Teaching Tip #7 – “I Can’t” and the Growth Mindset

Previous teaching tips have discussed strategies on how to respond when students provide right answers, and when students respond to wrong answers. But what happens when students respond with, “I can’t?”

Dr. Carol Dweck is able to answer this question in her transformative book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In her book, Dweck discusses two different mindsets – the Fixed Mindset, and the Growth Mindset. The fixed mindset exists in an individual who believes their abilities are static – you are either good at something, or you are not. The growth mindset exists in an individual who believes their abilities are dynamic – you may not be good at something now, but you can improve at it. Dweck’s work with the Growth Mindset has become a mainstay in quality pedagogy over the last decade. But how can you instill a growth mindset in your students?

One way, is to model a growth mindset for your students. Show a love for learning and an improvement in a skill. Choose a skill you do not feel confident with (art, use of technology, singing), and work at it throughout the year, within sight of your students. Regardless of the improvements you make, modeling your mindset will show students how to foster a growth mindset.

Another way to instill a growth mindset in your students is to use purposeful language. Be aware of how you use language towards yourself, and how you use language in response to student remarks. For example, if you make a mistake in class, try responding by saying:

  • “Oops! Oh well, I’m still getting better.”
  • “There’s a mistake! That means I’m learning!”

Additionally, if a student begins to make fixed mindset remarks about their own ability, you can try responding by saying:

  • “You might not be able to do this now, but you will!”
  • “You are getting better, keep up the hard work!”

There are other ways to work towards a growth mindset in both yourself and your students. If you want more examples or information about the Growth Mindset, I suggest reading Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, or checking out her website here.

Education and Martyrdom

How much work is too much work?

This question presents a constant struggle that educators are faced with. Many struggling students need the extra support and help that teachers can give. Yet giving that extra support takes extra time. What does that extra time cost?

When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as an undergrad, I struggled with this question constantly. On one hand, I had personal life goals – starting a family, authoring a book, becoming great at Ultimate frisbee. On the other hand, I wanted to become a great teacher, and I was told constantly that becoming a great teacher required sacrifice. How much sacrifice was required to be a great teacher? At the time, it seemed that I would not be able to balance my personal and professional goals.

Then I heard Manuel Scott speak.

Manuel Scott was one of the original Freedom Writer students, whose story was told in the 2007 movie Freedom Writers. He was an excellent speaker, and I still teach with some of the strategies he discussed from his presentation, seven years ago. Yet, one phrase still stands out from the hour I was with him that evening.

“Don’t become a martyr to education.”

Manuel discussed the wonders that his teacher, Erin Gruwell, was able to instill within their shared classroom at Woodrow Wilson High School. However, he cautioned us not to walk the same path that she did in her personal life. He discussed how her marriage fell apart, and how the classroom they shared became the only driving force in her life. The movie Freedom Writers highlights some of the personal sacrifices she made for Manuel Scott, and his peers.

After hearing Manuel speak, it changed many of my thoughts on sacrifice and education. I realized that while great teaching did require time and effort, it did not require great personal sacrifice.

Unfortunately, it seems that much of the culture surrounding public education in the United States celebrates the teacher that becomes the martyr. In some ways, this has almost become an expectation for public teachers. The martyr is celebrated, but the great teacher who does not take great sacrifices is forgotten.

As you begin teaching this school year, take heed of what sacrifices you are taking. Consider what sacrifices you are asked to take, what sacrifices you need to take, and what sacrifices you are willing to take. Do the best you can at your job, but don’t sacrifice more than you are comfortable. Remember, despite all that she accomplished, Erin Gruwell only taught for four years before leaving.

Don’t become an educational martyr.

Teaching Tip #6 – Right Answers

Previously, a teaching strategy was given on how to respond when a student provides a wrong answer. But what do you do when students provide right answers?

There are many strategies that focus around the same core idea – ask targeted, rigorous questions that require your student to further explain their answer, or think at a deeper level about their answer.

In Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion, he explains this strategy as “Stretch It.” In short, you want to stretch the student’s thinking beyond just a “right answer.” Otherwise, copy-cat answers may become a strategy students use, and this does not require content learning from the student. A dialogue might look like this:

Teacher: If tipping at 15% how much would a $10 meal cost?

Student: $11.50!

Teacher: How did you get that?

Student: Well, 15 percent of 10 is $1.50, so I added that to the bill and got my answer.

Teacher: How could you solve the same problem for a $22 meal?

Student: Well, I could first find 15 percent of 20, then find 15 percent of 2, and add both numbers to the bill.

Despite the simple nature of this strategy, there are two reasons why it is important to respond effectively in this situation. First using this strategy allows you to check for true understanding from the student. Second, if the student does have a true understanding of the question, it allows you to challenge the student to apply their knowledge at a deeper level of understanding.

Teaching Tip #5 – Increasing Motivation Day 1

Motivation is a major force that contributes to student learning in school. A study published in Teaching of Psychology in 2014 suggested a strategy on the first day of school, that can help increase the motivation of students within the course.

The study was published by Jared J. McGinley and Brett D. Jones, in volume 41 (2) on pages 158-162, in the Teaching of Psychology Journal. The study was conducted on four different undergraduate college classes. Because of this, it may be prudent to assume that this strategy can be appropriate for college, high school, and possibly even middle school aged students. It may work at the elementary level, however the procedure of the strategy focuses on students taking a specific course, rather than students in a single classroom. This can be adjusted, but the efficacy at an elementary setting may not match that of an undergraduate setting.

The authors of the study designed the strategy as a way to increase motivation for students on the first day of school. The strategy takes the form of an icebreaker discussion between students, and then a verbal interview process between students and the instructor. The strategy is outlined below.

  • Students are split into small groups
  • Students are asked to discuss four questions
    • What is your perception of this class?
    • What are your feelings about this class?
    • How does this class relate to your short-term and long-term goals?
    • What are some topics that interest you in this course?
  • Students were also asked to develop their own question for the instructor of the course
  • Students discussed the four questions among themselves for about 15 minutes. The first two questions were designed as icebreakers for the students. The second two questions were designed to help the students make connections between their interest and the usefulness of the course, to the course content.
  • Students then introduced themselves to the instructor, and asked the instructor a question. Students had the opportunity to ask the instructor any question that one of their peers had come up with, in an effort to ease any discomfort.
  • The instructor responded to the questions in turn, and made a large effort to remember each of the student’s names.

The authors concluded that this strategy, implemented on the first day of school, can increase the motivation of students for the course, as well as academic and personal care. However, the authors did mention that they were unsure which aspect of the strategy was most important in their findings.

If you are looking for an activity that connects your students with you, or an activity that can increase motivation of your students on the very first day of school, this may be worth a try. If you would like to read the study in full, it can be found at this link: A Brief Instructional Intervention to Increase Student’s Motivation on the First Day of Class.

McGinley, Jared J., and Brett D. Jones. 2014. “A Brief Instructional Intervention to
Increase Students’ Motivation on the First Day of Class.” Society for the Teaching of

Teaching Tip #4 – Wrong Answers

How do you respond when students provide wrong answers?

This scenario certainly happens many times throughout the year – after all, making mistakes is a part of the learning process. However, responding appropriately to a wrong, or partially wrong answer is very important for the learning of that student.

Doug Lemov, from his book Teach Like a Champion, explains how to provide a positive, yet appropriate response, in a few important points.

  • Don’t “Round Up.” If a student is partially right, don’t affirm their answer and then add a detail of your own to improve the answer. This sets a low bar of expectations of cognitive thinking. Instead, prod or encourage the student to do the heavy thinking on their own.
  • Hold out for the student to finish. Use phrases like, “I like most of that…” or “We’re almost there, can you find the last piece?”
  • Be sure students are answering the question you asked. For example, when asking for a definition, don’t accept an example as an answer – recognize it for what it is, but work towards the learning you require of your students.
  • Use Responding to “I Don’t Know” to help with wrong answers from students.

Using these simple reminders, and being mindful of how the language you use can impact students, can help raise the rigor in your classroom and maintain high expectations for your discussions.