Why do some students willingly engage in academic tasks? What makes learners persist in challenging tasks? What compels learners to want to learn more and improve? These questions are top of mind for researchers and practitioners alike and together we continue the quest to support all learners to see their value and the promise of their own education now and throughout their lives.
Camille Farrington, who has done extensive research and made the case for the importance of academic mindsets for deeper learning, found that:
“Students with positive academic mindsets work harder, engage in more productive academic behaviors, and persevere to overcome obstacles to success. Conversely, students with negative mindsets about school or about themselves as learners are likely to withdraw from the behaviors essential for academic success and to give up easily when they encounter setbacks or difficulty.”
According to her research, the following mindsets have been identified as critical to students motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work.
- I belong to this community
- My ability and competence grow with effort
- My work has value to me
- I can succeed at this
These mindsets can be seen as both motivators and outcomes of engaging in authentic learning experiences. I would also argue that although this is focused on students, the mindsets are about learning and therefore, apply to all of us as learners. As learners, teachers, and leaders, we must cultivate and model these mindsets, too.
Here are some examples and ideas for how to cultivate the academic mindsets.
I belong to this academic community.
Belonging is something that psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as foundational to learning and ultimately, what he defines as “self-actualization.” When learners feel they belong, they are more likely to see challenges or failures as part of the process and not indicative of their own self-worth and value in the group. Creating a sense of belonging and sharing the learning process, not just the product, can help all learners see that they are not alone in their struggles and can grow as part of the learning community.
Guidance and support are critical to developing the knowledge, skills, and mindsets of diverse learners. I once made the assumption that because I hadn’t heard about any problems and nobody told me that they were struggling that everything was okay. It wasn’t until I made a point to check in with students that I was able to really understand what they needed help on or steer them in the right direction. The reality is that most people aren’t going to tell you about challenges, especially if there is no relationship and the structures for this to happen aren’t in place. You have to deliberately make time for it.
I took this lesson from my students to my work with teachers, too. For example, as a new teacher mentor and instructional coach, I could have sat in my office and kept myself busy with a lot of tasks and waited until someone reached out. Instead of waiting for people to reach out, I made a point to schedule regular check-ins, based on their needs, so that it is easy to predict and prepare for meaningful reflection and support. Proactively creating the space to ask questions, provide guidance and problem solve emerging challenges is a proactive learning strategy rather than a reaction as a result of a problem. Effective leaders are visible, available, and connected to their teams and have multiple strategies to check in formally and informally. Connecting with individuals can help them see that they belong to the community and have value.
When people feel misunderstood like they don’t belong or judged it’s easy to be defensive and blame external factors, rather than persevere, but this rarely helps us get better. Advisory is an effective way that large schools (and small ones too) can create a small learning communities to ensure students are connected to others and learn how deal with emotions, get along with others, manage stress, build self-esteem, develop positive relationships with peers and adults to be as successful as possible both academically and socially. If run effectively, advisory can help support students and create positive contact with a smaller group, as well as a positive relationship with a least one adult on campus and other peers. When you are invested in individuals and their work from the beginning, people are more willing to share successes and challenges.
My ability and competence grow with effort.
Much attention has been paid to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset. Her research has helped us see that the brain is like a muscle and can grow with effort rather than seeing people as being naturally smart or lacking control over their own abilities, which is also referred to as a fixed mindset. To maximize learning opportunities, it is important that there is not only room for mistakes but that we learn from them and build in opportunities to reflect, revise, and improve.
One of my favorite examples of this is the video clip, Austin’s Butterfly, where Ron Berger details the journey of the project with elementary school students to highlight the impact of critique and revision. Austin, a first-grade student, was creating a scientific drawing of a butterfly for a notecard that was being sold to raise funds for a butterfly habitat. Over the course of six different drafts, Austin dramatically improved his drawing and accuracy based on the actual picture of the butterfly with kind, specific, and helpful feedback to improve. This video is powerful and, as the Models of Excellence website states, “The progress of the drawing from a primitive first draft to an impressive final draft is a powerful message for educators: we often settle for low-quality work because we underestimate the capacity of students to create great work. With time, clarity, critique and support, students are capable of much more than we imagine.” When we raise our expectations and create the conditions to achieve those expectations, people will often go about and beyond. It is important to deliberately create the conditions where learners feel valued and can openly share challenges to grow and improve.
My work has value to me.
Creating work that has value is about seeking to understand who the learners are and tapping into their strengths and interests to create better experiences and achieve desired outcomes for all students. To leverage the talents of individuals we will collectively do more by focusing on the strengths that we have as individuals and as teams. People are more confident, passionate and do better work when you focus on what right with them instead of what’s wrong with them. To effectively collaborate with others, one first must understand themselves and their own strengths to work productively with others. The key is to have the self-awareness to make better decisions, collaborate effectively with diverse people, and accept areas of weakness. Creating authentic learning experiences that empower learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their talents, rather than focus on deficits, maximizes the motivation and impact of all learners.
Renowned psychologist Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory explains how behaviors are learned through observation of behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. People learn from one another, through observation, imitation, and modeling. We learn how to act and react to situations from others. When schools are organized to facilitate positive learning models, and interactions are designed to promote learning for everyone, they foster behaviors that inspire lifelong learners who can create better opportunities for themselves and others.
I can succeed at this.
You know the age old wisdom attributed to Henry Ford, “If you think you can, or can’t, you’re right.” Research and practice support this too. When students believe in their ability to succeed in tasks even when they are challenging, it impacts their ability to persist and accomplish challenging academic tasks. Creating opportunities for students to set goals, receive feedback and reflect on their progress can impact their beliefs and their expectations of success.
When improvement happens gradually over time (as most do), it’s sometimes hard to see the growth. Being intentional about reflecting on growth and sharing both successes and lessons learned can build confidence and ownership. At the end of each quarter, I would block off class time to reflect on the goals that we set at the beginning of the quarter. Students documented evidence of their work that they were proud of and each student would do a 3, 2, Q reflection- Three success or things they were proud of, two areas that they wanted to improve, and a question that they had for further inquiry or growth. By having students reflect on their growth, they lead the process and take more ownership over their learning and efforts to improve.
This mindset matters for educators, too. Much like grades and student evaluations, teacher evaluation and accountability systems can often feel like they are done to teachers rather than in service of growth and can be frustrating. To create more transparency in our learning, instead of following the traditional evaluation protocol, our team opted to have individuals share their own version of the 3, 2 Q that I did with students where we shared strengths, opportunities for growth and questions to guide our next steps. This informed the performance evaluation and we all had evidence that we gathered and borough to the conversation rather than it coming from the top down. Making this public and empowering the team to reflect and document their own growth over time was a great way to highlight our own progress and help our team move to the next level individually and collectively. We still completed the paperwork for the evaluations and met our obligation but it was more authentic and there was a shared ownership in the process that made it a powerful learning experience, not just a task. Our goals are now posted and we are all invested in helping each team member grow to achieve their goals.
I can create something new and better.
I would be remiss If I didn’t include George Couros’ work on the Innovator’s Mindset, the belief in your ability to develop talents and skills to create something new and better. Beyond engaging in academic tasks, when learners see that they are learning not just to know but to actively create something new, learning can take on a whole new meaning.
It is necessary that learners embody skills such as complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity but if our actions in schools still rely on antiquated practices, we will fail to develop learners who have the skills to be successful in our constantly changing world. Students can learn as they discover opportunities, develop and test ideas, get feedback on the value of their ideas and products. Successful innovators are deeply engaged in creating better experiences and products and are willing to do the daily work to bring new and better ideas to life. While not all students will start a business or invent a cure for cancer, some will and all of us will continually need to reinvent our careers and create new and better opportunities to improve throughout life.
To grow and develop learners, we have to create the conditions where they are willing to take risks and openly share their learning and challenges. This is needed at all levels of education. If our administrators feel comfortable taking risks and try new things to improve our schools and they create those same conditions and empower teachers to create authentic learning experiences for students who are inspired to take risks and learn to improve, we all win.
What ideas and examples do you have to develop academic mindsets?