Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unleashing the Power of Mindset

Guest post by Gabrielle Marquette, special educator, Enosburg Falls High School, Vermont

As a leader in a district trying to transform a school and a district, it has become apparent that mindset is key. Without all stakeholders on board with the right mindset, change will not last and it may not even get started.

As Vermont moves toward more personal and proficiency based learning, having a growth mindset will be central to our success with these efforts. A growth mindset refers to the idea that intelligence is something that can change over time with effort and a commitment to improve. There is a connection between this idea and the change process, especially when the changes are as drastic as Act 77, Vermont’s legislation requiring personal learning plans for all students and proficiency based graduation requirements starting with the class of 2020. Having a growth mindset requires a special set of skills. If you believe learning happens because of effort, then persistence is required. It requires the ability to take risks and try new things. Those with a growth mindset embrace failure as a natural part of the growth process. These are the same skills schools need as they make the move to more personal learning and proficiency based graduation requirements.

It isn’t enough to understand this idea on the surface. We must be thinking about how a growth mindset looks in a moment of frustration, disillusionment, fear, or in the face of obstacles as we make these changes. Consider these questions as you think about developing a growth mindset:
  • What would a growth mindset response be during a lesson that is falling apart? 
  • What would a growth mindset look like during a difficult parent conversation about why we are eliminating class rank? 
  • What does a growth mindset look like in our grading practices? 
  • What does it look like in our assessments? 

It isn’t enough to say we have a growth mindset. Our learners are intelligent enough to see the hypocrisy when what we do doesn’t match what we say. In fact, many of them see it as their personal mission to look for these gaps and call us on them. These disconnects can take away from the power of growth mindset so we need to be very thoughtful as we make these changes.

Approaching these changes with a growth mindset may mean acknowledging to stakeholders that we are charting new territory and we don’t know what it is going to look like. Many parents may be hesitant to offer their kids up as guinea pigs. So, how can we demonstrate a growth mindset and at the same time reassure parents and board members that these changes, and the mistakes that come with the process will be worthwhile? It is important to think about how you will answer the questions that come up while maintaining a mindset that promotes failure as a way to learn. Consider ways that mindset can be communicated to the community and other stakeholders; not just stated but how might they be able to experience the power that mindset can have on learning so they can become invested in the struggle that will come with innovation. Can exhibition, classroom videos and other documentations help support these efforts in a way that honors the risk taking and failure required by a growth mindset?

Having a growth mindset means approaching these changes as an ongoing process and communicating that to all stakeholders.

At Enosburg Falls High School (EFHS), we have provided learners training on how to communicate the idea of growth mindset through Up for Learning, an organization that works to increase learner voice in educational change. We also gave them opportunities to engage in discussions with community members, parents and their peers.

Case for the Missing R: Responsibility

The video below is a story about youth and adults working together for school change. One learner starts out this video with "teachers should not be teaching kids how to pass a test, but how to pass life." This video is about teachers and learners together shaping the full potential so all resources in the school are then realized. This video is a must see to understand how schools can transform teaching and learning.

Traditional grading systems are probably the most obvious inconsistency and they also will probably be the slowest to change. They are also bringing up the most resistance. People simply cannot envision what school without grades will look like. They cannot imagine a college admissions process that doesn’t include class rank, valedictorians and grades. These are all reasonable concerns given that most of us have never experienced anything but traditional grading. Many of us may be ready for this move, but we need to be sensitive to the fact that in order for people to learn and change, they must be a little uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable. Creating opportunities for teachers and parents to increase their level of comfort incrementally is key.

Just like knowing your learners is the key to personalizing their learning experience, knowing your stakeholders is essential in leading this transformation. Many teachers at EFHS have begun to play around with their grading practices. Some are simply allowing retakes while others are exploring more drastic and controversial changes.  Our chemistry teacher is using mastery charts and requiring learners to attain mastery before a grade gets entered in grade book.

These charts are up on the wall for everyone to view. When I saw this, I had an immediate reaction but then I put on my growth mindset hat. He has worked hard to create a culture of learning in his classroom so this public display isn’t a big deal. He is also playing around with not grading homework at all. The eleventh grade English teacher is only grading standards based assessments and learners are required to “almost meet” the standard or they receive an incomplete. As a school, we are not storing grades until the semester in order to allow for more flexibility as we “play”. Our principal and many of these visionary teachers are fielding many inquiries from parents. We are approaching these difficult conversations as an opportunity to begin to communicate some of the philosophical changes that these new laws will require.

It is difficult to address the inconsistencies that exist, but there are things we can do that increase transparency and begin necessary conversations. Involving learners in the decision-making process that we are using to make the changes in the school; involving them in communication with community and parents; teaching them about the changes that are coming and teaching them how to communicate to their peers, to parents, and to the community can help them understand the complexity of the changes and how much of a process it really is. It is not enough to have token learners participating on committees. Learners need to begin to have a real say in what courses are offered, how they learn, what they learn, where they learn and even when they learn. Involving students has been the slowest of all the actions. At the start, we have the fewest systems in place for this kind of involvement. Developing these systems has been the most challenging so far.

As all of us make these radical and necessary changes, we need to constantly consider whether we are reflecting a growth mindset in the actions we take and our communication with stakeholders, especially those that may be resistant.

Gabrielle Marquette, Special Educator/ Consulting Teacher, received her M.Ed. from Saint Michael's College in 2003 and her C.A.G.S. through Southern New Hampshire University with a focus on collaborative leadership. She is a practicing special educator/ consulting teacher and has been co-teaching American Literature for thirteen years at Enosburg High School. She has been teaching at The Community College of Vermont for ten years and offers original graduate courses through Castleton University. She was awarded a Rowland fellowship in 2015 to pursue research on implementing personal learning.

“I am committed to helping educators transform learning 
environments in public school settings so meaningful 

learning is accessible to all students.”

12815_90240_0.pngGabrielle's website: Fearless Teachers:
Twitter: @Gabster4500