Under “No Child Left Behind,” an educational initiative championed in the early 2000s, education changed. The federal law threatened school districts with a loss of funding if they could not demonstrate that all their students had attained grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Initially, it was only math and reading, but by 2007, science assessments were required, too. Students were required to take competency tests at least once during grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.
Sounds reasonable, right? No one wants to leave children behind. Unfortunately, as is often the case with good intentions, there were unintended consequences. Teachers were told their students needed to do well on these assessments or their schools could lose funding, so teachers were rewarded when they produced good test takers. This reinforced what’s called a “fixed mindset,” rather than the healthier “growth mindset.”
A fixed mindset believes either you’re good at something or you’re not. It’s fixed. You have a certain amount of intelligence or talent. It’s inherent. You were born with it and you’ll die with it. No matter how hard you work, you won’t get any smarter or more talented.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that people can achieve anything they put their minds to. They can get better at things. They can grow and evolve. As a lifelong educator and lifelong learner, I cannot stress enough the importance of helping children develop a growth mindset. Here’s why:
With a fixed mindset flaws are permanent, so people do their best to hide them to avoid being judged or labeled a failure. With a growth mindset flaws are temporary, something you can improve upon and overcome. With a fixed mindset, people put all their energy into their strengths and avoid new things to keep up their confidence. With a growth mindset, you explore all the possibilities and build confidence by gaining new skills and experience. With a fixed mindset, failures represent the end of the road. With a growth mindset, failures are just speed bumps.
No Child Left Behind put America behind compared to other developed nations. While other countries pursued a growth mindset, our fixed mindset kept us back. Eventually, our education leaders and legislators recognized the error of their ways and they implemented the Common Core standards to address the problem. Common Core may not be perfect, but it has the right goals in mind. It focuses on the 4Cs: Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.
As with any new initiative, there are growing pains. Teaching old dogs new tricks is never fun. Although I’d argue that most teachers have a growth mindset, it’s hard to completely revamp the way you’ve taught for the last 20 years. Even those who embrace the change will need some time to become experts. Sometimes teachers implement one or two of the 4Cs, but the real power of Common Core is a blend of all four.
Teaching students how to learn, and giving them the confidence to keep trying, is the most important thing we can do in our schools. Teaching students to overcome challenges and figure things out for themselves will allow them to be successful in all sorts of endeavors.
I recently attended a conference where the keynote speaker made some really provocative statements. He said, “In decades past when we asked students to figure out who the fifteenth president was, finding the answer took some doing. Kids had to find a book with that information, maybe go to the library and figure out how to use the Dewey Decimal system, or ask someone for assistance. Now, kids pull out their phones and ask Google and they have the answer in ten seconds.”
We have to re-think education. We have to ask questions that Google cannot answer. By having students attempt to solve real-life problems, we can introduce the complexity and nuance that comes with deep thinking. By teaching them to collaborate, we can show them the power of working together and using everyone’s knowledge to find solutions. Is this easy? No. Can it be frustrating? Certainly. Will it give students the skills they need to be successful? I sure think so.
Superintendent of Schools