For the last couple of years, I have had the pleasure of working and visiting an array of schools that have allowed me to develop an understanding of what environments conducive to learning should feel like. If I could summarize all my visit observations and highlight the three areas that stood out most as factors leading to school success and high achievement, they would be: a positive school culture, high expectations, and exhibited growth mindsets amongst the staff. Ironically, in that same vein, the one common factor I witnessed that negatively affects a school’s culture and success has been teachers’ fixed mindsets. As a teacher myself, it is difficult to acknowledge that perhaps, we as educators, take a larger role in our fractured school’s system than we are comfortable to admit. Still, I stand firmly by the belief that if we want to make true impact, we must first check ourselves and admit fault, as our schools will continue to stay stagnant otherwise.
During the last couple of years, the topics of growth and fixed mindsets have gained popularity as research has further solidified the impact that each of these can have in any and all environments. According to Dweck (2006), Stanford University Professor of Psychology, growth mindset is described as a “belief system that asserts that intelligence is a malleable quality and can be developed.” In essence, the educators I have come across that exhibited a growth mindset believed that “with effort and hard work from the learner, all students can demonstrate significant growth and therefore all students deserve opportunities for challenge.” Now, if in addition to this belief, you add an effective teacher equipped with instructional tools and strategies that allow him/her to differentiate and respond to a learner’s needs, all while nurturing critical thinking processes and developing lifelong learners, the results are environments that are optimum for student learning.
Unfortunately, there are educators that I have come across that have allowed themselves to develop “a belief system that suggests that a person has a predetermined amount of intelligence, skills or talents,” a belief that Dweck (2006) has recognized as a fixed mindset. Often times, these teachers have been the easiest to recognize as they make it clear that they don’t really believe students can be successful, making excuses for the many ways in which a student will fail, rather than attempting to challenge them or seeking ways to differentiate to make the material accessible. These are the educators that are draining our schools. They are the ones whose attitudes and actions have and continue to take a toll on our students.
As an educator, being in the presence of teachers with fixed mindsets has taken a toll on my own spirits. If I, an adult that is aware and can understand why some adults may develop these mindsets over time, can be affected by the negative aura of those with fixed mindsets, I can’t help but wonder how our students manage to survive in their classes. The truth is an educator’s mindset directly influences how a child feels about him or herself and how he or she views him or herself as a learner. With a teacher’s unwavering support and affirmation, a child can grow up to be confident and relentless. Similarly, without a teacher believing in him/her, a child grows disconnected from school and uninterested in learning.
We can’t teach students who do not believe that they can succeed in our classrooms, so why aren’t we focusing less on how “low” test scores are and reflect on why our students are not succeeding? Maybe, if more educators took the time to reflect, they can realize that it is their fixed mindset that has become a barrier to student success and maybe, just maybe, if they begin to believe a little more in their students’ potential and ability, the results can change. Until that happens, I encourage us all to not be so quick to point fingers to all the barriers interfering with student success, as the root causes can sometimes be found within our own mindsets.
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