Promoting growth mindset means checking biases at the door, experts say

Educators must confront personal biases before they can address students' mindsets

The idea of growth vs. fixed mindsets is one that has gained traction in modern debates around how to meet the needs of students. Most herald the idea of the growth mindset as being the proper way to frame educational conversations. The idea is simple: Basic abilities in everyone can be developed through dedication and hard work. The growth mindset chips away at the idea of learning as finite or intelligence as naturally-given or not.

In many cases, though, the commonly-accepted idea that growth mindset is the way to go is not lining up with the practice of approaching every student as an equally-qualified learner. In other words, said Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of the concept of growth mindset, “educators’ walk is not matching their talk.”

One issue is confronting individual biases and preconceived notions about various groups that get projected onto students, despite teachers’ best efforts. Regardless of the consensus that teachers should approach each students as a blank slate of potential, they often bring baggage into the classroom, which impacts their engagement with students.

“Every single person comes into social spaces with biases, and they're birthed out of stories that you've heard, experiences you may have had and, especially in a media-saturated society, perceptions of other are sort of imbibed and ascribed to us by stories in the media,” said Dr. Chris Emdin, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Most teachers are trained to say that they don't see race. They wear that on their sleeve as something that they're proud of,” Emdin said. “When you're trained to give that response, you start to believe that, and when you're enacting these biases, you don't see that as the problem.”

Bias extends beyond race

Emdin, who is also the author of the recently-released book, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education,” said that even as a black man who lives in an urban environment, he finds himself grappling with biases against those who look like him.

Teachers who say they don’t see race or don’t have racial biases that play out in the classroom “are definitely lying,” he said. “If I'm a person who lives in this body and I have that fear [of someone walking behind him in urban areas] because of the things I've been fed in the media, you certainly have that fear.”

However, the baggage educators bring to classrooms is not always so black and white. Dweck suggested considering the following: “When you’re in a classroom and you see a student that’s not paying attention to your lesson or ideas, do you think badly about them? When you see a student who’s picking up things quickly, do you think ‘oh, that’s a smart student’?”

Emdin pointed to gender differences that might lead to more lenient grading for female versus male students: girls, who often raise their hands more to participate in class discussions and are often more docile than their rambunctious male counterparts, get higher grades on tests. “The association of this behavior of docility as a beneficial academic behavior is problematic,” he said. “That's something that's gender-specific.”

Speaking at a recent Education Week Event called “Leaders to Learn From,” Dweck said it’s also important to consider “the messages the student is getting from the environment.” Is there a failure mindset, is the environment one in which a lot of praise is prevalent? Is the overall culture of the school one that encourages learning and puts the children as authors of that learning, or is it one in which the students are already presented with a deficit narrative that says they are less capable, less intelligent, less valuable to society?

“We used to say kids didn’t have the ability, now we’re saying they don’t have the [right] mindset,” Dweck said, warning of the pitfalls of overemphasizing the idea of growth mindset. “I think it’s protective, it’s saying ‘it’s not my fault the kids aren’t learning. They’ve had bad teaching in the past, they come from a certain background.’”

It's not that they lack the mindset or they lack the grit or they lack the resilience, it's that the way that's expressed in the classroom is flawed,” said Emdin.

“If you do not view a student as having the ability to be academically successful, they will not be able to realize their potential. If you view a student through a deficit lens, they will never fully be actualized,” he continued. “You put a cap on what they can do before they even get the opportunity to show you” what they can do, he said. “I think that's the most dangerous thing, when you see somebody as less than they are, when you put a cap on their potential. … Once you do that enough, you put a cap on their psyche. They start believing that they're not valuable, they believe that they’re deficient. and that's the most” detrimental thing to their ability to learn.

Growth mindset definitions, application may vary

Dweck encouraged educators and administrators to ask themselves, “What is the larger culture that allows teachers and students to feel safe, to feel that we’re out for your development, we’re not here to sort you into who can succeed and who can’t?”

I always say this — doing better work as educators comes with first being able to do a deep excavation of self,” Emdin said. “Before any teacher goes to teach into urban America, they need to be able to ask themselves some very specific questions,” like why did i choose to work here, what were my experiences with other people of this background before I got into this environment, what is my relationship with the content being taught.

Dweck said she’s also found that even when educators are getting it right and leaving biases at the door, the growth mindset was not automatically passed along to the student. “Only when the teachers were teaching for understanding and were giving kids feedback in a way that grew their understanding — and were giving them a chance to revise their work to demonstrate their changed understanding — that’s when they were passing on their growth mindset,” she said.

“Let them author their own [definition] of a growth mindset,” said Dweck. “Make them feel ownership.”

Also helpful, she suggested, is linking the idea of growth mindset to the student’s larger life goals. “They don’t want to grow their brains to do well on achievement tests. That’s not their goal,” she said. “And yet every child has within them a larger contribution” he or she wants to make to society. Key, Dweck said, is asking students what contributions they want to make to the bigger society and linking that contribution to the principles of learning in the classroom.

“It’s not a panacea, but it does empower kids and help them learn,” she said.

Emdin said it is also key to encourage a classroom environment that empowers students to respectfully challenge teachers, to educate the teachers on their own cultures and aspects of their own humanity and promotes a healthy emotional space that allows students to be their true selves.

Engage in conversations with young people about the class, so they can tell you how they feel about your instruction. You give them an opportunity to be able to tell you about [themselves] and to be able to check you when you may be misperceiving [them],” he said.

It is imperative, he said, for educators to see students “as they see themselves.”

Many teachers, particularly those choosing to teach in urban or other difficult districts, “see themselves as heroes,” he said. They see themselves as being good, smart, caring about people. They believe they make a conscious decision to teach in those environments because of their own love for humanity and desire to serve.

“Imagine if those same teachers saw their students as smart and caring and loving. It changes the narrative” and alters the way teachers approach their students.

Dweck said peers are also huge environmental influences and are instrumental in helping students develop a growth mindset. “When it’s a culture of development, the peers band together and do things,” Dweck said. “They really band together around learning; I haven’t heard that they band together so much around standardized testing.”

“In our society there’s often a stigma about asking for help. But we need to teach kids — and teachers — to ask for help, not right away, after they’ve tried a few things, not just asking for the answer, but asking for input that will help them know where to go next.”

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