Teaching is all about growing as a person and as a professional. In the last several years, I’ve found myself looking at norms that I’d established years ago. I’ve been re-evaluating whether or not I still hold those beliefs, and why they work for kids. Some things I have doubled down on. Some things I have jettisoned. One of the things that I’ve had to re-evaluate of late is growth mindset.
It would be unfair to start with that though. First, I’m going to go all the way back to grit.
Last week, I was part of a dialogue with a few other teachers on the topic of grit. Grit is not as much en vogue as it was five years ago, but it is still out there. It’s widely been discussed and there are opinions in many professional journals about it.
Bottom line, that concept is rooted in deficit thinking.
It’s the idea that if we don’t teach kids to be ‘gritty’ they won’t be. The architect of the Grit concept is Angela Duckworth. Even she herself worries about the misapplication of her research. If the author of the concept is worried, we should be critically analyzing the application of it in our own schools. The research was done with students from socio-economically privileged backgrounds, yet is applied to students living in poverty. Those students are largely black or brown and facing other internalized biases about their blackness as well. The whole thing is a mess.
Now let’s turn to growth mindset. This is the belief that intelligence is not fixed. With belief and consistent attempts at acquiring new knowledge students can change how much they really know. Here’s how that plays out in schools: if you are motivated to be better you will be. And again, where is this story largely playing out? In high-poverty schools full of black and brown children. The thinking is that ‘those kids’ aren’t really motivated, so they need someone to tell them ‘Be motivated to change your brain and you too can be ‘fill in the blank’. The perception is that children do not want to admit failure, but that if they will start to see failure as a pathway to future learning, they will be better and smarter people.
If you’ve ever watched professional sports, I am sure you have seen grown adults wrestle with failure on the field, the rink or the court. They have tantrums, start meaningless fights, swear, break expensive equipment. These are things that we see our students doing in schools. No one likes to lose: particularly adults! So then teaching the principle of falling forward to kids has to be about more than just telling them to ‘dream it and believe it’. We as professionals must fail in front of the kids at times and model how to handle that failure.
When you combine growth mindset with the current trend of toxic positivity, students have nowhere to put their feelings of loss. They either aren’t allowed to fail because of the testing culture, or they aren’t aloud to feel the loss of failure because of toxic positivity, or they aren’t allowed to wrestle with the fact that sometimes failure means that you’re just not good at something and you need to let it go: enter growth mindset.
This type of thinking is particularly harmful to black and brown students. When we only talk about mindset as the precursor to success and we fail to mention the realities of racism in America, we deny the existence of the real reason why many black and brown children are not finding success in school. Thinking positively is not enough to combat racism. Just being happy or being kind is not enough to change the realities of race for many students in America. When the research around these concepts was not done with the students that they are currently affecting, and when the concept of toxic positivity is packaged in a way that eliminates discussions of the impact of race, neither of the concepts are going to work for the broad majority of black and brown students in America.
What ever happened to letting kids grow at their own pace?
What ever happened to the power of play?
Whatever happened to loving kids for who they are and not what they score?
We need to go back to those days. I hope I’m still teaching when we do.