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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #4: Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the fifth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #4 Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset on page 45. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted. For more on equity, see Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed.

Think about it: The traditional system of education is built upon the belief that intelligence is fixed: there are smart people and not-as-smart people, there are winners and losers, and there is little anyone can do to change someone’s innate ability or potential.

I don’t believe there is any reason to discuss the psychological insights offered in Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or resources on how to help yourself and students in your classroom develop a growth mindset, as this is a set of research that is becoming embedded in schools across the nation (and possibly globally!). However, if for any reason the adults in your school have not become familiar with and knowledgeable about how to develop the growth mindset in themselves and others, stop reading this article and spend your time on Mindset. This is a non-negotiable step in creating a system of education designed for success for all.

Rebecca Midles from D51 recommends spending as much time as you need to help your teachers develop their own growth mindset. Don’t rush this stage in early implementation! Most adults in schools have been brought up with a fixed mindset orientation and may never have been coached in learning to identify their own mindset at any given time, not to mention the secrets of being able to nudge themselves into a growth mindset when they are nervous about learning the new practices of personalized, competency-based education. One of the reasons schools have problems later on in implementation is that they are still operating with a fixed mindset orientation. The article about D51’s strategy for Laying the Foundation for Culture and Climate might be helpful to you if you are just getting started.

The Fixed Mindset Orientation and Teacher Agency and Efficacy

Let’s looking at the opening sentence again: The traditional system of education is built upon the belief that intelligence is fixed: there are smart people and not-as-smart people, there are winners and losers, and there is little anyone can do to change someone’s innate ability or potential.

If someone really believes that they know how smart someone is or isn’t, that intelligence is fixed and there is little to do about it, it likely means they also don’t believe they can teach certain students certain things. It would be a waste of time and effort to try. Why bother? This traditional system was designed around this belief. Therefore, what schools will do is deliver curriculum, rank and sort students against each other (remember that old bell curve!), and then decide which students should continue pursuing an education.

When teachers begin to believe that intelligence is malleable, they will begin to believe in themselves as agents of change. Yes, they will begin to build teacher agency, in which they can learn what is needed to help their students learn. This is so powerful a shift in orientation from the traditional system that I’m going to highlight this again: By learning about and how to develop growth mindsets, teachers begin to believe more strongly that their students can learn and they also believe more strongly that they themselves can learn what is needed to help children learn. That’s why investing in helping adults learn about and how to nurture a growth mindset for themselves and for students is so important.

Imagine trying to develop a personalized or competency-based system upon a foundation of a fixed mindset orientation. If you are personalizing, you are at high risk of having some students learn at high levels and allowing others to drift along simply because adults have already decided that they can’t do much more. Throw unidentified bias into this mix, and suddenly you are re-creating patterns of race and class inequity. If you are trying to create a competency-based system upon a fixed mindset…well, I just don’t know how you do it. There are two driving forces behind why districts and schools turn to competency-based education. One is to create a system for deeper learning; it’s pretty likely you will only offer it for the students who are “faster.” All students are expected to get to proficiency or a 3 – but only some students get to throw themselves into rich deeper learning and earn a 4.

The other driving force is creating a more equitable system. You can’t build a system in which all students will be successful if you start with the notion that some simply can’t learn as well. I’m not suggesting that all students reach the same outcome or same performance level. Students do have aptitudes in some areas and not others. Students do receive substantially different learning opportunities and supports from family (often based on income). They aren’t going to get to the same place at the same time. However, if you really embrace equity as a goal, then at a minimum you will want to be monitoring growth so that every student, especially those who have the longest to go to reach college and career readiness, are advancing at a rate that will get them there.

Let’s now visit what can happen when every adult in the system has a growth mindset. Teachers are going to want to learn what they need to learn to help students learn. And schools and districts are going to need to figure out how to provide the support.

Teachers are going to want to know where students are in their learning in terms of academic knowledge and skills and in terms of their building blocks of learning (also referred to as lifelong learning skills or social-emotional skills), such as their growth mindset, perseverance, metacognition, and self-regulation. This might require a strong information management system and/or it might require collaborative work space so they can manually keep track of how students are progressing.

Teachers are going to want to have strong assessment literacy that helps them understand why students are struggling, how to address misconceptions, and how to provide powerfully productive feedback. Each teacher is going to have their own starting point, so professional learning is going to need to be driven by teacher inquiry about how to help their current students learn. In other words, professional learning becomes inquiry-based and personalized.

Teachers are also going to want to have time to work with other teachers. No one teacher is going to know everything that can help inform student learning. The knowledge base related to learning is just too big: child and adolescent development; research on the science of learning; domain-specific instructional strategies; assessment literacy; designing learning experiences; coaching and assessing building blocks of learning and higher order skills; and the ever-changing world of technological tools. They are going to need time to tap into each other’s knowledge.

Whether or not adults have a “growth mindset orientation,” a belief that with the right supports and conditions students can learn and improve their intelligence, will shape the choices they make strategically and on a daily basis. How does your orientation, a fixed mindset or one based on a growth mindset, shape how you deal with decisions you make and what you identify as challenges and opportunities?

Read the Entire Series:

  1. Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
  2. Purpose-Driven
  3. Commit to Equity
  4. Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
  5. Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
  6. Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
  7. Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
  8. Activate Student Agency and Ownership
  9. Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
  10. Ensure Responsiveness
  11. Seek Intentionality and Alignment
  12. Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
  13. Maximize Transparency
  14. Invest in Educators as Learners
  15. Increase Organizational Flexibility
  16. Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
  17. Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery