Research shows that academic mindsets and learning strategies are strong drivers of students’ perseverance at academic tasks and of good classroom behaviors (e.g., attendance, work completion). In turn, perseverance and academic behaviors lead to good grades and school success. But how can teachers help their students develop a positive mindset in the classroom when so many of the students who have come before them have been poster children for failure? How can students come to believe that a long history of academic struggle in their school does not predict their destiny?
These are the kinds of tough questions we have been exploring with the 8th/9th Teacher Network (8/9TN), set up three years ago by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. (As highlighted in “Rethinking How Students Succeed,” the network involves a volunteer group of teachers interested in bringing academic mindsets and learning strategies research to their students—the vast majority of whom are low-income African-American and Latino youth in low-performing schools.)
What we’ve learned is that positive teacher mindset—particularly teacher self-efficacy and the belief that “I can succeed” at preparing all of my students for college and career—are the first step. In other words, we learned how important it was for students to have teachers who believe that they can succeed at what most evidence would suggest was an impossible task. Only teachers with positive mindsets can influence students to develop the same.
Mindsets are habituated interpretations of a given experience that guide our responses to it. As we enter any new place or situation, we use our existing mindsets to determine the value to us of what is happening in this new space and to assess the likelihood that we will be accepted and successful there. Social psychological mindset interventions thus generally work by targeting a maladaptive mindset and replacing it with an alternative interpretation. For example, Carol Dweck and colleagues’ growth mindset interventions are designed to replace the belief that each person has a fixed amount of intelligence with an alternative metaphor: The brain is like a muscle and gets stronger through effort. Other experiments target freshmen’s interpretation of academic difficulty in the first few weeks of college. Rather than letting new college students conclude that the difficulty they are experiencing means they don’t have the academic chops to succeed, researchers aim to replace that interpretation with an alternative explanation: Difficulty is normal, shared by even their smartest and most well-prepared peers, and that it is not a reflection on the likelihood of their success in college.
In much of the impressive work on mindset interventions, researchers are able to change people’s perceptions without actually changing any material facts on the ground. Those perceptual changes are enough to change behaviors, and such experiments have been shown to change outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable students.
Importantly, though, mindset interventions work only when beliefs are holding people back in an environment that otherwise is set up for them to succeed. In severely under-resourced schools and communities, improved performance is not simply about trying to impart good attitudes. If we want to replace one prevailing interpretation with another, we need to simultaneously work to ensure that the alternative interpretation is true.
Creating students who can break through barriers requires creating a different set of conditions in urban public schools: providing teachers and students with extended time and opportunity to work together, develop relationships, and engage in deeper learning. As “Rethinking How Students Succeed” points out, the school and classroom environment are critical in shaping students’ academic behaviors.
We know from decades of research that young people learn best when teachers know them, hold high expectations for them, engage them in meaningful work, give them opportunities to practice and develop competencies over time, provide them with models and feedback along the way, and celebrate their contributions in a community that values them. Under these conditions, both students and teachers have reason to believe they are where they belong, that their work has value, and that they can succeed at what they set out to do. Deploying the lessons of mindset research is as much about changing schools as it is about changing people’s minds within them.