‘Growth mindset’ and student remediation: compatible?

Growth mindset in education is all the rage, but the way we do school often fails to cultivate positive changes in teacher and student self-perceptions.

I can be a reluctant public speaker. I am not proficient at Microsoft Excel and managing large swaths of data. At times, I have struggled to implement technology in the classroom while keeping students on-task and engaged.

But I can cultivate positive relationships with most students. I can write well. I can design curriculum that aligns to standards, providing a variety of assessments to measure learning.

Luckily, I’m not asked to solely work on my weaknesses as an educator and professional. Not that I’m opposed to improving upon my weaknesses, it’s just that if that’s all I was asked to do, I’d feel demoralized and frustrated. I want to engage with my skill set and passions in a meaningful way. I desire to build upon my strengths as a professional more than remediate my weaknesses.

There’s no doubt we need should embrace a growth mindset in education, both for teachers and students. If I don’t strive to improve and take risks as an educator, my teaching will become stagnant, fewer students will be engaged in learning, and I’d quickly become disillusioned by the myriad daily challenges in the classroom.

If students don’t believe in their power to improve and change the trajectory of their learning, outcomes aren’t positive. This is a given.

This Education Week article by Peter Dewitt questioning the efficacy of widespread growth mindset implementation caught my eye. I’m no statistician, so I take an expert’s word for it when describing the effects of strategies and approaches to learning. Dewitt shares insight from his colleague John Hattie about why the “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset” approach isn’t apparently having as strong an impact on student learning as it could:

…he said the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom. We put students in ability groups, they get scores on high stakes tests that help label them, and then we place them in Academic Intervention Services (AIS) which adds to their fixed mindset. Once students enter into AIS or Special Education, very few leave.

This is a powerful statement, with the implication being that the widespread, “fixed” practices we embrace–often focused on remediating student learning deficits–may not be getting as much bang for the buck as we’d like to help alter student perceptions about their ability to grow in meaningful ways.

Imagine being a student who is frequently asked to do things he or she struggles at, but is rarely–if ever– asked to engage in learning that taps into a personal strength or new possibilities. All of a sudden, the idea of growth mindset isn’t so appealing, is it?  When we encourage students to not give up within the paradigm of a deficit-based approach to teaching and learning, we aren’t doing enough to foster a growth mindset that encourages curiosity and risk-taking.

As an alternative, we must consider more exploration of strengths-based education, an approach that is sure to change classroom practice. I don’t want to solely ask my students to improve upon their weaknesses. I want to help them build upon what they bring to the classroom, both intellectually and socially, in order to cultivate inquiry and passion.

This is just one way we can revamp classroom practice to fully achieve the benefits of a growth mindset. Let’s question whether or not our classroom cultures, assignments, and tests provide fertile ground for students. The catch is we must open ourselves up as educators to continuing reflection and revision of our own practice.

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