Building Buy-In Through a Growth Mindset Classroom Culture

Mindset poster

When you incorporate non-traditional pedagogies and grading systems into your classroom like Modeling Instruction and standards-based grading, you need to be concerned about buy-in from students and parents. Implementation without buy-in leads to frustrated students, parents and most of all teachers. I have saved myself from this frustration by establishing a growth-mindset classroom culture from day one. Here are my tips for building a classroom where students feel comfortable to fail.

Change the way you praise students

If you haven’t heard the buzzword “growth-mindset” yet, check out Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset.” I also encourage you to watch Angela’s Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit. Creating a growth-mindset classroom culture starts with the teacher. After reading Carol Dweck’s book, do some reflecting on how you praise your students. I was certainly one who fell into the trap (and still do if I’m not careful) of praising students for being “smart” instead of praising the problem-solving process. I used to say things like “wow, you solved that problem so fast! Good job!” or “you must be good at math, you are picking this up quick.” These compliments might be true, but they teach students that if you do not pick up a new concept quickly, you aren’t a good learner. In reality, if a student is learning, he or she is a good learner. I now make a conscious effort when I praise students to say things like “wow, I really like how you thought through that problem. I would not have solved it that way, that is awesome!” or “I love how you kept working on this problem, even though it was difficult for you. I bet you feel a lot more confident now with this type of problem now!” It is especially important to praise students when they get something wrong the first time but correct it. Giving students the label “failure” does not build responsibility. Recovering from a failure builds responsibility. That leads to my next tip.

Normalize making mistakes

Nobody likes to be wrong, but mistakes are a vital part of learning. Students often come into your classroom thinking the goal is to get the right answer, not to learn. This often leads to a fear of being wrong or making mistakes. I normalize mistakes in my classroom using a few techniques. The first thing I do on day one is tell students that we are all going to make mistakes in this class and that is how we learn. I say this a lot. Students probably get sick of hearing it but I need it to sink in. I also have a banner at the front of my room with the quote “confusion is ignorance leaving the brain” and a poster that says “there is no learning in the comfort zone and no comfort in the learning zone.” I point to these visuals often to remind students that confusion and discomfort are not a bad thing. For a little humor this year, I added a large poster of Grumpy Cat that originally said “I had fun once, it was awful” and now says “I learned something once, it was awful.” I want my students to know that feeling frustrated and confused is normal. Learning isn’t always fun and sometimes it is really hard! The goal is to push past the confusion and come away with a new skill. Finally, I own it when I make mistakes (which is often). I use the term “not yet” on my standards-based grading scale so I often say things like “looks like I would get a ‘not yet’ on the learning target ‘I can number problem sets correctly!’” It is important for students to know that you make mistakes too!

Ask a lot of questions, give few answers

This last piece may be something you already do but it is critical to building a growth-mindset classroom culture. We have all heard the question, “is this right?” from a student. Your classroom culture is built on your answer to this one question. I never answer this question with “yes” or “no.” My answer is always “I don’t know, why don’t you show me what you did.” This puts the focus back on problem solving skills, not correct answers. It also helps students realize that the job of the teacher is not to be the keeper of the correct answers. After a student explains their reasoning to me, I still do not answer the “is this right question.” I do one of three things:

  1. Ask a follow-up question to either solidify the student’s understanding or lead them in the right direction if their problem solving is incorrect.

  2. Ask “are you confident in your problem solving?” When the student answers “yes” I reply, “then you don’t need me to tell you if it is right.”

  3. Walk away. I usually only do this if it is a student who asks me this question often and needs to learn to take risks.

It can get exhausting to answer questions like this and it is really tempting to just tell a student “yes, that is correct.” If you are consistent, your students will eventually stop asking “is this right” and will start immediately explaining their problem solving process when you stop by their desk.

The bottom line with buy-in is if your students buy in, your parents will buy in. Once students realize the freedom that comes from being able to make mistakes and correct them with impunity, they will rise to whatever bar you set for them.

You can easily find Mindset for sale on Amazon or other sources.

Editor’s Note: This post was submitted for the 2017 ChemEd X Call for Contributions: Creating a Classroom Culture.