One of the most popular oxymorons that currently dominates educational circles is the phrase "growth mindset". Given the fact that "mindset", by definition, is a fixed set of beliefs, then the flexibility and potential for change and growth would actually mean that a learner had no "set mind" or mindset about learning at all! The use of terms such as "mindset" or "grit" or "moxie" is just a trick for taking schools off of the hook, and placing the blame for a failure to connect squarely on the shoulders of the student. In actual fact, it is our job as educators to change attitudes about learning. What we are really talking about is nurturing a young mind to embrace new experiences and challenges, supported by a low-risk learning environment, and dedicated to student growth and continued success. It doesn't just happen. We educators and parents have to make it happen. We have to help students to take a systematic approach to learning. Sometimes it means focusing less on content and more on attitude. It challenges us to ask: How can we create a culture of success? How can we help students to see challenging themselves is not risky, but is actually interesting and rewarding?
A number of years ago, in another professional life, I was engaged by the Japanese Ministry of Education to review the delivery of their educational programmes, their teacher training, and their five year plan for moving forward. I spent a month touring schools; meeting with teachers, parents and students; consulting with university and Ministry personnel; and sitting in dozens of classes.
One experience during this time still stands out for me. I was in a classroom in a university laboratory school in Hiroshima. At the front of the class was a senior mathematics teacher – back to the room – scribbling formulas on the whiteboard and muttering fairly incomprehensibly about what he was doing. At the back of the class were ten student teachers furiously copying down everything that he wrote on the board so that they could someday use it in their own classrooms. In between were forty Grade 12 students who were paying no attention whatsoever. There were lots of conversations going on, some outstandingly artistic doodles being created, and a number of people catching up on an obvious lack of sleep – but no-one was actually learning mathematics. In my post-class focus groups, I discovered two things. To begin with, the teacher felt that it was his responsibility to teach, but not to ensure that anyone actually learned. Secondly, the students felt that it was their responsibility to learn, but that the venue for that was not school, it was at home or at an after school cram session where they would spend hours self-teaching and practicing problems. It was this disconnect that the government was trying to address. The challenge was, that the issue was more cultural than pedagogical.
You know what Neil Postman would say, “I taught it, it’s just that they didn’t learn it” is akin to hearing a car salesperson say “I sold it, it’s just that they didn’t buy it”. We know that effective teaching and learning is an interactive process, and that to be meaningful, both partners have to actively engage in it. The transmission culture that brought us radio and television is rapidly being supplanted by the interactive culture that uses Google and Wikipedia and invites the user to engage and generate knowledge, not just receive and record it.
At Kenneth Gordon, like most schools, we sometimes fall into the trap of assigning what we feel should be a simple task and finding that a student has become paralyzed and unable to proceed. Even with the luxury of small class groupings and daily individual instruction, we are constantly presented with a variety of learning puzzles. Why did this student balk at this task when the nine who came before breezed through it? What necessary steps did I leave out, that account for my inability to engage this particular learner in a fashion that would enable her or him to feel confident in their ability to take this on?
This is a pivotal moment in the teaching/learning process. We can just shrug and pat ourselves on the back for a 90% success rate, or we can double down and become learning detectives, committed to finding the piece of the puzzle that eludes us. The response to this challenge is a window into the culture of a school. All students have a unique approach to learning. Most fall within a broad range that is typically addressed in school, but many are outliers. They have great, untapped potential that needs to be coaxed to the surface, nurtured and reinforced. It is hard work, for both educator and learner, but the possibilities are endless. Part of our challenge is to make students understand this correlation between work and performance, between perseverance and progress.
In all of the superficial discussions about "mindsets" and "learning styles" there is still a fundamental truth. If an educator is unable to convince a student to open her or himself up to the possibility of learning then no amount of instruction will result in a positive and productive outcome.
This is the true art of teaching.