When we say we believe all children can and will learn, we embed an imperative to do whatever it takes as adults to help all of our students excel. As lead learners in our schools, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that all students receive rigorous, high-quality instruction every lesson, every day. But for students stuck on the wrong side of the persistent achievement gap, we must tackle not only cumulative deficits in knowledge and skill, but also the doubts students have about their abilities, hardened by years of educational neglect.
The growing attention paid to academic mindsets offers insights into this broadening understanding of what it takes for students, especially those born into poverty, to excel. This relatively new body of research suggests that one of the most powerful interventions to build positive learning behaviors in students is to foster positive beliefs about themselves in relation to academic learning.
As educators we have the transformative power to disarm students' negative beliefs about school and about their own ability to excel in school. We wield this power in part through the expectations we communicate to students, explicitly and implicitly. For example, one study demonstrated that a single-sentence intervention in the form of a post-it on an essay ("I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them") had a significant influence on whether students revised their work and on the quality of those revisions.
While these sources of verbal persuasion have proven powerful in brief, controlled interventions like the one described above, theories of social cognition suggest that lived experience is likely a more powerful influence than any such social persuasion. Perhaps we need to more carefully examine whether we are structuring teaching and learning in our schools so that kids can live and experience this truth and not just hear about it. Pedagogy is likely more powerful than aphorism when it comes to a growth mindset.
Encountering meaningful academic challenges, and having the time and space to overcome them, is essential to developing positive academic mindsets. Camille Farrington’s research has identified four academic mindsets that are independently predictive of academic persistence and higher grades, including “My ability and my competence grow with my effort.” Her studies have shown that the experience of encountering and struggling through a problem is the most effective way to foster this mindset in students. Despite these facts, research shows that low-income students are much more likely to receive basic, repetitive instruction, absent opportunities for authentic problem-solving and productive struggle.
Our schools need to be incubators of productive persistence, where students are given challenges to grapple with and necessary support and strategies to overcome setbacks. Structuring our schools so that students bear the bulk of the cognitive load will transform learning in our classrooms, and coupling this pedagogical shift with an intentional focus on building a culture of error and psychological safety in our schools will accelerate that transformation exponentially. In fact, we likely won't need to keep assuring students they are capable of improving their skills if our pedagogical approach is full of opportunities for them to experience it firsthand.