Mentors & Mindsets: How One National Organization Is Implementing Mindset Research and Resources

Meha Davé, Director of Program Innovation, Spark
March 23rd, 2017
Posted In: Education, In Real Life, Research

Did you know young people with strong academic or learning mindsets are more likely to succeed in school and beyond? Adults – parents, educators and even mentors – can play a critical role in helping students cultivate these mindsets.

At Spark, a national mentoring organization serving students in the middle grades, we believe all young people have the opportunity to discover who they can become and that all adults can have a role in equipping them for that journey. Spark brings students out of the classroom and into the workplace for one-to-one mentoring that includes skill-building, career exploration and the development of an interest-driven project. Our focus on serving students during an important developmental period and the unique way in which our program engages mentors and educators, led to a strategic effort to make mindsets an important part of our training and curriculum.

When we learned about the growth mindset toolkit for mentors developed in partnership between MENTOR and Stanford University’s PERTS with the support of the Raikes Foundation, we took advantage of the opportunity to apply the research and resources. Before I tell you how, let me broadly remind you what the research says:

People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities can be developed over time. This is often contrasted with a fixed mindset in which intelligence and abilities cannot be changed over time. Very simply, research shows that students with a growth mindset do better in school.  

Around the same time of the growth mindset toolkit launch, Spark was working to incorporate the research from the Foundations for Young Adult Success report and the Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners literature review, both from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, into our program design. This research says:

Mindsets, defined as “beliefs and attitudes about oneself, the external world, and the interaction between the two,” develop during early adolescence and can be shaped by developmental experiences and relationships over time. Four mindsets of particular importance when it comes to student learning and academic performance are belonging, self-efficacy, relevance, and growth mindset.

Building on this research as well as the work of psychologists Carol Dweck and Albert Bandura, Spark developed a three-fold approach to support mindset development in the youth that we serve.

  1. Start with Staff
    We’ve learned over time that a quality mentoring experience begins long before the student/mentor matching process begins. After hearing consistent requests from staff for additional training and professional development, we created “Spark Academy,” an ongoing program designed to better prepare staff for their work and long-term career ambitions. Building from one of our core values “be a student and a mentor,” Spark Academy training sessions for 2016 and 2017 were designed to include academic mindset content to help staff members embrace change, curiosity, new challenges and innovation. When this is a part of each team member’s day-to-day experience, there’s no question that everyone can reach their full potential with a focus on always teaching and always learning. Because we’ve made this one of our organizational core values, growth mindset content will remain part of our ongoing professional development program.
  2. Empower Mentors
    Learning for young people takes place in a variety of contexts, not just at school! A key part of setting up Spark mentors for success has been helping them think about their workplace as a learning environment that they can orchestrate to be engaging and supportive of their mentees. Spark’s mentor training includes strategies for building the four learning mindsets in the workplace through activity facilitation, relationship building with students, praising students for effort rather than abilities and other practices that make adult workplaces into student-friendly learning environments. One mentor after participating in this training said, “I would not have thought to explain the office norms to my student as that’s something I take for granted.” Spark’s training and resources for mentors are about helping them re-think what they do and experience day-to-day and create powerful learning experiences for youth in doing so.
  3. Inform & Support Educators
    Thanks to funding from All Points North Foundation, a small private foundation, Spark infused its school partner training sessions with content on mindsets. This training series leverages the experiences of educators to focus on building self-awareness and cultivating growth mindsets at three levels: with the individual student, within the classroom and within the broader school environment. New and seasoned educators alike shared that this training helped them better understand the behavior of their students by looking at it through the framework of mindsets as a driver of behavior. Additionally, as we do with our own Spark staff, we created space for educators to reflect on their own mindsets and those of their schools, as well as the intentional or unintentional influence these mindsets can have on students.

With a focus on these three audiences, Spark’s taken a comprehensive approach to applying mindset research and resources with the goals of integrating them into the Spark culture for staff; helping mentors to establish and practice them in the workplace and with students; and supporting teachers in fostering them in the classroom.

Our hope is that when staff members, mentors and educators understand and encourage academic mindsets, we will see the results in students’ actions. In the 2015-16 school year, 85% of Spark students demonstrated positive academic mindsets such as school relevance, growth mindset, school belonging and self-efficacy. We are encouraged by these early outcomes and look forward to continuing to engage in this work.

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