mindset, smarts, and strengths

I’m finally getting around to reading “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, a book I’m reading with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellows for our summer meeting, and it’s prompting a lot of reflection on how I have or haven’t fostered a growth mindset about science with my students this year. I’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and over the years, I’ve tried different things to more consciously foster a growth mindset in my students but I’ll be honest- I don’t think I do a good job of this and I don’t think I spend the time addressing it (explicitly or implicitly) that is really needed in the classroom. But I’m trying.

At the start of the spring semester, inspired by Kelly O’Shea and a conversation about being “smart” in science class, I switched up the way I do peer feedback and asked students to comment on their groupmates’ strengths in science class. At the end of each unit, I asked students to pick a science skill that they saw as a strength for each of their groupmates and explain why they chose that skill or when they saw that skill. I pulled the list of skills from a blog post by Ilana Horn on auditing your classroom for competencies and status. Here’s the list that students could pick from:

  • Extending on the ideas of others
  • Representing ideas clearly
  • Making connections between ideas
  • Asking interesting questions
  • Asking questions to clarify misunderstandings
  • Coming up with logical explanations
  • Working systematically
  • Working without giving up

It’s been a busy year and I didn’t revisit this mid-semester, but I compiled all of the peer feedback (which was collected via Google Forms) and printed a sheet for each student with their unique anonymous feedback. (I would love an easier way to do this and may need to do a mail merge type thing next year, but that’s another story.) I then had the students go through a series of reflection questions. As we were doing this in class, one student remarked that it felt like the end of summer camp, where you read all the nice things that other people say about you. Another student asked where the feedback about his weaknesses was, and I told him that I had only asked students to give feedback on strengths.

I thought about asking students to give feedback to each other on areas of improvement, but I’ve found that students can be almost too brutally honest with one another and I wonder if it’s helpful. Cacia Steensen, another KSTF fellow, wrote about her experiences looking for strengths in her colleagues and how it improved teacher morale in her department. I wonder what the effect of asking students to focus on strengths in science class has on their morale, particularly for students who don’t necessarily see themselves as smart in science. I hope that it improves their morale and helps them see that they are contributing to the classroom and their learning, although I think I need to do a better job of communicating and reinforcing this message throughout the school year. I also hope that it helps the students who do see themselves as competent and smart in science also see the value in their peers and how that helps their learning. A goal for next year is to revisit the idea of skills and strengths multiple times in the school year, although it can be hard because this seems to fall into the “important but not urgent” category of things.

I didn’t go through all of my student responses as in-depth as I could have, but I noticed that while most students weren’t surprised to see that their classmates thought they asked good questions (either interesting questions or questions to clarify understanding), some of them were surprised that their classmates thought they had skills related to explanations – coming up with logical explanations, extending on the ideas of others, representing ideas clearly, making connections between ideas. Some of them also thought they asked too many questions and slowed down their classmates too much. I think next year, I’d like to spend more time talking about what these skills actually look like and how they can be helpful to learning. I also need to be better about publicly highlighting these skills when they show up, particularly at the start of the year.

I compiled their answers to the last question (“What advice would you give to an incoming sophomore[freshman] at the start of next year on how to best succeed in chemistry[physics]?”) and made quick videos to show to them. I’ve asked students to give advice for incoming students before but I’ve never shared that with either the current class or the incoming class. This time though, I thought they had a lot of good advice and I’m hoping that seeing this from students who’ve gone through the course will help new students get started on the right foot. I’m also hoping that seeing what everyone said (I chose not to censor any comments) that the current students will see the value in asking questions and getting help. Not all of the comments are things that I would necessarily agree with (such as “memorize procedures” and “make sure you make a good notecard” [they are allowed a 3×5 notecard on unit tests but not quizzes, they can have a full sheet of paper for the final]). So I’m still wondering how to shift their thinking about what science is, just as Jo Boaler wants teachers to shift students’ thinking about what mathematics is: “At its core, mathematics is about patterns. We can lay a mathematical lens upon the world, and when we do, we see patterns everywhere; and it is through our understanding of the pattern, developed through mathematical study, that new and powerful knowledge is created.” (Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets, pg 23) I do think that a lot of science is also about finding patterns and applying them. A few of my students said that science class is “kind of like math” – probably not coming from the pattern-finding view and rather thinking of the rote application of a procedure instead. I’d like to disrupt that kind of thinking about science for my students.

So there’s work that I need to do. I’d like to assess more conceptually rather than just whether students can apply an equation. On assessments, I probably ask too many basic application/rote questions and too few conceptual questions that get at their thinking. Basic application/rote questions are easier to answer and easier to grade, but I know it doesn’t necessarily help their learning. I commented to one of my physics classes this year when they complained that a problem was hard that “you just want to apply an equation indiscriminately and I want you to think about it!” I then had to explain what the word “indiscriminately” meant, but once they understood they said “yes, because that’s easier!” It was a moment born out of frustration for me- that class in particular didn’t seem to really enjoy talking about physics, they just wanted to get it done, and I was getting frustrated by that attitude. However, I have to think about what I did or didn’t do to foster that attitude- why didn’t I address it earlier in the school year? I had students in my other physics class who were brave and willing to ask questions  when we were going over the homework and I took care to highlight that, but I don’t think I did that in my other classes. And looking back on it, my two physics classes had very different dynamics this year. Some of that is probably due to the personalities in each class, but I know a lot of that is on me for not doing more to foster a growth mindset, a “learn  from your mistakes” mindset and “ask the questions because surely you’re not the only one who is lost” mindset. There’s too much in my teaching that rewards just getting the right answer and not the process, and I’m still looking to change that. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy, but is that a bad thing?

I also need to recognize where I am exhibiting a fixed mindset about student learning – When and why do I think “oh, they’ll never get it” and give myself a pass? I don’t think I do these things overtly, but sometimes the subconscious messages are the most damaging. I’d like to communicate to my students that my classroom is a place where I expect everyone to grow – you don’t come in knowing everything but everyone does and can grow and the growth is more important than memorizing equations.

A student asked me if teaching doesn’t get boring- aren’t we just doing the same thing, year after year? And I told him no, because the students are different and I change how I teach a little bit every year. (He still seemed skeptical that teaching could continue to be interesting.) I forgot to mention that I’m not just changing how I teach content (adjusting handouts and labs, etc.) but I’m also constantly looking for ways to better build up students’ competence. So I’m excited to think more deeply about how to better address student mindset in science next year, and the little to not-so-little changes I can make to address that. And I’m excited to see how it affects their learning (although, as I’ve said before, education isn’t a controlled experiment).

And here are the students’ advice to the next class, mostly unfiltered:

2 thoughts on “mindset, smarts, and strengths

  1. […] Next year, I want to be better about fostering an environment where mistakes are expected and valued, where student questions are valued by everyone. In aiming for this, I also want ignorance and failure to have space in my teaching practice too – acknowledging what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I tried and will need to try again differently. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s