Monthly Archives: March 2016

Grit and the Growth Mindset

March 28, 2016

I just finished watching a YouTube video by Angela Lee Duckworth entitled, “The key to success?  Grit”.

Lee Duckworth (2013) defines grit as ” having the stamina, passion, and perseverance to pursue long-term goals” and she talked about the importance of having a growth mindset.  I’ve read a lot about growth mindset and it has given me hope, both as an educator and as a life-long learner.  Why?

According to the Glossary of Education Reform (2013), Carol Dweck is a renowned psychologist who brought the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” into the forefront in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  According to Dweck:

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

With this type of mindset, we no longer see our level of intelligence as something that is static, fixed.  Making mistakes then becomes not about proving that we’re not good or smart enough, but rather about collecting information about what doesn’t work…and then using it to figure out what will work.

What are the implications of this for us as instructors and learners?

  1. We need to make our classrooms a safe place to make mistakes because it is there that we ALL learn what does (and does not) work.  If we stick to tried-and-true methods because they have worked for us before and because we’re afraid of trying something new for fear of failure, our students will not benefit and we won’t either.  They’ll be bored and we’ll be frustrated and disengaged.
  2. By not taking chances in our teaching, we also model for our students that it is not safe for them to take chances, either.
  3. We need to create assessments for learning, not just assessments of learning.  Learning becomes less about demonstrating what students know and more about growing toward what is possible.

When I was young, I was told I was bright and could do anything I set my mind to.  While one would think that would be encouraging, I found it horrifying.  I knew early on there were things I wasn’t naturally gifted at and eventually I knew others would see that, too.  At some point, I wouldn’t be able to achieve any more or go any further because I just wasn’t smart enough.

As an adult learner, I have continued to struggle with what Dweck calls the fixed mindset, which is a belief that I am either smart or I’m not.  Every new thing I try is terrifying for me because I’m afraid I’ll prove I’m not really that smart after all.

The best gift we can give our students (and ourselves) is to model a curiosity and love of learning, to demonstrate through taking risks that the learning is often in the mistakes, not in spite of them.

How would education change for you if it felt safe?


Duckworth, A. L. (2013, April). The key to success? Grit. Retrieved March 28, 2016, from

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Growth mindset (2013, August 29). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved March 28, 2016, from

Skillful Teaching – Core Assumptions

March 27, 2016

In an earlier post, I introduced you to Brookfield’s book The Skillful Teacher.  In Chapter 2, he states four assumptions of skillful teaching.

  1. Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.

We can’t walk into every teaching situation, use the same teaching techniques/tools over and over, and expect to be successful.  By having a wide variety of approaches at our disposal, we can adjust and adapt our style based on the diverse needs of our group.  Not everything we try is going to work, but by giving ourselves permission to attempt new methods and to, on occasion, fail, we are able to be more creative.   I’m not going to be able to reach everyone, but I need to be okay with that…

  1. Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.

Reflecting critically is an investigative process in which we research teaching choices we’ve made and the assumptions upon which they’re based to establish whether or not they are having the intended effect.  Brookfield (2015) says this works best when we check these through “…four complimentary lenses – the lenses of students’ eyes, colleagues’ perceptions, literature, and our own autobiography”.  When we fail to take time to reflect and collect data from a variety of sources to see if we’re on the right track, our uniformed assumptions can distance us from our students and make our teaching stale as year-old croutons.  Part of what makes us engaging as instructors is our ability to adapt and change.  Osborne (1945) said, “Unless you do something beyond what you’ve already mastered, you will never grow.”

  1. Teachers need a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teachers’ actions.

In the absence of information, we’re not teaching, we’re guessing.   (Ever play pin the tail on the donkey?)  Brookfield recommends a tool he uses called a Critical Incident Questionnaire to elicit anonymous feedback from his students.  Asking for feedback is important to help us understand what is going on in our classrooms, but as he points out later, the information is only as useful as what you do with it.  Do nothing or become defensive and it’s less detrimental to you not to ask for the feedback at all. Sobering.

  1. College students of any age should be treated as adults.

In hindsight, there were many a moment in my late teens and early 20’s where I behaved very little like an adult, but I also remember being keenly aware of when those in authority who treated me as less than a grown up.  If we don’t show respect toward our students, is it reasonable to expect they will be respectful toward us?


Brookfield, S.D. (2015).  The Skillful Teacher.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Osborne, R.E., (1945 March 15), Forbes, Thoughts on the business of life, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Forbes Inc.

Do teachers have to have Super Hero DNA to be effective?

Thankfully, no.  It’s easy to feel that way sometimes, though – like we have to be superstar speakers with excellent elocution, more flexible than Elasto-girl, capped off with a patience that would make the biblical character Job seem a hothead.

People, we are not superheroes and that is why our students like us.  Wonder Woman is awesome, but she’s not easy to relate to…

There are likely many schools of thought as to what makes a great teacher.  Here’s my list:

  1. Curious – People who are curious like to hear different points of view, are attentive listeners and are life-long learners.  You would be more likely to hear “We haven’t done it that way before, but let’s try it!” than “We’ve always done it this way…and will continue to do so.” Time to look in the mirror if the last new thing you learned was that the fridge light turns off when you shut the door.   In a similar vein, a great teacher is:
  2. Flexible – What you’re doing isn’t working.  Are you willing to go a different direction, try something new, opt for a novel way to relay the information?  Being flexible doesn’t mean being a pushover.  Orlando (2013) says a flexible instructor can shift gears when he/she sees a particular tack isn’t working.  I’m not a sailor myself, but if I was in the middle of a harbor and the wind died, I wouldn’t sit with my sails facing the same direction they were before and say, “Well, the wind was here before and I’ve already put up the sails this way, so I’m not changing it now.”   You are looking out into a sea of blank faces/the wind has shifted. Time to try something else.
  3. Enthusiastic – For those of you are more introspective or more soft spoken, you don’t need to transform into an extroverted, charismatic dynamo to be a great teacher.  You do need to be enthusiastic about your content, about the learning process and about the students’ success.  If any of these are missing, you will appear disengaged and students will be disinterested and skeptical.  If the instructor isn’t interested in the content, why should they be?
  4. Caring – Have you ever met someone who seemed to have your best interests at heart?  Who celebrated your successes with you and who was saddened when you struggled?  That is what caring looks like to me, at least in the context of instruction.  If our students don’t feel like we care about them as people and we don’t treat them with respect, our influence in instruction will be dramatically impaired.

Show students you care.  Be enthusiastic about what you do and what you teach.  Change course if something isn’t working and always be looking for new and novel ways of reaching your students.  Lofty goals, admittedly, but no special lasso or super strength required.


Orlando, M. (2013, January 14). Nine characteristics of a great teacher. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from

Stephen Brookfield – The Man, the Book

As part of PIDP 3260, we’re reading one of the 18 books Dr. Brookfield has written on teaching.  (For a complete list, look here – Books by Brookfield).

One of his latest, The Skillful Teacher: On Trust, Technique and Responsiveness in the Classroom (2015) reads like a letter written by a practical friend who knows what you’re going through because he’s been there, too.

He doesn’t lord his 40+ years of teaching over you, choosing instead to share his hard-earned experience and knowledge in a refreshing and engaging way using titles such as “Muddling Through as the Honorable Response to Uncertainty” and “Teaching as White Water Rafting”.

9781118450291.pdf  As anyone who has done any teaching knows, there is no one-size-fits-all.  Every group is different and what works for one won’t work for another.  We wrestle with ongoing flights of technological fancy, changes to the complexion of our classrooms, the increasingly prevalent use of on-line learning.  There are days when we are “on” – students are engaged, the classroom is abuzz with discussion, transformation occurs.  Other days…it seems we’re standing alone in a room, talking to ourselves.  Our words seem flat, even to us.

Don’t worry, though.  This isn’t a book of rah rah rah’s, designed to make you feel better but leave you feeling empty (sort of like diet pudding).  He promises to be opinionated and not always in line with the prevailing school of thought in education.


And yet, he also encourages us to consider our own experience.  He says in Chapter 1 that, “If you don’t already do so, you should probably begin to trust your inner voice a little more and accept the possibility that your instincts, intuitions and insights might possess as much validity as those of experts in the field.  You need to recognize the fact that in the contexts in which you work you are often the expect.”

Education+Experience+ Critical Reflection+Intuition = the kind of educator I want to be.