When it comes to kids, growth mindset is a hot topic in education. Studies indicate that children who view intelligence as pliable and responsive to effort show greater persistence when encountering new or difficult tasks. In contrast, children who view intelligence as static or “fixed” have a harder time rebounding from academic setbacks or are reluctant to take on new challenges that might be difficult.

Students are not the only ones encountering new challenges at school: Teachers face an evolving profession, driven in part by technology and a rapidly changing economy.

Math teacher Jim Doherty remembers the conversation that became the catalyst for his mid-career journey. After he observed a teacher’s classes and offered some feedback, his colleague replied, “I’ve been at this awhile. I don’t think you can teach me anything new.”

Doherty’s gut response was reflective. He thought to himself, “I hope I never become the teacher who stops learning.” And so, 27 years into his teaching career, he decided to take a risk and try something new: he signed up for Twitter.

Soon, he became actively involved in the MathTwitterBlogsphere, eventually contributing to an instructional e-book. He also created a teaching blog that has connected him with educators around the country.  The experience, he says, has been revitalizing and empowering.

What Does a Professional Fixed Mindset Look Like?

For children, a fixed view of intelligence can lead them to negatively label themselves with statements such as, “I’m not good at math” or “I’m a bad writer.” Similarly, when professionals struggle with new demands, they may be tempted to use phrases such as “I’m too old for this,” or “I already know what works for me,” or “I’m just not a computer person.”

Such statements can be self-protective, said Peter Heslin, associate professor of management at UNSW Australia Business School. For example, a teacher might avoid adopting a new teaching strategy “for fear they might jeopardize their identity as an already highly skilled instructor.” According to Heslin, administrators can help alleviate these concerns by “reminding teachers that experiencing setbacks are par for the course when learning something new” and creating a safe environment for taking risks.

Heslin has developed a research-based growth mindset workshop for business leaders. His program includes four self-reflective exercises that he said could be easily adopted by superintendents and principals in their professional development work.

First, participants think about why it’s important to understand that people can continue to grow and develop their abilities throughout adulthood. In essence, what are the “real consequences” of adopting a fixed or growth mindset?

Second, they think about one of their strengths that used to be a weakness — and then reflect on how this change took place. He says this exercise helps participants understand that their skills are “not merely the result of an aptitude or talent they have,” but rather the result of effort and initiative.

Third, participants write a letter to a struggling employee, sharing thoughts about how they can strengthen their skills. And finally, they think about someone who surprised them by learning how to do something that they never thought this person could do. This final exercise, Heslin said, asks participants to reflect on the harm a fixed mindset can do to others by “leading us to ever so subtly discourage and hold them back from achieving more than we can imagine they can.”

Create a Growth Environment

As a schools superintendent in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Dr. Lisa Brady says that teachers need to adopt a growth mindset just as much as students do.

“As educators, we cannot ask of kids what we are unwilling to do ourselves,” she said. “Students ‘sniff out’ hypocrisy quickly and it is very powerful when we model the willingness to try new things — with the struggles and failures that come along with this.”

Brady said that creating an environment where teachers feel comfortable taking risks requires time — because trust takes time. Just as teachers can sometimes create an environment that inhibits students’ desire to take risks, administrators are “too often part of the problem.”

Brady offers administrators these suggestions for supporting a growth mindset culture:

  • Remodel Faculty Meetings: Meetings “where information is shared that can be sent via email or other tools need to be a thing of the past,” said Brady. Instead, use this time for engaging activities that enhance instructional practices. For example, her district provides a monthly “Wednesday Technology Session.” In September, teachers come together to discuss what they want to learn — and what they could share with their colleagues. The district uses this feedback to create a year-long technology education “menu” that allows teachers to learn from each other on topics that feel relevant.
  • Reach Out to Seasoned Teachers: Brady said she tries to personally connect with veteran teachers who may be reluctant to adopt new strategies and then work with them on taking small steps that will have a meaningful impact on students. “When others see that these folks are making an effort, it has a huge impact,” she said.
  • Model a Growth Mindset:  Eight years ago, Brady decided to sign up for Twitter to explore how it could be used as a professional development tool for her teachers. It seems like a small matter now, but at the time some of her colleagues were “aghast.” Her willingness to experiment helps her staff see that she walks the walk. “I continually reinforce that I expect folks to not always get it right — and I am quick to point out when I personally do not get things right,” she said. “We have to be willing to take risks. If we are not taking risks and making mistakes, we are not doing our jobs as educators.

Expand the Walls of the Classroom

For Jim Doherty, the community he found online helped him revitalize his classroom practice and expand his concept of what was possible. Too often, he said, educators “close that classroom door and feel we are on our own to figure out what the students need.”

He said the virtual community he discovered midcareer “allowed me to tap into the wisdom of dozens of educators who have worked through the problems I am wrestling with.” He recommends that teachers who “feel stuck” take a similar journey:

“Lurk a little while [on Twitter or education sites],” he said. “Try one or two activities and tweak them to fit your classroom.  When in doubt, call for help!”

Never Too Late: Creating a Climate for Adults to Learn New Skills 24 September,2015Deborah Farmer Kris

  • Lola

    As a curriculum support specialist it’s not uncommon to hear “I’ve been teaching for X number of years, and there is nothing new you can teach me.” Thank you for sharing this sometimes exasperating dirty little secret: that the people who are expected to be the first in line to learn something new are in fact, the ones who are often frozen in time and unwilling to admit that they don’t have all the answers. Many epitomize the exact opposite of what they should be: lifelong learners. Too many educators stop learning and stop reading professionally once they have their college diploma in hand. Please note, I am NOT saying this is ALL educators–it is simply too many of them.

  • Cherie Brisebois

    wonderful article, in part. As a veteran teacher, I began my career during a time of upheaval in curriculum and technology–I don’t shy away from it, I will go out on a limb and also say others are like me–and my experiences with this are greatly mixed with supportive colleagues and those who are not supportive of inexperience. When change comes, it comes fast and furious from many different levels–and our employers and colleagues sometimes underestimate (underappreciate?) how adult folks learn–even teacher colleagues presume far too much of fellow adult learners and barrel through PD sessions with tonnes of info in 1 h and we are expected (real or perceived) to “just know it” by the end. Being kind to each other and supportive goes a long way and acknowledging it takes time, learning is elastic and flexible,,, and takes time. As does time and forgiveness when we gaff on something new. Sometimes, I’ve found, the mindset is fixed–but not as this article implies all the time–it is fixed with those who find the technology easy or who instigate the change who become highly judgemental to those of us who are a bit more tech challenged… and unforgiving of those of us who make errors or ask the same question “for the umpteenth tim”. Perhaps those who are sensitive to imposing on others or feeling like they are exasperating folks are being afraid to put themselves out there–it takes a lot of courage to take on new materials and technology and know you will make mistakes and you are comfortable with that no matter the heavy frustrated sighs of your colleagues or the angry glare from your employer–(I cannot tell you how many times I struggled with new change only to be rebuffed and NOT helped — so I muddled, and I help others because I know what it is to not know and not be able to feel comfortable seeking help from those who do know–to be so resilient in this career is HARDer than it needs to be because of what we do to each other)—-we are all learners with multiple talents, let’ not marginalize–this veteran instigated a lot of change too, and I know what it is to struggle to learn new things that are not natural to me.

  • Randy Fairfield

    Great article! As a Technology/Instructional Coach it is always a breath of fresh air to work with those teachers that have a growth mindset. There really is a broad spectrum on the scale of those that are willing to learn both nothing and anything.

  • Susan Keeney

    I have been teaching elementary school for 14 years, and I’ve always been willing to change things up, and take things on when I see something new and exciting. My teaching and the way my classroom is structured today are quite different than three years ago, or six years ago, or 10 years ago. However, more and more over the last few years, I am seeing our opinions as professional educators being disregarded in a willy-nilly rush to change; change that seems to come about not for the students’ sake, but for change’s sake, or so that some administrator can put that program or whatever on his or her resume. Too much top-down change has not been good for students; it’s not organic or authentic. Experienced teachers who know their students often have legitimate concerns, or questions about something “new and improved;” but when they express these concerns they are brushed off, and labeled as not having a “growth mindset” — labeled as a stick-in-the-mud, and dinged by administration. It’s extremely frustrating that experience counts for so little. There needs to be a more thoughtful (and respectful!) discourse between administrators and experienced educators when changes are being considered or implemented. And as another commentator mentioned below, adequate time and support needs to be given for teachers to learn the new stuff!

  • Thank you for the Article . I learned a lot . I always have thought that I only am a Student of Life , but the fact seems to be , that Each one teach One . I have shared this text in a group in F.B. , where the ‘red thread’ of interest is in these tags : Inspiration , Inner Child , Creativity , and Art , both Self Expression . In so much Gratitude for this Inspiration , blessings from my Heart to your Heart and all those close to your Heart . Namasté _()_

  • Nikki Petersen

    Too often, adults think there is no more growth or learning that can happen. But what if there’s a whole world you haven’t found yet?? I work with adults who have recently discovered their giftedness and it’s so fun to see it click again, like when they were kids. As exponential learners in an exponentially growing world, they are capable of so much new growth that they never realized was possible. Mindset is key to that learning and growth, including the perspective that they are the key to their own change. InterGifted is a group that supports that change in gifted adults, and we encourage everything and anything that will nurture it. http://www.twiceexponential.com http://www.intergifted.com

  • Pingback: How to Integrate Growth Mindset Messages Into Every Part of Math Class | MindShift | KQED News()

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Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator. She spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibilityresearching, writing, and consulting with schools. She is the mother of two young children. You can follower her on Twitter @dfkris.

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