Tuesday / April 23

Specialization Is for Insects: Embracing a Growth Mindset

Specialization Is for Insects- Embracing a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck showed us the difference between successful and unsuccessful students isn’t so much about content or technology—it’s about the cultivation of growth mindsets.

Throughout the years, I’ve found it easy to encourage a growth mindset in students through rigorous content, ongoing support, and specific praise for accomplishments. What I’ve had trouble believing as an adult is that I can learn anything. It was so easy to believe everyone else (young and old) could succeed with a growth mindset. It took me a while to believe I could as well. Of course, I stayed up on the latest in all things English Language Arts and AVID—the two subjects I taught, but I always had the feeling that building my technology and math skills was out of reach.

There was a confluence of events that moved me from a personal fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Codecademy got my feet wet with coding. I brushed up on the math skills with the help of Khan Academy. Books and online resources helped me embrace a blended learning approach in my teaching. The work of Carol Dweck helped me reframe my thinking so I finally understood that in order to believe all students could learn, I had to believe I could continue learning and growing intellectually.

The work of Tim Ferriss introduced me to the following quote by Robert A. Heinlein:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Specialization is for insects. I’ve come back to this idea many times. As a teacher, I was good at teaching English and AVID strategies, but I wasn’t growing in multiple content areas. I didn’t investigate different fields and allow my curiosity to flourish, which meant I was in a fixed state. It took books (on subjects outside my comfort zone), online resources, and the encouragement of very smart people to set me on the road of growth that I’ve traveled the last six years.

There are many teachers who have no trouble encouraging their students to learn at high levels while at the same time believing they themselves can’t grow intellectually. Some adults believe while they’re good at x (e.g. reading, science, assessment, etc.), they’re not good at y (e.g. technology, math, writing, etc.).

This is the real danger we’re facing when it comes to growth mindsets: teachers who believe in everyone except themselves.

And a likely corollary to believing you can’t learn new things is believing that others are unable to learn new things, too.

In the book Leading Impact Teams, the authors define teacher self-efficacy as the teacher’s confidence in his or her ability to promote students learning (page 15). It’s important teachers have a positive perception of their ability to foster student achievement, and this growth mindset comes from one’s confidence in achieving goals. Setting goals is important, and it’s only done by teachers and students who have self-efficacy, which means they have a growth mindset. According to Leading Impact Teams, this is accomplished through:

  • Mastery moments
  • Models of success
  • Feedback
  • Safety

The book’s definition of the Impact Team Model sums up what all educators should believe regarding growth mindset: “… the learners in the system can make a difference and impact learning for ALL” (page 16).

We’re not insects. As educators, we must believe we have had the ability to learn our whole lives—if for no other reason than promoting a growth mindset in students. If we don’t, this confining belief will seep through the school site and negatively affect everyone on campus. This means principals and teachers shouldn’t say the following sentences:

  • I’m not good at math.
  • I don’t understand how to use technology.
  • I can’t teach students how to write in my content area.

I was doing a disservice to my students by believing my potential was capped. I was limiting them by limiting myself. In order to be a more effective teacher, I had to heed the words of Robert A. Heinlein and accept that all human beings are capable of doing and learning everything—including myself.

All students can learn, and making this a reality begins with the way educators view their own potential.

Written by

Steve Johnson is a Curriculum Specialist at Panama-Buena Vista Union School District in Bakersfield, CA. He leads professional development sessions, designs curriculum, and enjoys reading, writing, and talking about education.

Latest comment

  • Great job Steve!

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