Post Summer Autobiography
My Fixed Mind-Set
July 21, 2017
For the last six years, one sentence has fueled my drive to be an educator. I can still hear my teacher’s words, apparently an attempt at motivation, spoken at the end of another boring AP Statistics class. Off-handedly, she told the whole class, “This AP is not difficult. You’ll all do well. Even Ethan can get a 5.” Caught off guard by her comment, I was as immediately offended by it as I am today. Within that seemingly encouraging final sentence stands the word “even.” It subtly marks the fixed mind-set about my intelligence that defined my high school education (Dweck, 2010). I always feared I was nothing more than a B student there, and had my motivation sapped by not believing I could be anything more. And here was a teacher confirming it in front of the whole class. Since then, I have been motivated to come back to the classroom so that I could be the type of teacher who would make students believe in their abilities.
Throughout the week at Penn, I had the chance to reflect on how the culture at Roxbury Latin and teaching practices created my own fixed mind-set, which in retrospect led directly to my defensive tactics of deliberately not trying to do my best. Drawing on the work of Carol Dweck along with John Hattie and Helen Timperley’s (2007) report on feedback to examine my own educational experience helps show where and why my K-12 education faltered. These experiences will significantly impact the way I want my classroom environment to look, as I do not want my students to give up on themselves in the way that I did in high school.
I began at Roxbury Latin in 7th grade, as the third in a line of brothers, knowing perceptions of my siblings would always follow me. Initially I was placed in the top math class, but after a 60 score on a test about bases, I moved down to the B section. Though RL only used talent-level tracking for math and latin, where I also ended up in the B class, I felt marked by the school as that middling student. I knew people saw me as the “nice brother,” and did not expect much academically.
The environment at Roxbury Latin was also such that everyone knew each other’s grades on any given test. While some teachers mildly discouraged the practice, they widely knew that when students received something back, they would immediately ask each other what their score was. The motivations were not malicious in wanting to put each other down, but rather, people wanted to know where they stood. Those who did not share were typically shunned, and usually, a classmate could manage a look over their shoulder anyway. Accepting the practice, one teacher of mine even turned back tests in reverse order of the grades.
The effects of the explicit tracking in the two subjects, as well as the hyper-grade-aware environment were enormous for me, as I saw that my intelligence was openly labeled every single day. While I suspect many of my friends were succeeding because of the competitive environment, I saw every B and B- as a signal to give up on being anything more than what people saw me as. Dweck’s descriptions of the worries of the students with fixed mind-sets aptly describe my apprehensive approach to assessments: they “worried more about looking smart and not making mistakes” and “became discouraged or defensive in the face of setbacks because they believed that setbacks reflected limitations in their intelligence” (p. 27). Nearly every test involved a crippling fear that my mistakes would signal my inferiority to my brothers in the eyes of teachers and an inadequacy in the eyes of my classmates. I found the best defense against the setbacks was to create the aura of not caring and not trying. For as long as I knew the grades I received were not reflective of my best work, they could not signal my mental limitations. But throughout the whole time, all I wanted was for people to believe I was smart.
Another factor that led to my crippling fixed mind-set at school was the praise I always heard directed at my oldest brother Travis. Given that he graduated before I started RL, the degree to which it affected me surprises me to this day. But drawing connections between Hattie and Timperly’s report on feedback and Dweck’s mind-set research provides a thread through which one can see the impact of the praise. For some reason, in almost all RL science classes, students circulated old tests to prepare for upcoming assessments. Travis’s tests were the high standard, with his name prominently at the top. Passed down from class to class via photocopies, they were the most popular study tool, used so widely that one teacher once asked for Travis’s score as a bonus question. On hundreds of occasions, I heard, “Travis is so smart.” It was always directed at his person, as if his scores were an inherent trait rather than earned.
Hattie and and Timperly break feedback down into four levels. The feedback I heard and saw on the tests being given to Travis falls in the fourth level, feedback about the self as a person (FS). Although no teacher explicitly told me I was a B student with that level of feedback, FS was commonly used to praise the best students. Whether at award ceremonies, or at the tops of tests of high-achieving classmates, the use of that for some and not for others created a demoralizing environment for those of us who did not receive such positive FS. The majority of feedback I saw came at the level of the task (FT). Hattie and Timperly assert that “FT is more powerful when it is about faulty interpretations, not lack of information” (p. 91). But far too often in my experience, the FT was simply informational, a series of red x’s and a score, with little information about how to proceed better.
Together, these factors created my fixed mind-set, as the combination of regularly being told I was a middling student and seeing other people praised for their inherent intelligence implied that I lacked that. Dweck’s research asserts that “students’ mind-sets have a direct influence on their grades and that teaching students to have a growth mind-set raises their grades and achievement test scores significantly” (p. 26). Given the findings, I wish I had teachers work to create my growth mind-set, either explicitly like in Dweck’s study by teaching students about the effect of mind-sets, or by combating the competitive school environment that was quick to label students for their successes and failures. I wonder how my experience would have been different if I had not felt like I needed to put in less effort to protect myself from feelings of inadequacy.
Furthermore, Dweck documents the importance of teachers having their own growth mind-sets with regard to their students. Instead of believing that intelligence is static, teachers should see it as developing through the students’ effort. The good teachers incorporate that mind-set into their teaching practices: “Teachers with a growth mind-set don’t just mouth the belief that every student can learn; they are committed to finding a way to make that happen” (p. 28). Senior year, I did have a teacher at Roxbury Latin who successfully began to change my mind-set. Jack Brennan taught me in an Ancient Greek seminar with four students in it. Many of his practices are ones I hope to emulate. He made it explicit that each test was not an indicator of success or failure, but a barometer for how we could get better. The feedback came on many levels: on the task, on our processing and on our self-regulation. These practices signaled his belief in our capacity for growth, which he affirmed through his words.
I will never forget the one day when nobody else showed up to class, when it was just me and Jack Brennan. He used that period to tell me everything I was doing right, academically on the test he handed back, which was by no means that great, and as a human being. He showed that he noticed my nuances, and greatly appreciated the role I played in the school. After five years of people pointing out my limitations, having a teacher not only acknowledge but also champion my strengths felt incredible, as if I had finally been set free. He epitomized the “warm demander,” making me believe that had the capacity to meet his challenges.
When creating my own classroom environment, I hope to promote my students’ growth mind-sets by showing them deliberately that I believe in every student’s capacity to succeed. Learning from my educational experiences and the research on these elements, I want to be especially careful that I reflect my own growth mind-set in the way I phrase my challenges and praise. I saw through my AP Stat class that one word can completely demoralize a student by indicating the teacher’s fixed mind-set, even if she did have good intentions. Instead, I hope I can play the role Mr. Brennan did for my boys, using my capacities as teacher, coach, and advisor to make sure them feel like they are appreciated.
Specifically, in the classroom, I want to work to make sure the students do not believe I am grading them for their past work, but for the content of the work in front of me. Once, I plan to have the students submit their essays without their names, so that they can see I am looking at the essay and not the name while grading. However, given the importance of differentiation, and wanting my feedback to be relevant to the individual challenges of the students, I will need to take the essays back and complete a second round of comments so that I can still give effective feedback, even as I work on their knowing I do not have a fixed mind-set about their intelligence.
Beyond mind-sets, one area I want to focus on as a teacher, coach, and advisor is promoting healthy risk taking. As Nakkula and Toshalis describe, at a time when adolescents are especially prone to take risks, they should be taking “positive risks” as well (2006, p. 43). Educators can create extremely powerful learning opportunities by fostering a warm classroom environment conducive to risk taking. On the first day, in talking about classroom expectations, I want to make it clear that taking risks is a big part of the course. In order to do so productively, we need to respect agree to respect each other’s ideas. On a different level, I want to create assignments that force the students outside their comfort zone. Whether that be having them do solo presentations or putting them in groups for a creative final project, I want to push them to think bigger than what they are comfortable with initially. To avoid the fear of failure limiting the risks, I want to expressly reward risk taking as a part of my rubrics for creative assignments. Given that I am teaching 7th grade, where grades do not yet count so much, I see a critical window of opportunity. For I can show them that they have more potential than they ever imagined if they are comfortable pushing themselves to take risks.
I am especially intrigued by Cynthia Lightfoot’s concept that adolescent risk taking arises as a form of structuring students’ own “non-adult” world (Nakkula & Toshalis, p. 43). Given my age of 23, the students should be able to relate to me more, which could allow me to work more closely with them in the risk taking rather than being in opposition as most teachers might automatically be. Instead of being yet another adult who they need to revolt against, perhaps I can be someone who can be a part of the creative process of risk taking as an ally. If I can do that by regularly talking to my students one on one about the risks they might take, I might be able to more successfully steer the inevitable risk taking during adolescence towards the positive risks Nakkula and Toshalis describe.
Greatly aware of how my fixed mind-set created avoidance behaviors that might have signaled an apparent motivation to fail to my teachers, I will also be strongly influenced by Toshalis & Nakkula’s (2012) report on voice and agency this next year. I need to be aware that such avoidance behaviors as I exhibited in withdrawing effort and failing to ask questions are likely signs of “confusion, insecurity, or discomfort with the learning environment” (p.13). I want to do all that I can to avoid creating the “subtractive schooling” environment I often felt myself in (p. 14). To do this, I will be extremely attentive to the motivation shifts in the students, speaking to them when I notice dramatic changes so that I can figure out how I can best help them. I expect that to involve trying to make the learning more culturally relevant for the students. Especially with grammar and vocabulary units in the classroom, I will need to try hard to keep those units relevant and engaging so that students do not lose motivation. Trying out different tactics for teaching those units and then asking the students which elements of each they like best will be a good way to give the students voice in the units that will the most difficult to offer it.
As a young teacher, I see a tremendous opportunity for students to feel a connection to me. Doing so will help me be a better teacher for them, as I can be in tune with their moments of joy and their trepidations. But most of all, I hope in connecting with me that they can feel the same type of appreciation that I felt from Mr. Brennan. For I believe through reflecting on my personal educational journey and through these first set of readings that the best teachers are the ones who make students believe in themselves: by promoting growth mind-sets, by showing them what they can achieve with taking risks, and by giving them voice to share their ideas.
Dweck, C. (2010). Mind-Sets and equitable education. Principal Leadership, 26-29.
Hattie, J. & Timperley H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.
Nakkula, M. & Toshalis, E. (2006). Understanding youth: Adolescent development for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Toshalis, E. & Nakkula, M. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice. The Students at the Center Series, 1-42.