Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.

Recommended Read: Schooling Beyond Measure by Alfie Kohn (Heinemann, 2015)

I imagine the beginnings of this book idea came about from a conversation between Thomas Newkirk, editor at Heinemann, and Alfie Kohn, frequent commentator on education, that sounded somewhat like the following:

Thomas Newkirk: Hey Alfie, what are your thoughts on writing another book for Heinemann?

Alfie Kohn: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m kind of busy with public speaking and posting my one tweet per day.

Newkirk: Yeah, I hear you. However, I have this idea where we would just reprint some of your more salient posts from your blog and your articles for Education Week.

Kohn: Really? You can book your blog?

Newkirk: Sure, why not?

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I’m kidding! This jest highlights my one beef with this book, in that there is no new material included in the text. Kohn didn’t even write an introduction for his most recent offering.

However, if anyone’s previous work deserves a reprint, it would be Alfie Kohn’s. He has been the voice of reason for years, combating the negative influences of standardized tests, grades used as carrots and sticks, and classroom motivation tactics. With the current climate in education, Kohn’s book could not have been published at a better time.

Instead of a Reader’s Digest version of this book, I’d like to highlight five of the articles I found that most impacted me as an elementary principal in a high-poverty public school.

The Case Against Grades (Educational Leadership, November 2011)

This article should be required reading for any school or district committee revisiting their grading system. Kohn moves beyond the argument between A’s and B’s vs. standards-based grading, and highlights the problems with the system itself. Specifically, he finds that grades lower motivation for authentic tasks, creates a competitive learning culture, and misrepresents student success when teachers try to quantify achievement that should not be reduced to a number or letter.

A Dozen Essential Guidelines for Educators (http://www.alfiekohn.org, October 2013)

While some might feel that lists are lazy, I couldn’t imagine a better format for identifying the compencies that all teachers and school leaders should be applying to their practice. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
  • In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
  • The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.

What Waiting for a Second Marshmallow Doesn’t Prove (Education Week, 2014)

In this article, Kohn takes on the term “grit” and how it has been conflated with other concepts such as “resilience” and “engagement” in educational circles. Despite the research presented by Angela Duckworth and other proponents of grit in schools, the writer finds the results unconvincing. Kohn questions the benefits of delayed gratification, noting that sometimes taking advantage of an opportunity available immediately is the better decision. Also, the author wonders if the researchers took into account the home factors that may impact a young person’s ability to defer something rewarding for later.

Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play (http://www.alfiekohn.org, November 17, 2011)

The author starts this post with two personal beliefs:

  • Children should have plenty of opportunities for play.
  • Even young children have too few such opportunities these days, particularly in school settings.

Kohn goes on to support his argument by debunking multiple myths about play, evoking statements such as “Younger and older children should have a chance to play together.” and “The point of play is that it has no point.” The second statement really seems to run counter to how schools operate today, even though it shouldn’t. Kohn’s rationale rests on both current research as well as classic positions by John Dewey and other pioneers of public education.

Encouraging Courage (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

This article was perfectly positioned to end this anthology. Kohn provides a more positive outlook on the future of public education. He encourages educators to ask reflective questions about their own practice, take responsibility on behalf of the best interests of their classroom, and give ownership of the learning to their students. Kohn’s recommendations rest heavily on what we know to be most effective for students.

He ends his text with a powerful statement against the test-driven standardization of public education in America:

It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours.

Words to live by.