Developing Student Mindsets and Agency

SPOTLIGHT ON Basalt Middle School (School to Watch 2012)

Creating a developmentally responsive middle school has a lot to do with developing student agency, or creating a school culture that encourages students to be active agents motivated to pursue their own learning.  Two components are essential to building student agency, particularly for at-risk students: ensuring that they have growth mindsets and effective learning strategies. Think of the growth mindset as the right hand of the motivated learner, and effective learning strategies as the left.  They go hand in hand. (Learn more about noncognitive skills)

The Three Mindsets

Three types of thinking, or mindsets, are critical if students are going to reach their academic potential.  The first is cultivating a mindset that values the purpose and importance of schoolwork Schools can grow this mindset by stressing the long-term importance of education, making lessons relevant, and ensuring that students not only know what they are learning from a given activity, but why it is important to learn it.  Project-based learning, authentic assessments, and student choice are all strategies to cultivate this mindset in students.

Our technology teacher was beginning instruction on graphing using excel spreadsheets.  After she led the students through the learning objective, she had them brainstorm all of the types of information that could be graphed to communicate about data clearly.  The class came up with several examples.  When she began instruction, she had them graph their improvement from a learning game she was using so that they had an immediate and relevant purpose. 

Another example comes from a writing teacher.  Her objective was to have students, “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”  Her students read three different articles about why students drop out of school.  Their assignment was to write a letter to me, the principal, about how we can prevent students from dropping out, citing information from the text in their letter.  The reading material was relevant to the students. They had an authentic audience.  In both cases, students were motivated to learn the objective because there was a clear purpose for their finished product.

The second mindset is rooted in work of John Dewey A developmentally responsive school culture ensures that students feel that they are a learner and a contributor.  Students who speak up in class, are actively engaged, and seek help when they need it display the trademarks of this mindset. Creating this climate is essential. 

An 8th grade teacher cultivated this mindset masterfully with a group of students learning about scientific notation.  At the beginning of class, the teacher first set the learning objective, and then proceeded to set an effort objective.  Students reviewed a list the class had created earlier in the year of what effective group work looked like.  On the list were ideas like:

  • Asking specific questions to the teacher when the whole group agreed it was a good question
  • Working together – no one is working outside of the group
  • Coming up with a wrong answer and sticking with it because we learn just as much from a wrong answer as we do from a correct answer

The teacher then explained to the class that he would award a point to a group when he saw them displaying traits of effective group work.  Each team’s goal was to get to ten points.  As he circulated throughout the class, he would praise good questions, students who were discussing mistakes and setbacks, and teams that had every group member engaged, and then award that team a point.  For the entire hour, every student was an engaged learner.

The third mindset is the belief that effort is the essential component to reaching academic potential Grit and persistence is the pathway to learning, not genetics, luck, or others.  This belief is the essence of the growth mindset, and it’s attributes are best explained by Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset.   Appropriate feedback and recognition are essential to develop this trait in students.  We know that student achievement goes up when we connect effort to success.  Praising the process, and not the product, is extremely important.  Messages such as “you’re smart,” “you’re a genius at math,” or, “You’re an amazing artist,” all undermine the growth mindset.  Instead, we need to praise the effort and process that led to what made that student “smart,” “exemplary,” or “amazing.”

Teach Students How to Learn

It is all well and good if a student possesses these mindsets, but they cannot be fully capitalized upon if the student does not possess the appropriate learning strategies.  Not only do they have to want to learn, but they have to know how to learn.  Teaching effective learning strategies to students is rooted in the goal setting cycle, where students are taught how to set goals, how to track their learning, how to study to achieve those goals, and how to reflect upon their learning and adjust their goals accordingly.

I worked with at teacher the other day to create a learning plan for her class.  At the top of the page they wrote their “challenge,” which was to master a specific set of skills.  Then, they brainstormed a variety of study techniques and strategies that they could use to meet that goal, and students crafted an action plan to overcome their challenge.

Meta-cognition activities are essential to this process after the assessment.  Students need to have opportunities to reflect on their study habits and see the connection of their studying to their learning. Knowing this, the teacher had students graph their effort alongside their achievement, and either move onto a new challenge or create a reassessment plan to adjust their original study techniques.This process essentially provides an excellent venue for reflection on work habits to take place. 

The graph in the picture below is from another class that used homework completion as an effort gauge.  From the graph, you can see that students who did almost all of their homework average 4 points on the assessment, and as homework completion dropped, so did achievement.  As students discussed the graph, the teacher emphasized that the students who earned great grades aren’t simply smart; they worked harder.

Teaching is an incredibly complex profession  

When considering the developmental responsiveness aspect of schools, it is clear that teachers need to be able to capitalize on the application of educational psychology in addition to being masters of teaching content.  Creating a culture of excellence means cultivating the three mindsets, and equipping students with the right strategies to succeed. 

by Jeremy Voss, Principal of Basalt Middle School

Learn more about Basalt Middle School
2012 Colorado Trailblazer Schools to Watch

Part of the Roaring Fork School District, Basalt Middle School enrolls 409 students in grades 5-8.   45% of their students qualify for free/reduced lunch, 57% of their population is Hispanic, and 16% of the population are identified English Language Learners. Basalt was noted by the Colorado Department of Education as a 2012  Distinguished School Award winner for having the top 8%  student growth scores according to performance on the state assessments.   Students and staff at Basalt attribute their success to a focus on each child’s growth mindset, high expectations for learning and achieving, and a strong caring staff.  Each and every child is provided metacognitive opportunities to reflect on his/her learning growth and tactics and supported effectively to meet the challenging demands of our globally competitive society. Rigorous teaching and learning and articulated interventions that ensure that every child receives timely, descriptive feedback that mediates their learning to new and every soaring heights. Jeremy Voss leads the staff at Basalt Middle School.

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