Authors Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz want to change how we look at our classrooms. They say we need to think beyond the idea of "good in school" and ask; will our students be good in the world? Will these students have empathy, will they be resilient, can they face challenges with flexibility? These are just some of the traits Kristi and Christine explore in their book: A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the traits of Joyful, Independent Growth.
They say the ideas they’re presenting are tweaks not turns and the research is based on many authors, but most notably Carol Dweck who wrote Mindset. We started our conversation talking about those tweaks, in our thinking about the day, especially at the start of the school year.
A transcript of this episode will be available soon.
Kristi: One of the things, both Christine and I are classroom teachers, and at the beginning of every year, you get a list of all of the things you have to get done. This is your math curriculum, your reading curriculum, your writing curriculum. And I have a good five minute breakdown [crosstalk 00:01:36]. Right. And so then, one of the things that we started doing a lot of reading and thinking about this, we knew is that it couldn't be something added in because if I added something in, I couldn't wrap my brain around the fact that, "Oh, I'm going to have 30 minutes to teach-" It just wasn't going to fit, and it wasn't going to happen. When we were talking and working with teachers at our school, what we found is that it wasn't so much changing our day as much as changing our thinking about our day.
And so we stopped seeing just the explicit aspects of our curriculum. So in this read aloud, we're working on inferring character feelings, but at the same time, we can be working on the ways of thinking about the world. So we could be talking about persistence and optimism through a lens of character. We could use things like a writing workshop share. So in before a writing workshop share might be, "Can you talk about how you stretched out this word?" Now we could say to kids, "Could you talk about how you use self-talk? How were you flexible in stretching out that word? Or how were you persistent in tackling that problem?" So kids start to pick up the language within the context of what we were doing already.
It didn't become anything new, as much as we started to think about what we did in new ways.
Christine: And as the year unfolded, we kept hearing and experiencing more examples of this. And so, as I read Charlotte's Web aloud to my class, all of a sudden instead of talking about the character of Wilbur or Charlotte, we're talking about empathy and optimism, and the third graders are bringing these ideas onto the table. And then Small Moment stories, suddenly, halfway through the unit took a turn where everybody was falling skiing, or falling on their bike, or having a fight, and then getting back up and being resilient. And so, it was really powerful over the last few years to watch these stances be woven in, not just by us into what we're doing, but also by the students we're teaching. And that's the exciting moment, where all of a sudden things are starting to really click, and you see it just in the water.
Kristi: And it felt like it was tweaks, not complete turns. Instead of my think-aloud during a lesson being, "Watch me as I try to figure out this word," I would say, "Watch me. I'm going to try to be flexible right now. Oh, that didn't work. Let me try this other way. Oh, did you see how I was being flexible just then?"
I overheard two kids talking at a table and one of them was like, "You just need to be persistent." And the kid back is like, "I'm trying to be persistent," and he's like, "Well, be flexible then." And I just had this bird's eye view where it wasn't as though I had said to them, "This is you." I had done a 35 minute lesson on persistence, but in weaving it across the entire day, it started to pop up through. It was in the ether at that point, in the water, even to the point where parents were saying things to me like, "I was really upset about putting together a piece of Ikea furniture and my child told me to be a little more persistent." And I was like, "Yup."
Christine: We've been there.
Kristi: They're like, "Be more flexible, Kristi." "I don't want to."
Brett: Well, how did these techniques help with the range of students, from the student who's great at school to others who are maybe struggling and need more help?
Christine: I was a student who was really good at school. And I think that there's even in my childhood a difference between being compliant, and we see this with a lot of students, being compliant, and really being able to do school well and being really engaged in school. And so, even for children who seem like they're really great at doing school, sometimes these tools and these stances are a great tool for reflection for them to see that there will be a time where some things don't go well and what can I do, what can I fall back on when that happens?
And then for other children, it's really powerful to bring them into our classrooms and then figure out where they are in terms of their optimism, or their persistence, or their flexibility, and use that to gauge what kind of instruction we're going to do for some children. They don't need any more optimism. They maybe need a little bit of flexibility or realism. And so figuring out where children are and really meeting them where they are is very powerful and it really benefits any child.
Kristi: And for me, I was the other child. I actually spent my first grade, a good portion of it, with my desk in the hall. I once balled up a piece of paper and threw it at my teacher. True story. Sorry, Mrs. Grimm. So, what's interesting is that my issues weren't necessarily academic. My mom was a teacher. I knew how to read, I could write, but I didn't know how to deal with challenge. And I still remember I had to copy something from the board about Abraham Lincoln, and it was on that newspaper paper, and I was using a pencil and I tried to erase it. It kept ripping and I couldn't deal with my frustration, and so I balled up the paper, threw it at her. I was out in the hall. I think my issue wasn't something that was going to be addressed by academics or something that was going to be addressed by helping me deal with frustration and failure. And there's kids in our classrooms who are coming from experiences where maybe they don't have a lot of exposure to optimism. They don't have a lot of exposure to flexibility.
And so, it can be taught, and we can help kids so that they don't struggle the way that we've all struggled. Christine and I were talking about how, when we first got to college, we were like, "Hey, what's studying?", not really feeling prepared for the work of being a student of learning through failure. And I think a lot of our work has come from the idea of one of our most important ideas for kids is that they feel like they have agency and independence in their life. And sometimes academics will help kids do that. But also sometimes feeling like you can deal with problems, no matter what, is what kids really need to be powerful.
And it's just as powerful for teachers. And so every year, especially at this time of the year, I think about going into my classroom and there are inevitably some failures. And when I'm trying to take something new on myself, there are still failures, and it's so easy to slip into that mindset of, "I'm just not good at this. I just don't know what to do." And I think we all do it really quickly. And so being able to flip back and be reflective about a lesson that didn't go well, or wanting to re-introduce a new concept, or walking in the hallway, there are all these little things that you really need to think about what's my mindset and how am I dealing with these failures and how can I be reflective about that?
And I think part of what I'm thinking about too, when we have to reframe what it means to be good in school, what school is all about. I just think the classroom is a microcosm of the world you're going to have at large, and it worries me so much to see kids in passive receipt of learning and in passive receipt of information. I feel like as people get stressed, as I get stressed about, "Oh, I have to cover this, this and this," we lose sight of the fact that these kids are going to be our future. And so looking at the classroom from if this was the world, what do we see? Like reframing good in school to mean good in the world, and not even good, but just like who needs to be in the world?
People who have empathy. People who are resilient to failure. People who are persistent when they care about something. People who are flexible when they hit a problem. And so, when you step back and look at your classroom, it's not, "Who's compliant? Who's on benchmark?" But it's, "Who's working through problems? Who's facing a challenge with flexibility?" We're not saying that children, adults, aren't going to feel frustrated or upset, but it's not the feeling. It's what you do after that. And so, acknowledging, "Oh. Ech," but then being like, "And now I'm going back into it."
And I just think, as we look at the world at large, and what the world needs, it needs kids and people who are going to be like, "I know how to stick with this. I know how to make change. I know how to make the world better for everyone."
Christine: There's something really refreshing for children, too, about being open and honest with them about their learning, and instead of thinking that learning is this magical dust that you sprinkle over them and then they just kind of grow and bloom, that they actually have to put in some effort, and it can be very joyful effort, and that there are tools that can help them feel control over that learning [crosstalk 00:10:47] is really powerful. And I've seen for a lot of students, all of a sudden, they don't feel as out of control and lost in learning. And it gives them permission to be at completely different points than people at their table, or people in their classroom, and still feel as if they're making growth and that they have some power and control over what's happening. And that in itself is really rewarding for them.
Brett: Sometimes we can't avoid a bad day. How do we manage our mindset when it feels like everything is going wrong?
Christine: I think that there's a lot that's been said about the narratives that go on in your head about how things are going. And I have been there, where it seems like one thing is going wrong after the other, after the other, and you're on the boat and the engine stalls, and then you lose the paddle, and then it starts to rain, and everything just cannot go your way. And very quickly, our brains seem to trick us into this gloom and doom scenario where not only did that mini lesson flop, but also now it's indoor recess, and this kid is having an argument with this child, and everything seems to be really, really challenging.
And it can be. We're both classroom teachers and we know that, and we have both had those days and we will not pretend that we have not. And there's something really powerful about stopping and taking a moment and reflecting on your own mindset and thinking, "Is there one good thing that I can find?" Because once you find one good thing in your classroom, something little to hold onto, then you start to change the narrative in your mind. And the same things that we teach children, all about storytelling, and self-talk, and reflection, and goal setting, really apply to teachers.
And so, if you take a moment to say, "I'm going to do a little self-talk. I'm going to give myself a mantra." And for me, it's find one good thing. And once I find one good thing, I can change the narrative, and slowly see that ripple across the classroom. Our affect and our mood, and as teachers our role in the classroom really can ripple out across the classroom as well. There are times where you just need to take a deep breath and a moment and think about how your mood is affecting the whole classroom, and then bring it back all together.
Kristi: There's some really interesting research I would talk about in the book by the psychoanalyst named Philippa Perry. She has this quote about how, if you aren't used to hearing good news, you don't have the neurons to process good news. There is a neural pathway for good news, just like there's a neural pathway for brushing your teeth. And I think about that a lot, that if you don't practice seeing the glass as half full, your brain is not processing things as half full. It's a fascinating thing to me, that the gloom and doom person you might know who's like, "Oh, we got new books!" "Oh, but I have to put them on my library." Oh, we're going to try something new in math!" "That means I have to rethink what I was going to do," that it's not necessarily, Gr, this person," it's that they're not used to having and processing good news.
And, listen: I am the queen of a bad day. Two things about it. One is that sometimes you would give yourself permission to have to pout. I once heard melancholy described as melancholy as the pleasure of being sad. You put on The Cure, turn down the lights in your house, and you pout, basically. And I do think there is a way in which that's a healthy thing in terms of rebooting, but understanding that you're making the choice to do that, and that there isn't fate at work. Being able to say, "I need a little time to be grumpy about this, and then I'm going to put that aside, and I'm going to move on." It's naming for yourself the feeling, the experience, and then putting it away and going on with your day and your life. And listening to more Cure. The up tempo songs.
Brett: Talk about the research you did for A Mindset for Learning. Who did you read?
Christine: We've read a lot. There's a very extensive list of everybody who we read before and while we were writing this book, and every book seemed to lead to another book, and every piece of research seemed to lead to another one. And as we read, it was for the book, but it was also for ourselves. [crosstalk 00:15:34] It's like, what kind of person do I want to be, and how am I going to be that person?
Kristi: And I do think it's interesting, you said that some of the books we came too as people.
Kristi: So like we approached them first as, "I need to get better in my own life with dealing with things," and then as we were reading them, we were like, "Huh."
Kristi: "This seems like it would have been useful to know 30 years ago."
Christine: Yeah. "Huh. I wonder if I could talk to third graders about that?"
Kristi: Yeah. It's funny because I feel, especially Mindset, I read that from the point of view of being, "I've got to get in gear as a human being. I can't fall apart every time something goes wrong." Then I read it and I was like ... So, Mindset, Carol Dweck. That is a tremendous book and filled with tremendous research. [crosstalk 00:16:23] I think the world owes her a debt of gratitude for writing the book, in terms of helping people think differently about the world.
Christine: Art Costa has done an extensive amount of research onto habits of mind and written extensively about them. We chose five habits of nine, or five stances, but Art Costa has many more and he has done an amazing amount of work speaking specifically to how those stances affect you as a learner and can be implemented into schools. And then that work has rippled out across the educational community.
Another key researcher was Daniel Pink, who's not necessarily an educational researcher, but who's done some fantastic work specifically on engagement. And his book, Drive, really influenced how we thought about students, and autonomy, and time, and mastery, and purpose, and not using sticker charts, [crosstalk 00:17:29] and making engagement and motivation really authentic, even for kindergartners, and even for third graders. So that was another key researcher.
We also went out of our regular zone, which was interesting. We read psychologists. We read neurologists. We were reading research studies about how the brain works, how self-talk develops. I was reading Psychology Today like a real champ, but it was interesting. It's interesting to think. Oftentimes, I feel like research happens and then teachers don't directly read the research as much as they receive an interpretation of an interpretation of interpretation of the research.
And so I'm going to read the actual research; we read John Hattie, and John Hattie is super influential and his book is just like page after page of research. And reading it and then reflecting on my classroom practice and just classroom practice in general was a really eye-opening experience for me. I've heard things. I've heard of best practice, but I didn't know why it was best practice. So going to some psychologists, going to neurologists, reading people who are doing studies, Carol Dweck is doing studies, Angela Duckworth is doing studies, and reading the actual research was interesting as we thought about our classroom. "What does the research actually say?"
Kristi: And then, what we tried to do was blend it all together. And so, we have this work from Daniel Pink, and Carol Dweck, and Art Costa, and then we have these educational best practices from John Hattie and Lucy Calkins and workshop approaches that we're implementing in our classroom already, and how can we take all of those, blend them together in a way that is not only easy for teachers, because we know that's important, but also really powerful for children? And that was our goal, and I hope we did it.
Brett: How were you able to take all of the research and turn it into practical teaching?
Christine: Trial and error. I think the story about what we did with persistence is exactly right. At first, we were like, "Persistence, persistence, persistence." [crosstalk 00:19:43] Yeah. "We need to be more persistent at persistence!" And then we realized it wasn't working in the way that we were ... It wasn't helping kids to rebound from things the way that we were like, "Let's help kids rebound from things." So then we went back and thought, "Oh gosh. Maybe we need to be thinking more about resilience."
There was a lot of trial and error. So much of it was looking at our own practice as human beings, not just our teaching practice, but our human being practice. Peter Johnson's done a lot of work with teacher language and how altering teacher language can make huge differences for kids. Taking some of that work and really thinking about, "How am I talking about problems in front of the class? How am I supporting kids as they think about things?"
It really is interesting because it just runs perfectly alongside of whatever content you're teaching. It's about the ways of thinking about problems. That's the big shift we made, was we think about problems in certain ways. And so we think about them flexibly and we think about them with optimism. So we tried a bunch of stuff and when it didn't work, we were like, "Growth mindset." [crosstalk 00:20:57] Let's try something different. There was a tremendous amount of talking between us, between our colleagues, and sort of crowdsourcing, like, "Okay, so this is what we're looking at. How do we make this better?"
Kristi: And then, eventually, we found things that seem to fit well together. And so self-talk didn't work as well as a whole-class discussion, but it worked really well one-on-one in small groups or in one-on-one conferences. And then these big, powerful ideas in whole-class reflections really generated some lovely ahas in each of our classrooms.
Christine: I just want to jump in. It was such a mind shift to me to not try to throw a strategy at everything, [crosstalk 00:21:47] to be like, "Oh, you're stuck on this strategy," but to step back and be like, "How are you trying to talk yourself through this?" And then intercept on the level of thinking, as opposed to- And, yes, kids need strategies. They need skills. I'm not saying that, but the way they're accessing that, that was such a mind shift to not try to jump in with, "Here, we'll try this strategy," but to say, "So tell me how you're thinking about approaching this problem," or watching kids at work and seeing, "Oh, they are tentative to start. Let's try to build up some some optimism so jumping in is not such a scary idea."
The thing about teaching social and emotional skills and habits of mind and why it's important, all I have to do is think about myself and people I know in cases where failure has prevented forward movement. We all know people in our lives who, we would say, "They're so smart. They're so talented," but they have such a hard time overcoming moments of struggle, fear of failure, that the world never gets to see what they're capable of.
And so social, emotional skills, alongside with habits of mind and all the things we teach in school are what enable people to bring their best selves to the world, and to continue to grow and change. And there's all sorts of research that says kids with pro-social skills are a better indicator of successful leader in life than even academic skills when you look at it in kindergarten, because who you are is as important as what you know.
Brett: What you said about not being able to accept good news is fascinating. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Christine: What basically the research says is anything you do repeatedly, you build really strong neural pathways for, so if from your childhood, you've been constantly associating silence with anger, silence means anger, when someone's silent, they're angry, you have to unbuild that to rebuild a different one. And so, we don't realize that our brain is getting structured all the time. Everything is building structures in our brain and repeated experiences. That's why you have to be not careful, but that's why you have to be really thoughtful about helping kids construct positive narratives, especially if they're coming from a household with negative narratives. They're learning, "Oh, I'm stupid. I'm dumb." And then it becomes a point where it now just has become an established structure, that it just runs on a loop.
Brett: What about a student's mindset grade over grade, year over year?
Christine: Well, John Hattie has a research that's found that you either have to have a teacher who's got this sort of mindset with you or a parent. One can cancel out the other. However, the teacher is a bit more tenuous because you only have them for a year, and if next year's teacher feeds the narrative of your home, then you lost the ground you've gained. But teachers who are thinking in this way and helping kids in this way are going to help level out the ... They're going to cancel out the negative patterns because you're also going to be building more positive patterns.
Kristi: I think t's really exciting to think about somebody coming in in kindergarten, and then hearing this every year, going all the way up into high school. I have friends who teach high school who think that it would just be so powerful to have children or teenagers with these stances in place, just the way that they learn their way of life, already in place. And so, then all of a sudden the high schoolers as learners are in a completely different place than a generation before.
I think that there does have to be some kind of systemic change because I've had students who have carried it from my classroom to other classrooms and then have brought their teachers along and said, "There's a thing called growth mindset." And that's really powerful. But I think that we do need to call the teachers to really take this on.
Some of John Hattie's most recent research is that the effect size of having a growth mindset as a student is really small if your teacher does not have a growth mindset, and it's very dangerous as a teacher to teach about growth mindset and then say, "Well, yes, but this student is still a really struggling reader." [crosstalk 00:26:15] Or, "This student is really not that strong at math." And so I think we need to be very reflective and not critical, but intentional about how we take on this powerful learning, because as much as we want to give children agency over their own learning, we still are in this really powerful role as teachers.
Christine Hertz is coauthor of the Heinemann titles Kids First from Day One and A Mindset for Learning. She finds great joy and challenge in helping all children grow as independent and engaged students. She is passionate about keeping play and creativity at the center of children's lives and curiosity and wonder at the heart of learning. Christine has taught in a wide variety of classrooms from preschool to fourth grade and as an adjunct instructor of education courses. She currently teaches in Worcester, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter@christine_hertzor visit her web site atchristinehertz.com.
Kristine Mraz is coauthor—with Christine Hertz—of Kids First from Day One, which provides a practical blueprint for increasing the child-centeredness of your teaching practice. She and Christine previously teamed up for the bestselling A Mindset for Learning (coauthored with Christine Hertz), which provides practical and powerful strategies for cultivating optimism, flexibility, and empathy alongside traditional academic skills.
Kristi has also coauthored—with Alison Porceli and Cheryl Tyler—Purposeful Play, the book that helps you make play a powerful part of your teaching. She and Marjorie Martinelli wrote Smarter Charts and Smarter Charts for Math, Science, and Social Studies to get the most out of this classroom staple. Their popular blog Chartchums keeps teachers in touch with ongoing and relevant classroom issues and ways to use charts as a support. Chartchums is also on Facebook and on Twitter @chartchums!
Kristi is a recent transplant to southern California, where she will be writing and consulting until the classroom calls again. You can follow all of her adventures on Twitter @MrazKristine or on her blog, found at kristimraz.com.