Friday / June 14

Defining a Formative Mindset

We all know at least one person who, when they have their mind set to do something, nothing stops them. Their mind becomes SET on accomplishing the tasks or actions needed to reach their goals and it almost seems easy for them. They effortlessly align their actions with their goals and plow through any perceived obstacles. We envy watching them do things that seem hard or even impossible to others, but seem completely natural to them. They have programmed the computer between their ears to drive their actions and efforts towards their core beliefs.

When educators develop a Formative Mindset®, they ensure everything they view related to teaching and learning is focused in a way where learning is always the constant and time the variable. In doing so, they have a profound impact on their learning and the learning of their students.

Defining a Formative Mindset

Educators with a formative mindset have the ingrained BELIEF that ALL evidence of learning they elicit or come across is used solely to drive instructional actions that SUPPORT student learning to meet targeted objectives. They perpetually view student learning with FLUIDITY versus FINALITY.

When we look closely at the definition of a Formative Mindsetwe can get a deeper understanding of what it truly means and how we can use it is a guide for how we are truly view teaching and learning in our schools and classrooms.

Ingrained belief.

First, let’s start with the idea that a Formative Mindset is an ingrained belief. This means that it has been cultivated over time and now has become the polar north for how teaching and learning decisions are made. John Hattie notes that our beliefs underpin all of our actions and educators who develop and live out critical mind-frames have the greatest impact on student learning (2012, p. 182). Similarly, a Formative Mindset is developed over time and is often cultivated through actions and experiences. We can’t just say one day, “I am going to start to have a formative mindset…”

Next, educators with a Formative Mindset allow their beliefs to drive how they use all evidence of student learning they elicit or come across to drive instructional purposes. This is a key two-part statement. Teachers must first elicit evidence from students about their learning that is focused and targeted. Wiliam noted two kinds of evidence teachers could collect or come across as formative information: purposeful and incidental.

“Purposive evidence is that which is elicited as a result of a deliberate act by someone (usually the teacher) that is designed to provide evidence about a student’s knowledge or capabilities in a particular area. Incidental evidence is evidence of achievement that is generated in the course of a teacher’s day-to-day activities, when the teacher notices that a student has some knowledge or capability of which she was not previously aware.” (2011)

Teachers often pre-determine or design questions or prompts to provoke certain answers or responses (purposeful evidence). There is nothing wrong with this in general. The more focused and targeted the questions we ask students, the better chance we can hone in on determining exactly where a learning need or gap exists. However, if we focus too much on the student responses we are looking for, we can develop tunnel vision and get locked into looking only for the evidence that was sought.

For example, a student is asked to write several paragraphs on how the impact of oil embargos on Japan led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. What the teacher is really looking for is to determine his ability to link cause and effect. This is a skill that will serve the student well in subsequent units in social studies. The student responds to the prompt in a way that conveys his ability to demonstrate an understanding of how the embargo forced Japan to react to the United States, but cites some incorrect dates, individuals, etc. Perhaps when scoring the work, the teacher focuses more on the dates and individuals the student mis-cited and not their overall ability to demonstrate cause and effect. In doing so, the teacher would miss noting the more important learning evidence that indicates learning is taking place as well as perhaps how much closer the student is to the intended target.

When teachers develop a Formative Mindset they are more aware to look for incidental learning evidence and even seek it out these additional aspects of learning students provide. These often come in the form of responses to verbal and written questions that go beyond what is asked and allow teachers to see how students are processing current learning targets and concepts as well as identify specific gaps and misconceptions they have. Teachers can then use these as phenomenal guides to see how students conceptualizing their learning and developing specific skills needed to do so. This is often much more of an indication that learning is taking place than very specific concrete evidence…but it does make it messier.

Supporting student learning towards targeted objectives

Teacher clarity is one of the three pillars of a Formative Mindset and aligns directly with the statement of supporting student learning against targeted objectives. Teachers must ensure they are clear about the learning objectives they have set forth for their students prior to engaging in instruction. This will ensure they focus on collecting the best evidence to use for formative assessment purposes to then provide their learners with the most effective feedback. This begins with academic standards to then develop learning targets and success criteria that are directly aligned to these standards and at the accurate rigor levels.

Learning with fluidity, not finality.

Finally, and most importantly, educators with a Formative Mindset view learning with fluidity, not finality. Learning is a perpetual and ongoing process. It’s messy. Far too often, educators want to capture learning in the moment to justify whether the students have gotten it or not… They’re focusing on: is the response right or wrong. We much more often need to focus on the question: Are our students getting it? When we do, we have the best chance to impact student learning at the very highest of levels.

In future articles, we will dig deeper into the elements of the Formative Mindset and how to bring them to life in your district, school, or classroom.


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on Learning. London, Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2000). Integrating formative and summative functions of assessment. Paper presented to Working Group 10 of the International Congress on Mathematics Education. August, Makuhari, Tokyo. London: King’s College London School of Education.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way. Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices. Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers. Karen Flories is the Executive Director of 6-12 Educational Services for the Valley View School District 365U in Romeoville / Bolingbrook, Illinois.

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