Last week I had the pleasure and honor of helping kick off the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative's new MathPLUSE elementary grant. This three-year grant, funded by the federal Math and Science Partnership initiative, will provide rich professional development to elementary math teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators in 11 high-need schools.
My role will be supporting school principals' efforts to lead implementation of new math instructional strategies in their schools. During the kickoff teachers took a baseline assessment of their math content knowledge and teachers and principals completed attitudinal surveys that will help track their changing perspectives toward math instruction over time. Sheri Brittenham of the Warren County Schools modeled a thinking strategies lesson for administrators and GRREC math consultants Randi Womack and Rebecca Gaddie provided a primer on Carol Dweck's concept of fixed versus growth mindsets.
I had several key take-aways from the day.
First, Sheri Brittenham's modeled thinking strategies lesson was eye-opening for the administrators I talked to. Thinking strategies help students become aware of their own thinking processes. In Sheri's lesson participants worked with partners and used math cubes to calculate the volume of overlapping right rectangular prisms (I needed a little background knowledge review right off the bat!). The goal was to articulate our reasoning strategies, better equipping us to understand the skill and correct our own errors in real time. When Sheri gave out the exit slip that would serve as a formative check for understanding, one of the administrators at my table noted that in many classrooms, this is the assignment we would actually start the lesson with. By unpacking the lesson with a focus on the logical steps needed to solve the problem, students become greatly empowered with a capacity for self-assessment and independent learning.
Later in the day, as Randi and Rebecca shared information on fixed versus growth mindsets, I made several additional observations:
- While reviewing the characteristics of fixed mindsets, rather than students I immediately thought of teachers who are reluctant to admit the growth areas in their own instructional practice and the resistance school leaders sometimes face when delivering feedback to help teachers improve. "Look smart in every situation and prove myself over and over again. Never fail!" isn't just a mantra for many of our gifted and talented students. Teachers too seem prone to this kind of risk-averse thinking.
- While growth mindset really emphasizes effort over ability, much of our professional language still reflects an outdated emphasis on students' innate abilities. Thus, I regularly hear educators use the term "ability grouping" when they actually mean flexible grouping. Assuming their intervention groups really are flexible, what we're really talking about here is "readiness groups" and that's the language we should use. I recommend educators banish the term "ability group" from their vocabulary.
- On a related topic, we explored the dangers of praising students' ability rather than effort. But I was struck by the on-going need to stretch our top performing students more so that we can legitimately praise their effort. If we falsely praise a child's effort when he hasn't really had to exert any, then we've also undermined the goal of growth mindset. Schools must do more to meaningfully challenge kids at all readiness levels.
- If we do give kids real but reachable learning challenges, then we are set up to actually reward risk-taking and persistence - unlike the vast majority of carrot-and-stick systems schools so often use to reward compliance. But my sense is that students get a deep sense of satisfaction from overcoming a challenge and in such a classroom would require very few external rewards for their accomplishments.
Finally, participants reflected on a recent article by Carol Dweck in which she addresses concerns that have been raised about growth mindsets, especially the idea that it's all about student attitude and that adults can misuse the concept to let themselves off the hook for changing their practice. I think this is a very important point and one that reflects my concern above that teachers be as willing to challenge themselves with new approaches and practices as they are (hopefully) willing to challenge students.
I will continue to participate in the MathPLUSE training as I am able so I can further assist principals in their efforts to support teachers in learning these strategies and will reflect more as the grant unfolds.