I have found a measure of success this semester answering these questions. The good news is that what moves difficult students forward moves everyone forward. Part of the answer lies with shifting toward a more student centered model of instruction - in my case flipped instruction. Part of the answer lies with shaping a growth mindset in students. The problem in preparing this post is that motivating students cannot be reduced to a simple set of do's and don'ts; it's more complex (and subtle) than that. For better or worse I am going to try to share the way I view my class and relate the educational principles involved in my interactions with students.
Before we can discuss fostering a growth mindset it is necessary to discuss how to motivate students in general. Growth mindset applies to how we shape the behavior and thinking of students who are frustrated with school and learning. A prerequisite then is having behavior to shape. The behaviors we most want to shape need to be intrinsic in nature. So how do we encourage intrinsic motivation in students?
Behavior is the action or reaction of a person in response to external or internal stimuli. Looking at this another way, behavior is a response to something we are doing or something that is done to us. I have discovered this is a great distinction between a student-centered and teacher-centered instruction. I have created the following graphic to guide our discussion of student learning through its natural cycle:
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink tells us that autonomy, mastery, and purpose creates intrinsic motivation.
Purpose: Students must have a reason to leave the comfort of their current mental model. Students are naturally curious, but that curiosity is fragile. Students need a challenge that is difficult enough to be interesting but that they believe they can solve.
Autonomy: The student must navigate from knowledge to understanding on their own. Learning has to be active on the part of the learner. We have to let students think through their own issues rather than telling them what to think. Trying to think for another person gets in the way of them working out the right answer.
Mastery: Creating a new mental model is stressful; it involves conflict and dissonance. The student cannot escape stress until they resolve their mental conflict and create a new mental model. Students need an opportunity to work toward mastery, not just to learn, but to reduce stress.
The point is that the structure of our class influences the culture of our class. We must design a learning environment that fosters an intrinsic motivation to learn and allows us an opportunity to interact with students more in the role of a mentor or coach. Not only do we need to make time for interaction, we need to make sure the interactions occur when the students need us most. We need to be available when students are frustrated in the learning process. This is the key benefit of such instructional models as flipped instruction, modelling, and project/problem based learning.
Managing Conflict and Frustration
By definition, learning is confrontational. As the culture of a class shifts to an expectation of genuine learning and understanding, one can expect a dramatic increase in frustration among students. In a recent blog post Rhett Allain wrote, “Confusion is the sweat of learning.” I can’t think of a better way to say it than that. The problem is that that most students are unfamiliar with handling frustration. We must recognize is that frustration is an emotion; an emotion that results from a way of thinking. If there is any wisdom to extract from this post, we must recognize that the visible behaviors and outcomes we want from our students are driven by their hidden emotions and inner voice.
Attribution theory is simply the way we explain the world to ourselves. We create a mental model that explains why things work out the way they do – the problem is that our explanation may not reflect the truth. Attribution theory teaches us we believe there are external factors that influence the outcome of situations in which we find ourselves. Some of those factors are can be influenced and some cannot. Similarly, there are internal factors that influence outcomes. Again some of these factors are fixed and others are malleable.
How is a student most likely going to explain their frustration to themselves? How many times have we heard the following:
“This is stupid.” “This is too hard.” “The teacher doesn’t like me.” “The referees are blind.” All of these are external, stable explanations. The outcome of some circumstance is outside of their control and cannot be changed by them – “it’s not their fault.”
“I didn’t have time to study.” “I left my stuff on the table.” “Mom wouldn’t let me” “I didn’t know what to do.” “My internet won’t work.” These are all external, unstable explanations. The outcome is a temporary factor outside of their control – “it’s not their fault.”
“I’m not that smart.” “I’m not good at math.” “I can’t do that.” “I’m too: short, tall, slow, fast, dumb, old, etc” These are internal, stable explanations. The outcome is due to some personal characteristic that they have no control over; they were born that way – “it’s not their fault.”
“I didn’t study hard enough.” “I didn’t pay attention.” These are internal, unstable explanations. The outcome is completely under their control – “it’s their own fault.”
For most students, every time they struggle or get something wrong, they feel dumb. Have you ever been baffled by the student that dismisses you with, “I know, I know, I know – I don’t need help!” when clearly they are confused and you offer to help them? You think you are offering to help them through a problem; they think you are judging them as too dumb to do the work. When students make guesses about the causes of events, outcomes, or behaviors, their guesses are often wrong. They generally pick explanations that are the least emotionally painful.
The point is that reality for students is only the reality they are deciding to see. We won’t have much success just arguing with students. In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock writes:
“Our first response to underperformance is usually to tell people what they did wrong. However in a study it was found that employees reacted negatively to criticism more than half the time and reacted positively to criticism just once out of thirteen times. In other words, the most likely response to criticism will be a negative one and the next most likely response is no impact, and the chance that criticism will be helpful is about once every three weeks if you dish it out every day.”
The redneck in me would summarize it this way: There is better than a 75% probability a student is going to have an excuse for poor performance. We’re not going to help anything by bitching at them – we have to be smarter than that.
If we want to help a student have a positive attitude we must avoid criticism. Really, when was the last time you griped at a student and changed their behavior? I’m not saying to let things go, just focus on finding a positive solution to the problem. Ask them emotionally neutral questions that help them think things through for themselves.
Reinforcement and Growth Mindset
Ok, we have structured our class to improve motivation, and we are learning how to focus on internal, stable solutions – the ones inside themselves that they can control. How do we reward their efforts in such a way that increases their confidence and willingness to struggle?
Before I became a teacher I was in the ranching business for 20 years. I have trained horses and dogs my whole life – successfully. I think that skill set transfers to students very well, particularly with regard to reinforcement and punishment. I am a huge advocate for “clicker training” or operant conditioning. For those unfamiliar with clicker training, it’s how they train Shamu at Sea World. Think about how you convince a 10,000 lb. killer whale to do what you want. Are you going to yell at him? Spank him? Can you tell him what to do? Or do you present opportunities for success and reward them in a way that shapes behavior toward a goal?
Although I do not truly use operant conditioning on my students, the four quadrants of operant conditioning techniques give insight into how to interact effectively with students. This graphic illustrates the ways in which we can shape behaviors:
There is (almost) no way to mess this up. Positive reinforcement occurs when you add something that increases the desired behavior. The idea is to praise the behaviors and thinking we want to see increase. In growth mindset it is important to emphasize praising processes and behaviors. We want to avoid praising ability – that leads to a fixed mindset. This is where thinking about animal training transfers to students. How do you praise a dog for being smart? The answer is that you can’t – but you can praise what they do – their behavior. You can also reward any movement toward a desired behavior.
I’m not advocating giving a student an extrinsic reward like you do for an animal. I don’t put stars by their names or give them tokens. You can simply acknowledge the behavior that you like and praise the student. I believe the trick is to be honest; students can smell B.S. a mile away. We must acknowledge and reinforce behaviors and attitudes we actually observe. Hollow, empty praise is insulting – what does it say to a student that you can’t find something to nice to say so you have to make something up? Just be genuine – is there anybody, anywhere that doesn’t appreciate being noticed and praised?
It is my opinion that the other three quadrants can have a negative effect on students and must be used with caution. They can be necessary at times and can undo a lot of growth mindset training.
-R Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement occurs when something is removed that has the effect of increasing a behavior. When someone honks at a person who doesn’t see the light change, that’s negative reinforcement – we remove the blaring horn when the person moves. Has anyone ever honked at you? How did it make you feel? That’s what I thought; you muttered something ugly and communicated with a hand signal, huh? So how will your students feel when you nag them about something? It’s a bit like a car horn isn’t it? Have you ever met a husband that enjoyed being nagged? Students will not love your class and work for you willingly if you use this reinforcement too often.
While we are on this particular subject, make sure your students don’t train you with negative reinforcement. When students blurt out, constantly ask for things, and generally “bug” you, do you ever give in just to get them to leave you alone? If so, you just got trained…
+P Positive Punishment
Positive punishment occurs when we add something that results in decreased behavior. Everyone is familiar with this behavior modifier. A student is tardy so they get a tardy slip. You put a student’s name on the board for misbehavior. Coach makes the athlete do pushups. Corporal punishment is a time honored example of positive punishment. The point again is that positive punishment will not create a positive emotion and positive thinking in a student. It is a valid behavior modifier – and necessary at times – but it should be used sparingly if our goal is a growth mindset.
-P Negative Punishment
Negative punishment occurs when something is removed to decrease a behavior. Examples might be holding a student from recess for misbehavior, losing eligibility, being grounded, taking away cell phones or video games. As with the previous two methods we can get results but the student usually will resent the action.
I’m not saying we have to handle students with kid gloves. There are times when I do things that students resent and do not like. My students don’t love me all the time – and I’m fine with that – I’m their teacher not their buddy.
I believe positive reinforcement is the only action that has the effect of increasing desired behaviors while building a positive relationship. What student wants to come to school and be talked at most of the day, and then feel judged for what they do? If you were a student in your class, which behavior modifying technique would you prefer? Let’s give students a class structure that requires doing something. Let’s give them opportunities to think and fail – and then look for positive behaviors to acknowledge and reinforce.
When we interact with students and give feedback it shouldn’t be a case of “spot the flaw.” Positive feedback reminds students of what they are doing right as opposed to focusing on some error. Feedback needs to be concrete and about the behaviors you actually observe, not about some quality you infer.
I believe that to help students develop a growth mindset and become self-directed learners we must give them TIME. I know you have content to cover. I know you have a test. I know you don’t think you can give students time. Let me give you something to think about – did you ever drink water from a garden hose as a child? Did you ever have someone turn open the faucet all the way just to see the water hit your face? Now imagine a fire hose – how would you like trying to drink from that? How many of our students feel like school is drinking from a fire hose? Is school a constant wash of information that they cannot possibly absorb? If we don’t give them time to think things through, they never escape frustration. If they never escape frustration, they will eventually quit on you, and that won’t lead to success.
Earlier we said, “Confusion is the sweat of learning.” Students need to learn that frustration is a bridge between knowledge and understanding. They need to have an opportunity to resolve their mental conflict.
Reflection closes a cycle of the student’s journey of learning and prepares them for further study. I see learning for students as a series of cycles within cycles, not unlike the epicycles of Ptolemy’s model of the solar system. If we are to be a guide instead of a drill sergeant, we need be aware of the process as a whole, guiding the student through the entire process.
I hope I have helped you see that there are several factors that contribute to developing a growth mindset in students. It is more than a set of encouraging phrases we can recite that will magically transform a student into a self-directed learning machine.
I will admit I am not completely satisfied with this post - I have been working on it for a while. I finally decided it was time to put it out there or I may never publish it. Please leave any thoughts or comments you might have. I would like to hear them.
What have been your obstacles to developing a growth mindset in your students?
What has helped your students develop a growth mindset and a love of learning?