Adilene Rodriguez admits she has always struggled with academics. Especially in middle school she hated getting up early, found her classes boring and didn’t really see where it was all going. When she started her freshman year at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, California, just south of Oakland, she was a shy student who rarely spoke up in class and had little confidence in herself as a scholar.
Rodriguez is now a senior and her approach to school has changed dramatically over her high school career. She attributes her shift to her freshman science teacher, Jim Clark, who taught the class about growth mindset from the very beginning and backed up the discussion with action.
“He would tell me, ‘You need to push yourself, that’s how you’re going to grow. Be confident. You’re not always going to be successful on your first tries, but you can get there,’ ” Rodriguez said.
She didn’t believe him at first; she thought she just wasn’t good at science. But with Clark’s insistence and support, she started participating in class more and struggled through difficult units.
When Clark suggested Rodriguez take AP biology she resisted, scared she’d be unprepared for the challenge. She thought that if she had struggled in freshman biology, there was no way she could hack the tougher course. But Clark convinced her to challenge herself, making the case that no one grows inside their comfort zone. Rodriguez says that class changed her life.
“It was one of those classes where the bell rings and you don’t want to leave. You want to keep discussing,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s what I want to do now for a career. I really love biology.”
In the summer between her junior and senior year, Rodriguez even took a college-level genetics class for fun, although she found out later she’d get college credits for it.
Rodriguez may have found her growth mindset in science class, but she’s applying it to all of her life. Take math, one of her least favorite subjects: “It’s not my strength, but I have to get through it to get to where I want to be,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you have to learn to love things you aren’t as good at. It will be hard, but you will get through it.”
Rodriguez has also taken a whole new approach to class participation. She now sees that when she participates, she’s helping shape the direction of the class. She recognizes that it’s hard for teenagers to speak up and risk being wrong in front of their peers — she always worried about being judged for getting the wrong answer — but when that brave student speaks up, it empowers everyone.
“Don’t be afraid to be the first one, because you can make that change in someone else and that would be awesome,” Rodriguez said.
Perhaps most importantly, the growth mindset Rodriguez has learned at Arroyo will be a big help to her when she leaves high school.
“I’m a senior, I’m going to go out into the real world soon, by myself,” she said. “We’re not always going to have teachers or friends or parents to depend on. And sometimes you will make mistakes on your own, and knowing how to grow from that has really helped me.”
GROWING CONFIDENT STUDENTS
Rodriguez is the product of four years of messaging from her high school teachers. The Academy of Health and Medicine, a small learning community within Arroyo High, has been pioneering a focused approach to teaching growth mindset that starts with Strong Start, a summer institute that incoming ninth-graders are highly encouraged to attend.
“We’ll purposefully try to put them in situations where they’ll be uncomfortable, and yet not feel vulnerable — it’s a kinda fine line we walk — and then provide opportunities for them to work their way through it and find some success,” Clark said.
Students deconstruct how working through something challenging felt. Returning sophomores lead the program, many of whom the ninth-graders know from middle school, and who have already been through a year of practicing growth mindset themselves.
Students also talk about the definitions of fixed and growth mindsets and then talk through various challenges from each perspective. When the school year starts, those lessons continue in the classroom. Every teacher in the Academy of Health and Medicine has read Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset,” and has discussed how to implement it in their classrooms. The school has moved to standards-based grading to emphasize that mistakes are part of learning and that understanding will come.
“It just reinforces the fact that understanding the first time you hear something isn’t the goal,” Clark said. “Smart isn’t being right fast. It’s working through things and understanding things eventually.”
Clark brought the idea of growth mindset to Arroyo after a chance encounter with Dweck at a conference. The idea that intelligence grows with effort is one that comes naturally to him as a teacher because of his experiences as a basketball coach. Now, he’s trying to get students to approach academics with the same dedication to practice and risk-taking that they bring to sports or other extracurriculars.
“At the end of the day we’re trying to create successful kids, some of whom will grow up to do science and some of whom won’t,” Clark said. “But if they can take what they learn in our classrooms and apply it somewhere else, that’s kind of what we’re here for.”
He’s clear that his job is to teach science, but it’s also his job to nurture the individuals he teaches.
The kids at Arroyo often have a lot of challenges outside the classroom. Many of these students will be the first in their families to go to college. Clark knows this and it makes him even more passionate about growth mindset.
“Redefining smart as something that’s more effort-based than genetics-based has opened the door for kids,” Clark said. “They don’t feel like they’re behind other kids any longer because they feel that their future is in their own hands, and if they just work through their problems they’re going to be OK.”
GROWING AS TEACHERS
The multiyear effort to infuse growth mindset into every class is paying off in a big way for students like Rodriguez, and in smaller ways for all students. Health teacher India Rodgers said she notices slight behavior changes in her freshmen first: Quiet but competent kids speak up more and struggling kids receive help from peers more readily.
She also knows that for some kids, the message can take awhile to penetrate. She says students have come back to her years later after having an experience that finally drove the concept home. It’s also tough for some kids to transfer the idea that “it’s OK to fail” to the academic subjects students find most difficult.
“It’s really easy to start with my stuff, and then I try to use what they can do here and help them in other classes,” Rodgers said. Students discuss a lot of life issues in her class, so she often has strong relationships with them. She uses those to help them shift their mindsets about classes like math.
She also tries hard to model a growth mindset to her students by being open about her own struggles as a parent and a teacher.
“They’re not used to teachers apologizing,” Rodgers said. “But I tell them I’m going to make mistakes all the time. And I think showing that helps them realize they can actually make mistakes.”
When teachers and administrators say they want kids to have a growth mindset, the school environment has to back up that rhetoric. At Arroyo, the emphasis on growth mindset came alongside a shift to standards-based grading. Kids can see that mistakes along the way aren’t negatively affecting them and keep working to master the concepts.
“When you believe it; they believe,” Rodgers said. “If I didn’t believe this, they wouldn’t buy what I’m selling.”