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Thursday / December 14

What Schools Can Learn from Rocky Balboa About Growth Mindset [Free Download]

I am a huge fan of Rocky and I’ve watched the movie a dozen times. Do you know what the 72 steps Rocky ran up were made of?  They were made of mindset (and stone too). The character of Rocky Balboa possesses growth mindset in spades. He believes he can be a boxing champion, despite little support, money, or past success. Rocky famously declares,  “Nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” These words are the core story Rocky tells himself about life. This internal story motivates him to train hard, to push beyond his limits, and to ultimately defy the odds to become a champion. The movie became a classic because it tapped into a universal human condition. We are all underdogs, fighting our way to victories of one kind or another.

We are all storytellers too, leaving details out, or in, perpetuating what we see or want to believe as the truth about our families, our cultural identities, our world. As is true of Rocky, the internal stories we tell ourselves about what is or is not possible, and of who we are, literally create our reality each day. And as educators, we have the added layer of influencing the views and mindsets of our students and colleagues. Let’s look at some ways we can be aware of how our school culture  tends to fall prey to fixed  “possible” and “not possible” narratives, and how we can shift those stories to growth-minded ones.

Mindset Is a Story

Mindset is a story that creates our realities of what we believe is possible. If mindset is a story then the people telling the story have the power to choose the type they tell. For example, if I tell the story of seventh grader Julia as a hardworking, young woman who stays after school, always seeks extra help, and will go above and beyond to learn, then I am crafting a story of a student with a growth mindset. The very stories we tell about our students end up becoming their reality and impacting our mindsets about what is and is not possible for them to achieve.

As teachers, we need to be aware of the classroom culture we create, and the power we have to resist typecasting along the lines of the “wild class” or “problem class” or “the perfect class.” We want to also be mindful of our power to positively influence each student’s internal story. When in doubt, hum the theme song to Rocky, and ask yourself: Am I championing this learner’s growth mindset? Is my internal language about this student sliding into fixed mindset labels of high, low, troublemaker, angel, and if so, what words can I use instead?

School cultures are created in large part by the stories that are told within their building walls, especially the ones that are repeated over and over again. If the educators in a building all tell versions of the story, “These kids just can’t learn because…” it creates a shared fixed mindset and often a feeling of hopelessness. These stories might happen as casual hallway talk, lunchroom venting, or faculty meeting discussions. The more a story is told with all its iterations, the more it becomes the core internal story of the place.

How To Uncover Your School’s Stories

To create environments where a growth mindset is the norm for all members of a  school community, an important first step is to listen to the stories currently being told. A few ways to uncover your school’s core stories include:

  • Listen to the language often used to describe students. Are students often labeled? Do these labels stay fixed? Conversely, listen for language about students that conveys a belief in students’ capacity for future growth and the teacher’s self awareness that students develop in relation to their mentoring.
  • Examine comments and feedback given to students. Is it process-based, acknowledging the strategies used and work they put in? Or does it just list a grade or contain circles on a rubric which are more product-focused? Does it name concrete learning the student has already mastered in addition to some possible next steps for learning?
  • Notice generalizations and overly broad comments. Do educators often make claims such as “These students…” or “This class…”? Are students or classes lumped together without noticing and naming individual differences?

By listening for labels, looking at feedback, and noticing generalizations you can acknowledge any stories that might be contributing to fixed mindsets about students and then help to make some shifts.

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How to Shift Stories Toward Growth Mindsets

If you uncover stories that seem to be cultivating a fixed mindset or impeding educators’ ability to believe they truly can help all students you may want to intentionally shift these stories. What follows are a few ways to move towards collective stories that support growth mindsets.

  • Start meetings with a few minutes of student strength “shout outs.” Put a piece of student work up and use an asset lens to name what this student CAN do and has learned to do. It shifts the tone of meetings to begin focusing on strengths.
  • Stop labeling. Easier said than done to break habits like this, but talk to colleagues about the negative effects of labeling students. Help one another by committing to talk about students without labels. No more “low students” or “high students.” Instead, shift to talking about each student as an individual person with her own strengths and needs.
  • Run a workshop on how to give feedback that reinforces a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. Give teachers and administrators time to practice their feedback with one another and come up with ways that feel authentic to them. In my book, Mindsets and Moves, I suggest these four qualities when offering feedback that supports a growth mindset.
    • Be specific.
    • Name what the learner IS doing.
    • Make sure it can transfer to other learning experiences.
    • Take yourself out of it. Avoid language such as “I like…” and make it about the student’s work, not your opinion.
  • Watch the film Rocky. This suggestion might seem silly, but a good underdog with a growth mindset film can go a long way. If Rocky is not your thing, choose any number of others that fit this description—The Mighty Ducks, Hoosiers, Rudy, Hidden Figures… But don’t just watch them for the plot; pay attention to the mindset and how the characters actively believe they can succeed. Watch with the question in mind, “What can I learn and take with me into my classroom and my internal story that will help me be like Rocky?” I know more than one educator who starts their day with Eye of the Tiger as their theme song. What theme song will help you shift your story?
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Written by

Gravity Goldberg is coauthor of Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Students’ Growth and Independence (Heinemann, 2007) and author of many articles about reading, writing, and professional development. She holds a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and an assistant professor at Iona College’s graduate education program. She leads a team of literacy consultants in the New York/New Jersey region. Gravity is the author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge, Grades 1-8.

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