I am a full-time teacher as well as an educational psychologist. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with excitement and a healthy dose of skepticism.
A few educational ideas that have gained momentum over the last several years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas have merit, as with all shiny objects that attract our attention, we need to proceed with caution and think about how and how these fit into our personal pedagogy. Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.
First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s (at the time) new Mindset book given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her. It was wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who had ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the policies they have that work against the concept. Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.
Ways to encourage a fixed mindset:
- Maintaining grading policies that don’t allow for any re-dos or re-takes on assessments. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes, and that if they practice, they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying. In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, they are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers—that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?
- Something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.
- Encouraging speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration. Rewarding some students for “perfect” products and not acknowledging the effort of the individual.
- An emotionally unsafe classroom where students do not feel free to take risks because their experience is that there is one “right” answer and the teacher and some of the students are the only ones who know it.
- Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout the marking period and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.
Now, reverse all of these behaviors, and you will be onto something!
I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition: Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level. (Blackburn, 2008). I know that this is true and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, many in education are stuck longing for the good-old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned harder material, and there was only one winner, etc. This would be worthy thinking if it were true, but it isn’t.
According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when they were in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society. Furthermore, most adults would struggle to pass most tests given in the average high school after they have been out of school for 20 years or more. They are not currently mired in the material the way their teenage children are, so they would have difficulty recalling all of the necessary information.
But I digress. We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. I would bet that even the ancient Greeks whined this way about their own offspring. It’s simply not true. The solution to this thinking, in their minds, is to increase rigor. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.
Rigor does NOT mean:
- more and harder homework
- a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
- high expectations, but no support to reach them
So stop doing that, okay? Thanks.
I have to say the buzzword that most grinds me is grit. Somewhere along the line, the grown-ups responsible for running the world decided that they would teach these lazy, spoiled children a thing or two. They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. If these “kids today” would only put forth the effort, they would be more successful adults. They say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.
What’s wrong with grit:
- If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base. For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.
- Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is at and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is a destructive belief that if children only tried harder, they would be successful.
- Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.
- If what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, we, as educators, must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need “grit.”
- The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.
- What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Doing what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.
I want teachers to try something new and embrace change, but I want them to do it with their eyes (and hearts) wide open. Don’t make change for change’s sake. Make change for the students’ sake.