The Importance of a Growth Mindset During Distance Learning

Contributed By

Lauren Davis

EdTech Editor, Former Department Chair and Instructional Coach

The Importance of a Growth Mindset During Distance Learning

Posted in Evolving Ed | May 01, 2020

We have a choice.  

Dr. Carol Dweck is known for her delineation of the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, we believe things like intelligence or artistic ability are inborn and can’t be improved upon. In utilizing a growth mindset, we do not believe these things are fixed quantities and that we can improve and grow. In a fixed mindset, we are closed off to possibilities. In a growth mindset, we are flexible and open. In a fixed mindset, problems stop us in our tracks. In a growth mindset, they get solved. There has never been a more important time to embrace the growth mindset than in our unexpected distance learning climate. 

Educators set the tone. 

Think about the very first day of school. Successful educators make conscious efforts to do things like teach a great lesson on day one. They invest a significant amount of time and resources in creating an orderly, student-centered classroom environment from the outset. From the moment that students walk into the room, they talk openly about the ideal culture that they want to nurture throughout the school year and involve students in the construction of that culture—and it pays off. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for educators. It has created multiple “first days of school” in just the last few weeks: the preparation for distance learning, the first day of cobbled-together distance learning, the first day of extended distance learning - with more to come. The teachers who have been the most successful in dealing with these changes are the ones that have done their best to stay positive, roll with the punches, embrace a growth mindset, and stay focused on solving the next problem. They have approached the modified curriculum from an engagement standpoint and have involved students in the creation of a new “virtual culture” for their virtual classrooms. To the credit of educators everywhere, the vast majority have done these things with both grit and aplomb. 

School leaders must continue to support teachers by coaching them through all the nuances of online classrooms and the school’s learning management system (LMS); everything from how to post videos and guiding links for students to how assessment can and should change to the increased use of formative, project-based assessments and the explicit teaching of problem-solving skills. But above all, leaders must remember that educators are “exhausted and grieving” and need to see modeling of the growth mindset by their administrators. 

A Difficult Time for Students. 

Imagine being a preschool student, learning how to “do” school for the first time. Or a kindergarten student, taking your first significant steps into a larger world through an all-day program. At the other end of the K-12 spectrum there are high school seniors who face the prospect of missing out on spring athletics, prom, commencement—all the rites of passage that make the senior year the senior year. It is not a stretch to say that this is the most disruptive time for students in several generations

But this is not a time for pessimism, especially as you continue to set the example for students. You can encourage a growth mindset by staying positive and showing students how they can still progress during challenging times. For example, counselors at some schools have set up virtual class meetings and are moving forward with online college and career planning for students. Teachers are inviting administrators to drop into their online lessons, and students are clearly excited to see and interact with school leaders as they complete an algebra lesson or do a virtual science lab. Every time students see their educators encouraging growth and solving problems, they naturally want to do the same. 

And, really, has there ever been a better time to help students develop problem-solving skills and the determination to see things through to the end? Duckworth referred to “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” as “grit.” Teaching students to embrace growth, to embrace getting “stuck and unstuck” as they mull over a complex topic, makes distance learning fun and intellectually engaging despite a lack of face-to-face contact with peers. Never waste a crisis. This could be an incredibly fruitful time for students to learn skills that will serve them well into adulthood. 

Parents are bearing an immense burden. 

You have probably heard—or may be personally experiencing—the same stories that parents have communicated to me. Parents have been furloughed or have lost jobs outright. Family members—in some cases, entire families—have fallen ill. Parents are serving as both caregivers and educators. Combined with varying levels of stay-at-home directives in place across the nation, it is evident that parents are shouldering an incredible weight during this time. 

First, we must communicate to parents with empathy. As you send emails, make phone calls, and/or use your learning management system’s messaging service to connect with parents and guardians to help students engage with distance learning coursework, remember that every family has a story. Knowing each family’s story will help you collaboratively problem solve with them instead of focusing on punishment by grades or other draconian measures that will earn you nothing but resentment. 

With the lines of communication open and flowing in both directions, you are now in a great position to grow your relationship with parents and guardians. To again channel Dweck, encourage parents to see distance learning as an opportunity, not a setback. Distance learning skills, including the physical use of an LMS, videoconferencing, and asynchronous collaboration are skills that are increasingly needed at the post-secondary level of education and in the workplace. If you can help parents see the silver lining of this difficult time, you will be in a position to give them hope and to let them know how much you care about outcomes for their kids. 

Locus of Control 

Ultimately, none of us can fully control the spread of a novel communicable disease like COVID-19, but we can maintain our internal locus of control by pursuing the right objectives. Seek growth, seeing distance learning as a challenge, not a roadblock. Seek opportunities for formative, inquiry-based learning instead of trying to port traditional summative assessment to a distance learning format. Seek to understand the challenges students and families are facing, and then help smooth the way educationally as much as possible. A 100-year pandemic can’t be brought under control overnight, but our attitudes and approaches during distance learning can most definitely be controlled every time we sit at the keyboard each morning. 

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