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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Ya gotta believe'

"We're not good now, but we can get better" was the unofficial motto of a start-up charter high school in San Jose, I concluded in 2001. Most of the students had been just barely passing (or not passing) in middle school, and now they were trying to pass college-prep classes. (For more on Downtown College Prep, read my book, Our School.)

The belief that students can improve their abilities if they're willing to work at it, known as "growth mindset," took off in 2006, when Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck wrote a bestseller, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Students who believe their intelligence is malleable are likely to work harder, persevere and do better, writes Dweck. Those who see their abilities as "fixed" -- you're smart or you're not -- may avoid challenges.

But does teaching growth-mindset lessons improve achievement? Two recent studies disagree, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. Both are meta-analyses of previous research and were published in the same journal a few weeks apart.

One paper "found positive effects on academic outcomes, mental health, and social functioning," primarily for low achievers and disadvantaged students.

The other concluded the "apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement are likely attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias.”

Dweck agrees that low-achieving students benefit far more than high achievers. “If you’re getting As, you don’t have anywhere to go," she told Barshay. "And also, if you’re highly motivated already, you may not need a motivation booster.”

It's hard to measure the effectiveness of mindset boosts, in part because they're often combined with other "helpful tips, such as encouraging students to work hard, set goals and use strategies when facing challenges," writes Barshay.

Dweck and other mindset advocates are working "with educators on changing how they teach, assign work and grade students," she writes. Once students believe in their ability to learn, they need to do the work.

I'm a big believer in the power of self-efficacy. If students believe they are capable of reaching their goals, they'll be more likely to persevere, cope with challenges, see failures as learning opportunities, etc. But confidence has to be allied to effort.

Teachers should believe their students can learn -- even if it's "irrational optimism," writes Fordham's Michael J. Petrilli.

For example, one recent study found that high expectations boosted test scores of students in grade 4 through grade 8, and a recent Fordham-commissioned study detected lasting benefits for students whose teachers were tougher graders. Another one found that Black teachers hold higher expectations for Black students than white teachers do. That is especially the case for Black male students, and for math.

"Setting wildly unrealistic goals" isn't helpful, writes Petrilli. "But for teachers—and in particular, those working with traditionally disadvantaged students — suspending disbelief is almost certainly better than succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations."


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