Tag Archives: communication

Growth mindset for grit vs. empowerment

5 Sep

I enjoyed reading Alfie Kohn’s critique about Dweck’s mindset because it made me think about how we empower students to engage in their own learning process.  The article addresses points that are extremely important while using the mindset in the classroom, especially the pedagogical choices about focusing on traits like grit or supporting the individual learning process of each student. Mindset itself is important, but the way we discuss the growth mindset with students is even more important.

Personally I find it controversial to focus too much on learning styles or personality traits like grit (other labels are extroversion, openness, impulsivity, etc, google MyersBrigg or Big 5 for additional information).  This is because the contemporary learning theories highlight the subjectivity of learning, and the expected teaching dispositions are very clear about the need for all teachers to display the belief  that every student can learn (regardless the personality traits students have). Furthermore, I prefer to focus on supporting my students’ individual learning processes, because this helps them to become independent learners. Every student, child or adult, has their unique set of skills and needs, and perception of their own strengths and areas of growth. Discussing the growth mindset in the classroom may help some students to adopt better learning dispositions and engage more deeply in their own learning process.

It seems that mindset is a refined and renewed version of attribution theory and deals with students’ self-efficacy beliefs and locus of control.  We all have had those students and parents with the firm belief how “nobody in our family has ever been good in math” or “everyone in the family struggles with reading”. When children hear these messages stated over and over again in casual discussions, they often start to believe that they couldn’t possibly learn math, or be fluent readers, because those attributions don’t belong into their family. These beliefs easily create self-fulfilling prophecies that can seriously harm students’ learning.  Growth mindset can be an excellent tool to diminish these negative causal attributions and help students create a realistic (academic) self-concept. But, I don’t believe this can be achieved with something as simple and effortless as praise.

Praise is normative by its nature. Praise implies that the student met an invisible norm, known or set by the subject matter experts (teachers, educators, parents, etc). Thus praise is always about evaluation, because it is an external judgement about what the student did or what the student is (doing referring to the growth mindset and being referring to the fixed mindset). In education we need to increase the use of assessments and self-assessments with clear criteria about expected outcomes of assignments, so that students know what they are supposed to achieve and don’t have to rely on hit-and-miss strategies. Evaluations are very much overused, which is problematic because they emphasize the control over students and their performance, instead of providing learning support or feedback about the learning process.

The very first decision for every teacher to make before introducing the mindset to her/his students, is whether the mindset is used in the classroom to promote grit or to empower students to learn more.

Using mindset to promote grit in the classroom is fairly straightforward: create standards and labels for appropriate behaviour (maybe checklists), and we are good to go and evaluate students’ behaviours, actions and displays of true grit for demonstrating their growth mindset.  It is easy to quantify how many work sheets students have filled, or how many minutes they have engaged in the activities – and then praise the persistence in task (whether the task is meaningful for students is irrelevant in this environment).

I can understand why effort-praising, grit-building growth-mindset practices are appealing: they appear to be a quick fix for the most important problem in education – student disengagement. I am sure we could build a robot to offer praise every time when a student displays gritty behavior! But doesn’t this kind of praise seriously underestimate our students as vibrantly intelligent, creative and curious human beings? While persistence is important in successfully completing tasks or projects, it certainly cannot be the most important ingredient in educating students to become productive citizens of 21st century!

Grit vs empowerment

In the classroom reality the difference between the environments is obviously much less black and white, and features from both sides (grit and empowerment) are used in most learning environments I have seen. Balance is what matters. Taking behaviour at face value, and believing that it truly communicates what students are thinking is a big mistake. Students are not as experienced in communication and interaction as we teachers are, they are still trying to figure it out. (Here is a nice iceberg image about behaviour to remind us about the reality!)

Focusing on empowerment in mindset discussions is harder and more time consuming for educators, because empowerment requires a dialogue between students and the teacher. It is about engaging in authentic interaction where both parties are heard. In this environment assessment becomes an opportunity for feedback and growth. I am currently working on my dissertation about learner agency in formal education, and these very same themes of empowerment are important for educating students who are “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events”  (Bandura, 1999, p. 156).  To thrive in the with the constant information overflow in the world today, this active choosing (instead of reacting) is exactly what our students need to learn.

We as teachers need to make informed choices about our pedagogical and instructional practices. Is it more valuable for students to remember that finishing all tasks gets them rewarded (with praise or grades), or to know that they can have an effect on their own learning process? This is a value level choice about the classroom practices we communicate to students with expectations and grading policies. So, when introducing the mindset in your classroom, please do think about the long-term goals. What do you really wish for students to gain from the mindset discussion?

Update on 9/29/2015:

Carol Dweck revisited mindset stating that she may have “emphasized sheer effort too much”. Wonderful!
Maybe this mislead educators to think that promoting grit is beneficial, and so it became this widely accepted misconception about contemporary learning!

Bndura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of personality. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 154-196.

Why leadership is so important in education

23 Sep

We often talk about the importance of leadership in education, but what does it actually mean?

My favourite definition of leadership is this:

Leadership is about leading others towards an imaginary future.

It is not easy, because we don’t actually know what is there.  But, by having sufficient knowledge and data, we can make educated guesses about it. Effective leadership in education is about engaging the whole team to improve educational outcomes – yes, this means including students into the improvement process, and engaging them in their own learning (not just schooling: see the previous blogpost).

The other hard, but oh so important step in leadership is to move the focus and action from what is urgent to what is important. In classroom this means teaching and learning for life, not for test (this also can be seen as engaging in deep learning).

For teachers and instructors the job description has (at least) three parts: leadership, management and coaching. A major part of my daily work is about my attempts to provide leadership and  empower my students to step up on the plate and be in charge of their own learning and meaning-making. The managerial aspect of being a teacher (grading, disciplining, being the gatekeeper) is not as appealing to me, and in my current position I am very happy that the assessment department does the grading, and I can just coach and support my students to understand what their tasks entail.

It is always important for students to interact with the content to get all the information provided about the topic of the lesson or unit, but an equally important thing is to engage in thinking, because otherwise the readings/lectures/videos only remain as information, they do not become knowledge. I really like the definition of information only becoming knowledge after it has been processed through our minds, because the individual interpretation of any given fact is what makes effective learning to happen.

Leadership is very much needed in everyday classroom situations to empower students to learn what they need to learn, not what others in the classroom need to learn. One size doesn’t fit all and blanket statements are quite useless when the focus is in learning instead of teaching. This personalization, of course, is also the premise of differentiated instruction, but it actually takes the student even further on the road towards self-directed and self-regulated learning. Knowing what I know and what I need to learn is the foundation of engagement in independent learning.

Leading each student forward on their path of individual learning process is what makes teaching so hard: all students have individual needs and should have personal goals in their learning, but setting and updating those goals would take a lot of teachers’ time. This is why it is so important to engage students in setting their own learning goals (within the classroom/curricular goals – or even beyond them, if the student is very advanced). The standards are an excellent tool for providing the descriptions of what good learning or good skill looks like. The next step on the path towards independent learning is providing opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment to “calibrate” their thinking about their own learning/skills to meet the view of curriculum designers.  Imagine how effective learning is in classrooms like this – and how students are learning for life, not just for the next test! And imagine the ownership of learning students have! This is where the appropriate leadership takes education in the classroom.

Equally important is to have the appropriate balance of leadership and management in school administration and school districts. Grant Wiggins wrote a wonderful post about the difference of leadership and management in regards of curriculum leadership:

Wanted: real curriculum leaders, not just managers

The questions of purpose, audience, the level of detail, feedback, etc. asked from curriculum writers are equally valid in the classroom practice, even if in a different scale.  Effective teaching, or instruction, is about providing learning facilitation and leadership for students, so that they can feel empowered to engage in learning and meaning-making and have solid ownership for their learning.

Collaborative meaning making is the best tool for engaging people in a dialogue. The shared vision of learning is the imaginary future; and real curriculum leadership, not just management is the way to get there. Unless students and teachers are buying into the district vision, it doesn’t really matter what the papers have written on them, or how beautifully crafted the mission and vision statements are.

Great teachers

25 Aug

Good teachers have strong organizational skills. Good teachers have solid decision-making skills. Good teachers get important things done.

Exceptional teachers do all of the above–and more. Sure, they care about their school and students, their principals and administrators. But most importantly, they care to an exceptional degree about the people who work for them, their students.

That’s why extraordinary teachers give every student:

1. Autonomy and independence

Great organizations are built on optimizing processes and procedures. Still, every task doesn’t deserve a best practice or a micro-managed approach. Engagement and satisfaction are largely based on autonomy and independence. I care when it’s “mine.” I care when I’m in charge and feel empowered to do what’s right.

Plus, freedom breeds innovation: Even heavily product-oriented assignments have room for different approaches.

Whenever possible, give your students the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best. When you do, they almost always find ways to do their jobs better than you imagined possible.

2. Clear expectations

While every assignment should include some degree of independence, every assignment does also need basic expectations for how specific situations should be handled.

Criticize a student for writing an opinion today even though yesterday that was standard practice and you make that student’s learning impossible.  Few things are more stressful than not knowing what is expected from one day to the next.

When an exceptional teacher changes a standard or guideline, s/hes  communicates those changes first–and when that is not possible, s/he takes the time to explain why s/he made the decision s/he made, and what she expects in the future.

3. Meaningful objectives

Almost everyone is competitive; often the best students are extremely competitive–especially with themselves. Meaningful targets can create a sense of purpose and add a little meaning to even the most repetitive tasks.

Plus, goals are fun. Without a meaningful goal to shoot for, studying is just work.

No one likes work.

4. A true sense of purpose

Everyone likes to feel a part of something bigger. Everyone loves to feel that sense of teamwork and esprit de corps that turns a group of individuals into a real team.

The best courses involve making a real impact on the lives of the students you teach. Let students know what you want to achieve for your class, for your school, and even your community. And if you can, let them create a few lessons of their own.

Feeling a true purpose starts with knowing what to care about and, more importantly, why to care.

5. Opportunities to provide significant input

Engaged students have ideas; take away opportunities for them to make suggestions, or instantly disregard their ideas without consideration, and they immediately disengage.

That’s why exceptional teachers make it incredibly easy for students to offer suggestions. They ask leading questions. They probe gently. They help students feel comfortable proposing new ways to get things done. When an idea isn’t feasible, they always take the time to explain why.

Great teachers know that students who make suggestions care about their learning, so they ensure those students know their input is valued–and appreciated.

6. A real sense of connection

Every student works for a grade (otherwise they would bring you more of their work than just assignments), but every student wants to work for more than a grade: They want to study with and for people they respect and admire–and with and for people who respect and admire them.

That’s why a kind word, a quick discussion about family, an informal conversation to ask if an student needs any help–those moments are much more important than group meetings or formal evaluations.

A true sense of connection is personal. That’s why exceptional teachers show they see and appreciate the person, not just the student.

7. Reliable consistency

Most people don’t mind a teacher who is strict, demanding, and quick to offer (not always positive) feedback, as long as s/he treats every student fairly.

(Great teachers treat each student differently but they also treat every student fairly. There’s a big difference.)

Exceptional teachers know the key to showing students they are consistent and fair is communication: The more students understand why a decision was made, the less likely they are to assume unfair treatment or favoritism.

8. Private criticism

No student is perfect. Every student needs constructive feedback. Every student deserves constructive feedback. Good teachers give that feedback.  Great teachers always do it in private.

9. Public praise

Every student–even a relatively poor performer–does something well. Every student deserves appreciation. It’s easy to recognize some of your best students because they’re consistently doing awesome things.  (Maybe consistent recognition is a reason they’re your best students? Something to think about.)

You might have to work hard to find reasons to recognize a student who simply (or barely) meets standards, but that’s okay: A few words of recognition–especially public recognition–may be the nudge an average performer needs to start becoming a great performer.

10. A chance for a meaningful future.

Every course should have the potential to lead to greater things. Exceptional teachers take the time to develop students for the course they someday hope to take, even if that course is in another school.

How can you know what a student hopes to do someday? Ask.

Students will only care about your course after you first show you care about them. One of the best ways is to show that while you certainly have hopes for your school’s future, you also have hopes for your students’ futures.

 

Good advice, isn’t it?  Let me confess: these are not my words.

I owe this article to Jeff Haden, who published it in Inc. under the title of extraordinary bosses.  I just couldn’t pass the uncanny resemblance between being an awesome boss and being an awesome teacher. So, what I did was just to change words like boss, company, customer and employee to teacher, school and student.  With small adaptation it would fit well as a parenting advice, too. It made me think about the best places where I have worked and felt like a valued member of the team.

We have all this good knowledge about leadership (which resembles teaching much more than management does), and how to put it into practice.

Imagine how different education would look like if we treated our students like best companies treat their employees?

Or,

better yet,

if we treated students like valued customers??

 

Situational learning and teaching

12 Mar

Sometimes it seems that we want a magical pill to improve education and learning. This, of course, is not possible, no matter what the advertisements say. We cannot become fluent in a new language in two weeks any more than grow tall trees from saplings in the same amount of time. Learning and growing are both delicate processes where time is one essential component. How we use that time is important. In each unique situation.

I have previously stated that I believe learning happening in interactions. These dialogues are essential for concept development and creating deeper understanding (about anything).  Some interactions happen between the student and the learning materials others are facilitated by teachers and/or parents.  How interactions develop depends entirely on the situation. Some days and times are better than others, but for effective learning facilitation the basic requirement is for the teacher – or the parent – to remain fully present (physically, emotionally and cognitively) in the situation.

What prompted me to blog about this was a small article in the March/April issue of Scientific American.  “The myth of family meal: Eating together might not be as magical as researchers thought.”[1]  Placing value on something like family meal, without transferring the essential content (here: quality interactions) leads to misunderstandings, and emphasizing wrong things.

Gathering around the table for an enjoyable meal with the whole family and having vivid discussions about important issues certainly improves the quality of life and learning. However, if the family meal is used as a rule, thinking how performing this daily ritual improves the education and the future of children, we are misleading ourselves. In this case the family meal has become an empty doctrine. This was also the finding of researchers who followed nearly 18000 adolescents: Beyond indirect benefits via earlier well-being, however, family dinners associations did not persist into adulthood.[2]

I wonder how different the results were if this research had focused on meaningful interactions? I know it is easier to quantify family meals than interactions, and I appreciate the researchers’ efforts, because debunking yet another urban myth about education is good indeed.  Maybe it helps us shift the focus away form prescribed and scripted actions into the importance of situationality in education.

In my family the best discussions often occur in the car, mostly because of the closed space and having time to chat.  (My wish is that this gives hope and confidence to other parents who also at times may feel like running a family taxi service.) Some days nobody feels like talking, other times there are more items to discuss than we have time.  I am not trying to promote quality time over spending bigger quantities of time with children. I am just stating a fact that in my busy life the shared car ride sometimes turns out to be an enjoyable and meaningful conversation. Should it be generalized and stated that spending time in the car with your kids improves their well-being? Absolutely not. Because it depends on the situation.

I am afraid the same mistake of neglecting the true nature of learning is happening with Common Core.  The frames of teaching and rules of instruction are emphasized over the content, which should be learning instead of teaching.  We cannot box learning into a tight and tidy package, because it is situational and depends on dozens of individual factors during any given moment in the classroom.

Why not equip teachers with understanding of learning facilitation instead of providing them with a ready script for every minute spent in the classroom?


[1] Arnold, C. (2013, March/April).  The myth of family meal.  Scientific American Mind 24(1), 8.

[2] Musick, K. and Meier, A. (2012). Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 476–493.

 

Interactions that support learning

3 Feb

Interactions are the basic fabric of learning.

We are born with an intrinsic curiosity about the surrounding world, and try to figure out the way of life by interacting with people around us. This is called the primary socialization process[1] and during this process we learn to speak and move independently, but also adopt the values and the filters our significant others (parents, caregivers) are expressing in their tone, words and behavior.  From these early experiences and interactions, and everything coming after that, we create our own worldview and expectations for life, learning and everything. In pre-school or school age the secondary socialization process shapes our interactions with other people, media and information around us.

There are many different ways to interact, and some have traditionally been used more in education than others. Today we recognize how communicative interactions are more effective than purely physical ones.  Showing (how to do something) and explaining it creates more connections in students’ brain and thus supports deeper learning.

Learning by interacting with their environment has always been the children’s natural mode of learning. Adding active concept development into explorations simply by naming the subjects of that momentary interest and providing connections to previous experiences is often instinctively done by parents.  Of course early childhood educators try to cater for this type of learning by planning for experiences and having appropriate equipment nearby. Yet, for concept development the dialogue is the most important tool. Early learning experts actively use self-talk and parallel talk to describe what they are doing or what the child is doing in order to make words and sentences become relevant for children, adding more substance to the short sentences children are able to use, yet keeping the discussion focused and meaningful.

Communicative interactions are extremely useful in all other levels of education, too.  K-12 students should have plenty of opportunities to explain why and how they helped themselves learn, and as the teacher cannot be listening to everyone simultaneously, I cannot see any other way to increase the student talk time, but by having them to explain to each other. Somehow we often seem to have the fallacy that teacher needs to hear every word – which to me seems to be a remnant from the past. If the focus of education is in control, then yes, teacher probably needs to hear every word students are uttering, but in that case interactions are very limited purely on mathematical principles (one hour, 25 students and one teacher equals 2.4 minutes of time per student) so something must be done. I strongly suggest cooperative learning activities.

Too often the view of teaching is limited to instruction, which at worst becomes a monologue: communication without interaction.[2] I think we all have been listening to lectures, but not actually hearing the message, and wishing we were elsewhere. This is far from effective teaching and meaningful learning, because it basically is just providing information for students, not facilitating their learning, as there are no immediate feedback loops. Often it is also based on power or control (mandatory lectures, no matter whether I already have learnt the content, but attending because of credit hours), instead of validity of information and relevance for my learning.

Unfortunately the same phenomenon happens in K-12 classrooms where teachers are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless whether there are students who have already learnt it and/or others who don’t possess the prerequisite skills. Why do we do this?! One helpful tool for any teacher is to use self-talk to make their thinking visible and parallel talk to help a struggling student understand a different point of view – the important part is the interactive way of using it and having students map their own actions or thoughts to make the learning process more tangible. Communication with interaction makes the difference!

Interaction without communication presents a different problem: doing things and saying words simply because we are supposed to do so. I am not talking against politeness, it is important for the everyday life, but more about the non-verbal and paraverbal language and how we know when the other person truly means what s/he is saying. Empty words are teacher’s worst enemy.  We have so little time with our students that we truly cannot afford using the precious opportunities to interact and not communicate – whether it is negotiating meaning or conveying caring – and then checking for understanding.  This is also an area where I need to grow, and be much more intentional with my words while talking. But, my problem is always that my thoughts are running way faster than I can put them into words. I am still learning.

In higher education we come together to negotiate meanings, to tap into the expertise of our colleagues, to compare and contrast our views about the subject matter and to construct new knowledge. This is the true dialogue learning is made of. It is communicative interaction, very intentional and extremely cooperative. Could we provide our students with the same experience?

To best reach our students and support their learning we want to use similar open and honest communication that is based on validity instead of power or control. We need to open a dialogue, a conversation with students and listen what they say, because learning grows in interactions.