Growth, Part Two: Open to Learning

By Mark

About a year ago I was sitting in a training, titled "Common Assessments, blah, blah, blah" (I can't remember the title).

But it was in that session that I remember, for probably the first time if not in my career then in a long time, actually learning something I thought I could use. Hence, this facebook status update:

Esd training

I had just finished my tenth year of teaching, and was about to embark on my eleventh and begin referring to myself as "mid-career."

In reflection, it obviously wasn't that I had never been exposed to quality professional development. (Well, maybe…) The change, though, happened in my head. Suddenly, I was at a point in my career where I was mentally ready to learn. Seeing a new strategy was no longer a threat meaning that "the way I teach is wrong." Rather than feel obligated to accept and apply everything the trainer offered, I realized that even walking away with the tiniest applicable nugget was a success.

It was really at that moment that I finally began to grow as a teacher. It started by simply becoming open to learning that challenged me, rather than only being open to learning that already fit into my current view of myself and my practice.

Being open to change is the only way change will ever stick. Otherwise it's hostile takeover. During last school year, our new rock-star associate principal shared with the cadre of PLC leaders the book Mindset by Carol Dweck (which I've already written about here). At the beginning of this school year, my teaching team and I decided to do something with that learning about mindsets and the idea of being open to learning. Specifically, we targeted our students. 

My team consists of myself an English teacher, my colleague an Algebra I teacher, and our third colleague a Careers teacher. Together, we collaborate to work within a freshman transition program aimed at helping students move from middle school to high school in a way that sets them up for success. After a couple of days of hearing kids say " I suck at math" or "I hate reading," we realized that we weren't dealing with obstinate ninth graders (okay, we were) but more so we were dealing with fixed mindsets not yet open to new learning.

So, the last day of the first week of school, we did a skit. I was the teacher, my math colleague played the role of a fixed mindset student and my careers colleague of a growth mindset student. It was science class. Both students had earned D's on the test I was passing back. Our audience, our 44 students, was charged with just observing how each "student" reacted. The lesson emerged quickly.

We had them read a short, kid-friendly synopsis of Mindset that I threw together, and then reflect on where in their lives they had fixed or growth mindsets–and how that was impacting their success. This was when kids began to share their realizations that these feelings about "sucking at math" or "being a slow reader" actually were getting in their way and preventing them from succeeding.

After reading the subsequent writing assignment, I am beginning to realize that a few doors have been nudged open and my students might grow to be more open to learning. If nothing else, when we hear that negative self-talk, we now have a shared experience to connect back to. Already, I'm hearing kids call each other out on their fixed mindset comments like "I am going to fail this test" or "I suck at science." Over the course of this year, I'm looking forward to seeing whether and how my students' openness to learning evolves and enables them to grow.

Much talk this year will be about tracking student growth and how it ties to teacher evaluation. It will be too easy to get caught up in systems or curriculum or easy answers to incredibly complex questions. We also need to be mindful not just of measuring growth, but the art involved in building a classroom in which growth can take place because we are open to learning.

2 thoughts on “Growth, Part Two: Open to Learning

  1. Kristin

    ” If nothing else, when we hear that negative self-talk, we now have a shared experience to connect back to.” This part is so golden.
    It reminds me of that idiom, “Sharpening the saw,” where you have to stop, and slow it down to do something with long-term worth even if it means you delay the short term accomplishments.
    Taking some time with your kids to teach them how to think about their learning, and how to reflect instantly on how they’re approaching their learning, is going to last them their whole lives.

  2. Mark Gardner

    Kristin–I think there is so much power in “beginnings” …how we begin a school year, how we begin a class period, how my freshmen begin their high school experience. I invest a lot of time and thought into these beginnings, and I feel the payoff. I worry when I hear about teachers rushing immediately into content-content-content from day one without taking the time to sharpen the saw.

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