I call it The Wall. Everyone will hit it at some point, The later you hit it, the harder it hurts.
I’m talking about when you reach a point in your education where you have to WORK to understand a concept. I’m not talking about needing to solve a few quadratic function problems or to re-read that passage in Heart of Darkness, I’m talking about that soul-crushing moment where things just. don’t. make. sense. Especially when they used to.
You can no longer rely on the fact that you watched WAY too much public TV and already know your state capitals (thanks Carmen San Diego!) and the plot to The Tempest (thanks Wishbone) and that inertia is a property of matter (thanks Bill Nye!) Eventually, you start learning abstract concepts and haven’t yet figured out how to process difficult material. The initial assumption may be that it’s because you aren’t “smart enough,” or you “just aren’t good at math.” In our classroom, The Wall means that it is time to learn how to learn.
One of two outcomes are possible when confronted with The Wall, which most often happens during the assessment part of the learning cycle.
Let’s say that you completely bomb a test:
1) You shove that test into the recycle bin because thinking about how poorly you did is uncomfortable and you just want to get on with your life.
2)You review that test and figure out what you did wrong, knowing that something concrete and fixable must have gone happened.
In the short-term, what path leads to the immediate relief of stress and discomfort? Naturally, the first. This is what a lot of us, even adults with somewhat fully formed frontal lobes do in everyday life! Just like Le Chatelier’s principle in chemistry, we find an equilibrium that relieves the pressure quickly, tucking the test away and out of sight. This is the easiest short term fix. What masochist is going to sit there and pore over their mistakes?
But, what happens when we fast-forward these options? Option 1 means never looking at the issues and making the same mistakes again; repeating a pattern of non-understanding and loss of control over learning, in essence, never getting over The Wall. Option 2 means analyzing your errors, reviewing your own tendencies and misunderstandings, and then teaching yourself to not make them next time. This option means targeted growth, in areas that you identified yourself!
And it is, humans will not naturally do this. In economic terms, Option 2 MUST be incentivized by the classroom structure. The teacher needs to pair this hard cognitive and emotional work with some sort of tangible reward. We all know that saying “it’s good for you, so do it!” doesn’t really work. So how do we get students to know that they can climb over The Wall? That they can get over the icky feelings of not performing well and get them to figure out how to learn on their own? Read on.
(First, Standards-Based Grading is incredibly helpful for creating a learning-centered classroom, if you want to read about how I implement it in chemistry, click here.)
This type of thinking, Option 2, is called growth mindset, which is a pretty hot buzzword in education these last few years and it’s easy to say, but more difficult to cultivate. Below are my tenets to get the growth mindset seed planted. I developed them at the beginning of this semester as I wanted to be more intentional with helping students learn how to learn without me.
My Tenets of a Growth-Mindset Classroom:
- Consistent classroom discussion and modeling of growth from mistakes.
- Set-aside class time to review mistakes on assessments.
- Student visualization and ownership of growth.
- Multiple chances for students to show their understanding.
Consistent classroom discussion and modeling of growth from mistakes.
I began this semester with a discussion about what growth mindset meant, and how we (our classroom) could use it to hack our education. I presented it as a shortcut to learning. Each week, we talked about how “mistakes are when learning happens” which I am sure sounds cheesy, but I want students that are hitting The Wall to know that failing isn’t the end and the not understanding a concept is merely the first step on the road to getting it. Creating a growth mindset, involved lots of frank discussion about learning from mistakes.
Set-aside class time to review mistakes on assessments.
After our discussion, I returned their first assessment of the semester and told them that they would have the next fifteen minutes dedicated to reviewing mistakes. I posted common errors that I saw on screen and wandered the room giving advice and help. We do this each week now and it gives students a dedicated time for reflection, a chance to access my help, and a non-stigmatized time to review errors. This is key, students will not naturally do this on their own, and I still need to prod some of mine.
Student visualization and ownership of growth.
As students wrapped up their self-assessments, I passed out a log that I had created for them to track their achievement on each of our classroom standards. They get three chances in class, and can then re-assess outside of class. So I gave them space to see how they were doing. I realized that students weren’t keeping track of how they were doing over time, I wanted them to see how much they had improved and have quick access to know that they needed to work on. I used to keep track of this, but found that when students have ownership of their scores, they are more apt to do something about the low ones.
Multiple chances for students to show their understanding.
This is the final and most important tenet. None of this will work if students only get one shot to prove their grasp of an idea. I give students three chances in class for each standard, but I have seen other teachers allow test fixes, or individualized tests that give students problems that they specifically need to work on. This is the most necessary shift for a teacher to make if they want to incentivize Option 2 in their classroom to push students towards growth.
And that’s it! Overall, we spend about 20 minutes a week fixing errors and talking about how we can grow. One of my proudest moments this year was when I was utterly confused on what week our schedule was changing and when I figured out that I had been explaining it incorrectly to my students, one of them piped up and shouted “It’s okay Ms. Brown, you can re-assess and do better next time!” It truly made me feel better about messing up!
I’m curious how you see growth and fixed mindsets play out in your classrooms! What can you add to help students get over The Wall?
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