Brainology Article Homework

While teaching in California, I had a unique teaching assignment: Honors English 9 and Reading 10. So my school day went from thinking about how to hold "high-achieving" students to a high level of challenge in an honors environment to actually doing the same thing for "underachieving" students in a remedial environment. I loved the challenge and experience of watching non-readers become successful readers, writers and speakers while also pushing the higher performing students to stretch themselves to reach greater heights.

At times though I was discouraged by the underachievement of all of my students, as well as by my colleagues' messages about them. Colleagues told me to be happy with the honors students work when I KNEW they could do better. Or to accept the Reading students sub-par efforts when I ALSO knew they could do better.

Some Honors students and parents felt like I didn't understand that their students were the smart ones and thought they didn't require a true challenge. They just wanted a large volume of homework and readings so it looked like they had a hard class. They didn't want the thinking to actually be hard.

Some Reading students and parents wanted me to know all about why their students were already trying as hard as they could. They wanted work provided at their current level and hoped it would help them "pass" their other classes.

Both groups had the issue of, "Look, calm down. We are this kind of student. We will do work for you, but don't go thinking you are going to help us change very much." Which of course is the very moniker of a fixed mindset: "You can learn something, but you can't change your basic amount of intelligence."

I never felt like there was any reason for me to judge or to be particularly impressed with any student - in Honors or in Reading. My role is to ensure that students move forward in their learning and education. If we are distracted too much by accolades for success or shame for past performance, then we are not maximizing our time together.

Now that I work with many educators and schools to help them develop growth mindset cultures, I notice that in some schools, both higher achieving and lower achieving students are allowed to be under-achieving. But both groups can do so much more! When we allow people to move through school and life like this, we create adults who are underachieving...and who are unhappy. Without an idea of how to learn things at a high level, how to push themselves, and how to contribute with impact in the world - many adults feel lost and unfulfilled.

If my role as teacher is to ensure students are learning every day, then I can't spend too much time worrying or making a big deal either praising you for what you did before I met you, or for mourning your loss of time and achievement. Look, I'm not going to be impressed or depressed by where you started when you arrived in this classroom. My expectation is that you know that you're here to work. What I'm most interested in is how much have you learned today.

Here are three ways that we can coach other people and coach ourselves to tap into our inner drive, stop accepting underachievement, and help people grow.

Coaching Underachieving Learners: Three Moves for Educators

Address Belief: Teach that the brain gets stronger when we learn - that is what "smart" is.

Our brains are made up of a network of neurons, connected by trillions of connections, called dendrites. When we take time to learn new things, our neuron and dendrite connections grow, resulting in a smarter brain.

When we teach the above, show people videos of what that looks like, and walk them through related reflections and action plans, it has a marked impact on their motivation and achievement. (Blackwell, et al 2007) Beliefs affect our behaviors. Why put in a lot of effort and practice if you don't believe that it makes a difference? In that case it feels like a fool's errand. However when you understand those efforts matter, you are more likely to engage effectively and learn.

No matter where you are on any trajectory, you have the potential to improve. If you are living, you can be growing!

How to Get Smarter: Teach how to learn more.

When we truly believe that all people can learn from where they are, then we choose to explicitly teach strategies in addition to teaching content. In one class students claimed to be trying to do their math homework - they "just didn't get it". So the teacher and I (I was the instructional coach) asked them what trying looked like. Turned out, it looked a lot like staring...staring at their homework. While listening to music, texting, eating, and sometimes babysitting siblings.

So we did a playful exercise with them about what the two scenarios look like. One that cracked them up with lines like: "Open your math book. Stare at it, now stare harder. Is that trying?" Then moved to another way it can look: "Open your book to the assigned page, pull out your notes from this week, and compare your notes to the assigned problems for tonight. What do you notice?"

We went on to explicitly teach, and practice in the classroom, methods for study, for self-assessment of content, and how to ask a question upon return to class. And because students learned HOW TO LEARN MATH, they improved in math content.

At same the time, let's be sensitive to the Zone of Proximal Development or that Goldilocks spot where the work is not too easy and not completely outside of the learners stretch zone. Choosing proximal goals and helping students work towards those effectively will help chronic non-learners experience that feeling of success.

Meta Cognition: Teach reflective process behaviors that result in transferable skills.

People who improve pay a lot of attention to their process and their current state. Real pros will video tape themselves, ask for feedback from other highly qualified people, and seek out new strategies constantly on a path to continuous growth. We can teach our students to do the same so that they learn how to be a learner.

Being reflective in this way comes from having an internal locus of control. So reflective questions focus on self and process - things we can change in the interest of improvement. Here are some great questions to model for students, provide some classroom practice with, and to use to continue to grow as an educator:

Where am I going wrong?
What is working for me?
What can I learn from others?
How can I improve my work?
What do I do when it "gets hard"?
What is my next step outside of my comfort zone?

People on a path of continuous growth wake up every morning alive, excited, thinking about the day's goals and strategies, and full of hope for the next experience. It's an incredible way to live life. And it can be learned. So let's stop accepting the trend of underachievement and coach people to reach ever higher levels of intelligence, talent, and skill.

What are your thoughts on learners who are under-achieving? Use the comments below to share!

About Emily Diehl

Emily Diehl is Director of Professional Learning for Mindset Works.  She works with K-12 educators, school leaders, and parents in helping to develop agency and life-long learning.  She has contributed many lessons and experience to Mindset Works’ programs.  You can reach her on Twitter @EmilyADiehl

 A growth mindset – the knowledge that one becomes more intelligent with effort - is being recognized more and more as something that we can cultivate in our students. If you would like some help getting started with cultivating growth mindsets by helping students learn about effective effort, this post is for you.

What Is Effort?

At the most basic level, effort means you are trying. In my experience though, students claim that they are trying, and may believe that they're trying, but they do not know what trying effectively actually looks like. To many students, trying is merely thinking about doing the work, or finding a friend (or the Internet) to get answers from. For example, there are many students who have a hard time seeing the difference between doing math and copying someone else's math, or between helping someone with a task and just giving him the answer. They think they did their homework even though they may have copied most of it from the board or from a friend. One thing I tell students is "That is like tracing a picture – you traced your homework, you didn't "do" it."

Sometimes the issue with students not really trying is a fixed mindset, and as a result when the student hits an obstacle or setback, s/he gives up easily and avoids a challenge. But sometimes the issue is that they don't know how to try effectively, and they know that when they do try, they don't improve. They don't know how.

Effective Effort is purposeful and targetted. It's focused, and the best kind is also metacognitive. When I am really trying effectively, I am doing a LOT! I pause and quietly think. I problem-solve. I research. I tinker. I figure out what isn't working and change my strategy. I furrow my brow, and I don't stop until I figure it out. Then I feel amazing!

In this article by Annie Murphy Paul, she explains how research shows that just practicing is not enough.  Deliberate practice, a purposeful kind of practice that examines and corrects errors, is needed to become great at something.

Who Needs Effort Instruction?

We can teach people how to be effectively effortful. More and more, schools are coming to understand that there is a place in our classrooms for this direct instruction and structures to support students' adoptions of effective strategies and habits. Many teachers already have found ways to provide guidance and instruction in effective effort, but oftentimes, the standards and testing are competing for that time and attention. However, if we don't support these academic mindsets and learning strategies, many students will not learn to be effective learners and will become adults who continue to struggle with difficult tasks.

Mindset Works® consultant, Jennifer Maichin, an educator in Mineola, NY says this, "We tell students to study, but do we teach them how?" She says that students tend to think of studying as "I am staring at my book. Now I am staring at it hard. Now I am staring at my homework paper." They spend much of their homework time thinking about how frustrated they are, and doing more of what's not working, instead of engaging actively with the task. Part of this cycle is because so many of them know that one task completion option is to copy the answers (from a board, from a friend, from the pages of their books). So, they usually do not have effective effort strategies for those times when copying is not readily available.

Maichin says, to find out if kids have learning strategies, watch to see what they do when they don't know what to do. If students are giving up, choosing easy or superficial responses, or resorting to copying, then you know that they simply don't have the strategies and the drive to achieve on their own. They might not realize how great it feels to discover answers and learn through effort.

Getting Started: Strategies to Teach Effective Effort

First, we have to define what effective effort is and suggest to learners how amazing it feels to use it to achieve something for yourself. Second, we have to be persistent and effortful ourselves in cultivating these learning strategies in our students. What follows are two strategies you can use this Fall to get started!

-Mindset Works® Effective Effort Rubric

The Mindset Works Effective Effort Rubric is a terrific place to begin the conversation with students. The rubric places effort in the context of a growth mindset. Presenting it to a learner, a teacher can ask, "When you are trying, which of these things are you doing? Highlight in each box what trying "looks like" for you."

One can also use the rubric with families who are struggling to help their children finish homework and work on long-term tasks. Parents can see how to communicate the message that challenges are exciting, mistakes tell us what to improve in, and set backs are all a normal part of learning anything new.

The rubric is also a tool for setting growth goals. Students can revisit the rubric to identify a row in which they would like to improve and use the rubric over time to revisit and reflect on their progress (and what the results of their progress has been). This video of a middle schooler, "Andy" reflecting on his effort shows us what a student reflection can sound like!

As you get further into using the rubric, the class can begin to discuss the "Strategies" row to share and acquire new strategies that work for them. Asking, "what do you do when you get stuck?" and get students sharing is one way to shed light on the difference between sharing strategies and sharing answers. The first is a recipe for success, the latter is, well, tracing!

-Growth Mindset Language and Messages

Educators can have an enormous influence on students' motivation just by the messages we send. The best place to begin your growth mindset classroom transformation is in the language you use with students to communicate about taking on challenges and working persistently to learn new concepts and skills.

These growth minded feedback and framing tools are here to help educators see examples of how we can adjust our messages so that we are cultivating growth mindsets. When students are not being "effectively effortful," these are the responses that can coach them back on the right track. At the same time, posting growth minded posters and messages like these provides a constant reminder of what effective learners do. Other messages about paying attention to and learning from errors, about learning from and being inspired by successful peers, and about setting stretch goals can also be very effective in helping young people see how great it feels to accomplish something difficult.

Here is one example of a short commercial with Michael Jordan called, "Maybe It's My Fault." This video is a terrific springboard for beginning a conversation about how much effort and time go into becoming great at something!

What do you do to encourage students to take on challenges and use effective effort? Comment below or enter our next Growth Minded Educator contest for a chance to win some posters for your classroom!

About Emily Diehl

Emily Diehl is Director of Professional Learning for Mindset Works.  She works with K-12 educators, school leaders, and parents in helping to develop agency and life-long learning.  She has contributed many lessons and experience to Mindset Works’ programs.  You can reach her on Twitter @EmilyADiehl

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