Much of our math curriculum is inspired by the work of Stanford Professor and co-founder of youcubed, Jo Boaler. Dr. Boaler studies mathematics teaching and learning- specifically how different teaching approaches impact students' learning, how to teach mathematics for a growth mindset, and how equity is promoted in mathematics classrooms. Her research is informed by brain science- how the brain works. After hearing the many labels her students received growing up, she decided to create a short film on giftedness.
At Marva Collins Cottage School (MCCS), we are committed to maintaining a growth mindset in our young learners. You may be familiar with Carol Dweck's work on the mindset psychological trait. A fixed mindset tends to form when people are labeled as smart or gifted. As you heard from the students in the film, it's as if they have some special trait that allows them to know how to do everything well. You also heard them express some pitfalls of a fixed mindset- including not asking questions, shying away from challenging work, feeling inadequate when they did not know something right away, trying to continuously prove their label by working fast to be first, etc. People with a growth mindset believe their talents can be developed through hard work, creative strategies, input from others and mistakes. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset, who believe their talents are innate gifts.
When teaching computer science to our youngest learners, I can often spot the child who has been repeatedly praised as 'smart' or formally identified as 'gifted'. The terror in their faces, tears welling in their eyes, frustration- if not complete shut down, showing in their bodies can capture my attention from across the room. I carry so much empathy in my heart for these students as I, too, was in the gifted program growing up. I didn't struggle with school until my undergraduate studies in biomedical engineering. My students love to hear anecdotes about how much I hated computer science! Understanding why I struggled in a way that was non-productive allows me to explain to them (and YOU their families) why we do things differently at MCCS. We assess everything we do against what brain science has taught us about learning.
In the film, not only did the 'gifted' children share the harm they experienced as a result of their label, but we also heard from children who had not been exposed to the concept. Some shared how it might feel to be the student without the gifted label. As we strive to promote equity in the classroom, it is critical that we eliminate the educational practices that establish hierarchy. It benefits neither the student labeled as gifted, nor those who are not identified as such. I loved hearing the 4th grader say "...supposedly not gifted...what if they are?" BINGO! Many studies have called standardized testing and other measures used to assess children into question. We understand the underlying biases; yet the system continues to perpetuate the myth that high achievement on these tests indicates potential success.
At MCCS, we are careful about the language and behaviors we use to celebrate student success. Furthermore, we spend equal, if not more time, celebrating our mistakes! (I will discuss brain growth and mistakes in a future post.) We want to make sure our choices foster a growth mindset and enhance the learners' ability to benefit from productive struggle. Problems can take time to solve. Being fast is less important than what you learn. We want to make sure every child has the freedom to learn from mistakes and ask questions. When I teach computer science, you will often hear me gently encourage "just try something. I promise it won't blow up." Soon those tearful eyes are joined by a warm smile. We want every child to see their ability to grow new skills and to help others. I look forward to working with you to cultivate language that affirms the gifts in every child without the harmful labels. Remember, perseverance is one of our shared values!