Growing with My Students: A Lesson in Mindsets

Victoria Muñoz, Assistant Professor
English Department

 

“Into fixed mindset, knowledge doesn’t enter.”

 

The above statement represents my six-word takeaway (an exercise developed by Professor Cynthia Jones) from the Fall 2019 Professional Development event on teaching developmental English at CUNY Hostos Community College. As part of the programming, we were instructed to read and discuss selections from Carol Dweck’s Mindset (2006), which explores the differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset describes someone who believes their abilities to be limited; any challenge or failure appears to confirm one’s ineptitude and is a motivator for just giving up. A growth mindset, by contrast, describes someone who sees challenges as an opportunity to improve, and who works through struggles with the expectation that progress is possible with effort.

 

Here I can tap into my own experiences: I’ve always proclaimed that I am bad at math. I recall a recent conference dinner where I inadvertently underpaid my share of the meal. I was forced to later meet with the coordinator to pay him back. He was kind about the situation, and even engaged me in discussion of my research. Nevertheless, I was mortified by my error in basic arithmetic. Since this incident, I have avoided splitting checks for fear of future embarrassment. But Dweck’s hypothesis is eye-opening. I don’t want to devote my energy to fear of failure. So, I’ve started volunteering to split the check. It’s a nerve-wracking process, but I realize that working through a challenge that makes me feel insecure is a powerful learning experience will also help me to be more responsive to my students’ own struggles in the classroom.

 

This semester, I assigned a selection from Dweck’s book in my English 110 class to help students to think through some of their own cognitive habits, and to help them to work toward developing a growth mindset. I shared my recent experience at the conference dinner, which had caused me to run away from opportunities to practice my mathematical skills. I invited them to privately reflect on whether the fear of failure has ever impacted their own choices, particularly in the form of avoidance strategies. Then, I instructed them to write an informal essay thinking through the last time that they overcame a challenging situation, and why the struggle itself was so important. Students shared many inspiring experiences of working through struggles, from learning to play an instrument without private lessons, to climbing out of debt, to finally passing high school. I was inspired to discover how much my students had already achieved and the incredible skills of perseverance they had already developed ever before entering my classroom. I find the following anecdote to be particularly inspiring:

 

Going back to school after thirty years definitely took some time to get adjusted to. Adding school to my already busy work schedule was a difficult adjustment. Being a person who isn’t comfortable unless I have a system set up, I was a little lost in the beginning. Now, having developed a system (somewhat), it is less intimidating for me. As time goes on, it will become less intimidating than it is now.

 

I particularly loved this response because the writer expressed confidence that his struggles would alleviate over time, and that he ultimately could become better. Following Dweck’s recommendation, he reflects that success is all about the process of working through challenges.

 

The same lesson also applies to my teaching. My Fall 2018 students were sometimes unreceptive to the readings. In previous teaching experiences, I would pore over the readings in class so that those who didn’t do it at home would have a chance to catch up. But my students were experiencing a number of struggles: some struggled with the content; many didn’t have the textbook; a significant portion were reluctant to speak in class. Dweck talks about how early successes can in fact be a strong impediment to growth. Finding that my fallback strategy was not working, I felt immediately discouraged. Convinced that I had nothing left to learn, I was closing myself off to opportunities for improvement. I was feeding a fixed mindset.

 

I want my students to know that I am growing and learning with them. In recent months, I have worked hard to improve my pedagogy. One particularly profound area of my growth was my work to develop a writing-intensive syllabus for ENG 213: Shakespeare. This experience inspired me to incorporate into my Shakespeare syllabus a writing assignment in which students must review a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Working with the WI fellow, Kate, I produced exercises to help students to transition from a brainstorming worksheet helping them to identify unique and compelling aspects of the selected performance to a preliminary journal entry to a first paper draft to a polished essay. As a result of my workshopping assignments for my WI syllabus, I am also more informed and interested in the pedagogical function of informal writing assignments. The writing fellow helped me to understand why informal writing is so essential as a stepping stone to building broader writing skills and developing formal essays. Correspondingly, I created a journal assignment that helps students to explore their reading more holistically without experiencing the added anxieties that come with a formal essay. In this semester, I have already seen that this kind of assignment is integral to helping students to transition from mere content mastery to a more robust form of content engagement.

 

And yet, for all of my growth, there is yet far more to do. Indeed, the more that I work on my pedagogy, the more I discover that I want to learn. For instance, I’ve recently become very enthusiastic about online instruction, and I am participating in an Online Learning initiative through the Hostos Office of Educational Technology to help me to develop a fully online Shakespeare course. This new challenge is a bit intimidating, I must confess. But that’s okay: Dweck’s book has taught me that developing a positive attitude toward challenges is half the battle. And, to quote my student, I know that “[a]s time goes on, it will become less intimidating than it is now.”

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