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Mindset Discussion—making progress

September 8, 2011

Today I started my metacognition curriculum with my students by having them read and discuss the article, How Not to Talk to Your Kids, which is a wonderful introduction to Professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset Research. It pays particular attention to describing the experiments that led to Dweck’s conclusion, and breaking these experiments down in science class is a very useful exercise to help students see how experimenting on humans is similar to our work with buggies, but it raises the complexity-o-meter to a totally new level.

This is one of my favorite discussions of the year. In preparation for the discussion, I have students answer a few questions about the article on Webassign, and I post the question “what mindset, fixed or growth, predominates students at our school.” Here are the responses from students:

These results are always fascinating because they are so divided, and they reveal so much about what students are thinking in their day to day lives around topics of stress, learning, and achievement. One other particular bright spot I’m seeing is lots of references to our Junior High School, led by a very thoughtful principal, Bo Adams, who has made instilling growth mindset one of the main priorities of the Junior High. Still, I think these results show there is a lot of room to grow (pun intended).

We had a fascinating conversation about why sports tend to be more growth mindset oriented than academics, and as usual, we came back to grades, pressure to get the best grades, and anxiety that making mistakes can prevent this as a big problem that can detract from growth mindset. Everyone also instantly pointed to frequent mentions of students saying they’re in “dumb math” as an example of how fixed mindset thinking can pervade our school.

But one of the ideas I really wanted to address is how grades are views by both mindsets. Grade talk is pretty pervasive at my school, and I’m sure many others. I think at this age, there’s a good change that it’s a way to just smooth over the social awkwardness of making conversation. Since it’s totally within the norm to talk about grades, I think it often becomes the small talk students have with each other as class is beginning.

Last year, I took such a strong attitude against this that I think some students saw me as seeing growth mindset means you don’t care about grades, or that somehow I was endorsing that they shouldn’t care about grades. While I do think that students should focus on learning, rather than grades, I don’t want to send the message that grades aren’t important, since I think they do serve as (admittedly poor) indicators of learning, and because of this they do have value in the college admissions process.

This topic came up naturally when a student pointed out that going to extra help doesn’t mean that you really are growth mindset. It may be that you are simply focused on getting a better grade, and that’s what students do to get better grades. So I asked the question of what do the two mindsets think about grades, and a pretty good consensus emerged that growth mindset is sees them as measures of understanding, and uses them as feedback on how to improve. Growth mindset isn’t really concerned with what other’s grades are, since really grades are meant to help a student figure out what he/she understands. Fixed mindset students, on the other hand, are concerned with maintaining their perception of themselves as a “smart” student, and so they are deeply concerned about the progress of others, and they tend to view grades with a more fatalistic and fearful approach.

Then I read Bowman Dickinson’s blog post today, and I wished that somehow I could have seen it sooner to help guide my discussion, since his class came to a beautiful summary:

In a fixed mindset you are comparing yourself to other people whereas in a growth mindset you are comparing yourself to yourself (beautiful!)


In my next post, I’ll talk about the truly great idea Bowman gave me that might allow me to measure just how much impact this meta cognition curriculum is having.

But what is even more awesome about Bowman’s post is that he gave me an awesome insight for how I can measure

3 Comments leave one →
  1. taras15 permalink
    September 8, 2011 6:00 am

    Mr. Burk,
    I really love Mrs. Dweck’s book and find the two mindsets to be very interesting. For me, Growth mindset puts the focus on the process while the Fixed Mindset emphasizes the end result more. I do believe that those with a growth mindset also care about grades, but they feel like they may not be the best indication of learning or that they don’t capture what went in to a project, just the result….
    Not sure how on target these observations are but I just wanted to put them out there. I think it’s great that you let your students know about this :D.

    • September 10, 2011 7:14 am

      I think you’re right on, and this is something we talked in class about a lot. Grades are important to both mindsets, but they are interpreted very differently.


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