sound like for each individual student? Maybe the outbursts or perceived disrespect is more about our failures as teachers to provide instruction worthy of productive struggle. What does it mean to be productive? And why struggle if it never leads to any recognizable success? No “relationship” meme can help with this situation. Maybe there isn’t a real relationship yet if we punish what is meant as a cry for help.

Maybe this is worth digging into WITH our students too?

Finally, for now, I get that the research on brain plasticity is showing promising outcomes for connecting and regrowing synapses. I also have witnessed as well as experienced the positive results associated with productive struggle. What I’m doubting is the connection between growing intelligence by way of Growth Mindset as measured by scoring well on standardized testing. It seems to me we would do better to measure growth not by comparing children, but by comparing where they are in their learning and work habits at the beginning of the year with where they are all along the way.

What does a program look and sound like where students have embraced a Growth Mindset and know they are making progress regardless of where their peers are in their learning and what their peers are doing? Is it possible for all children to be engaged and working hard to learn and grow their intelligence in a public school classroom?

There’s something inside me that believes we can. I also think the Growth Mindset model for learning can be a stellar vehicle to help get us there. We just need to keep learning and growing to get out of this pit.

So, those of you with curious minds are asking yourselves about the Coattails part of the title about now, aren’t you? What does that have to do with Growth Mindset? I guess my thought on that is the fact that when I listen to Chey and Pav talk and reflect it also causes me to reflect on my own experiences and my personal journey as a teacher. Hence this blog. I mean, am I not benefitting from riding on the coattails of The Staffroom Podcast? In thinking about and writing this blog, have I not made several pedagogical assumptions to be explored? Might it be true that participating in the activity of listening to the podcast and then writing this reflective blog helps me to be a better teacher? Might it help my students achieve more? I hope so!!

I’m thinking about dedicating a portion of my personal writing time to blogging about my reflections as I listen to The Staffroom Podcast. Yes, riding on those coattails!! I wonder what Chey and Pav would think about that?

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