City Year: Exploring Growth Mindset in High-Need Schools

City Year with support from the Raikes Foundation and PERTS
July 5th, 2017
Posted In: Education, Mentoring Stories, Research

Originally featured on City Year’s blog.

As part of City Year’s ongoing efforts to integrate research-based academic and social-emotional supports that are designed to ensure students come to school every day, ready to learn and on track to high school graduation, City Year is piloting a free, online resource that helps adults to nurture a “growth mindset” in the students they work with, the Growth Mindset for Mentors Toolkit. We seek to benefit not only City Year’s 3,100 AmeriCorps members working in hundreds of schools across the United States, but also other tutors, mentors and student-focused organizations and to promote growth mindset techniques in the education field.

Cultivating a growth mindset, both in themselves and the students they serve, is part of a holistic youth development framework implemented by City Year AmeriCorps members. This asset-based approach leverages students’ developmental stage and talents as strengths in their academic and personal growth, enhancing their ability to achieve at high levels, attain goals and reach full potential.

In 2015-2016, the toolkit was piloted in 23 public schools that partner with City Year in Columbus and Miami. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 98 percent of City Year AmeriCorps members agreeing that the toolkit was valuable to their role as mentors and tutors to students who benefit from additional support. In 2016-2017, the pilot expanded to 10 City Year sites with 1,200 City Year AmeriCorps members serving in 120 schools receiving the training. Cities include: Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Little Rock, Manchester, N.H., Memphis, Milwaukee, Sacramento, San Antonio and Tulsa.

Here is a closer look at how the toolkit is being used by City Year AmeriCorps members at one high-need public school.

Charla Davis, City Year AmeriCorps member

On a rainy spring afternoon in Detroit, Charla Davis works with three third graders to strengthen their math skills. Math isn’t the only skill she’s focused on, however. Davis is also striving to increase her students’ ability to take risks with their coursework, persist through challenges and rebound after they make mistakes.

“Today, we’re focusing on place values,” says Davis, a City Year AmeriCorps member who has spent the 2016-2017 school year tutoring and mentoring students at J.E. Clark Preparatory, a high-need K-8 school of about 700 students. “Let’s do 5,432 in base 10.”

Mailk, De’jon and Destini* begin working out the problem on small dry erase boards.

Satisfied with their progress, Davis decides to add a bit of a challenge. “Let’s do expanded word form,” Davis says, and each student starts writing out the answers.

“How do you spell sixty?” Malik asks.

Six months ago, Davis might have given him the answer. Now, after receiving training in an approach called “growth mindset,” she knows it’s important for her students to try to figure it out on their own and build their confidence. “Spell it out,” Davis says. Slowly, Malik mouths the letters as he writes, looking up at Charla for approval.

She nods. “That’s right,” she says.

Next, the students tackle worksheets of addition and subtraction problems. Davis wants to see how much they have retained from the previous day’s lesson.

Malik rushes through and finishes first, handing the sheet to Davis. She scans it, noticing some growth, but also some errors. She knows he is capable of getting all the answers right, if only he would slow down.

“You worked fast and you worked hard,” she says. “Take another look at number four. You can review some strategies that have worked before that might help you get the correct answer.”

The bell rings and the students start heading for the door. Malik seems a bit deflated.

“I owe you guys a game next time,” Davis says as she waves to them. She makes a point of catching Malik’s eye and gives him a smile. “Start thinking about what you want to do tomorrow.”

Earlier this year, Davis and about 70 other City Year AmeriCorps members in Detroit received training on cultivating a growth mindset to better support the students they serve. The training includes phrasing, feedback and techniques that encourage students to persist through challenges, identify effective strategies and respond to helpful feedback to help them problem solve. Rather than praising a student for being “smart,” for example, growth mindset encourages adults to promote resiliency, improvement and effort, such as, “I know that was hard, but look how your effort paid off,” or, “You haven’t mastered that yet, but we can keep working at that concept.”

The Growth Mindset for Mentors Toolkit was developed by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and PERTS, the Project for Educational Research That Scales at Stanford University, with support from the Raikes Foundation, and was piloted by City Year. The online toolkit for mentors is free, takes just a couple of hours to complete and can be helpful for anyone who works regularly with students. It is similar to other toolkits PERTS has developed for parents and teachers. Results from the two-year pilot have been encouraging. City Year plans to expand the training to all its 3,100 AmeriCorps members serving in 28 U.S. cities in the 2017-2018 school year.

Growth mindset is a belief that intelligence is malleable instead of fixed and can be increased over time through hard work, effective strategies and feedback from others. When people possess a growth mindset, they are more persistent, flexible and better equipped to handle adversity.  They understand that struggle and mistakes are part of any worthwhile learning process.

Research shows that a student’s mindset influences a host of other behaviors and attitudes, and that having a growth mindset can help him or her cultivate confidence, perseverance, resilience and positive decisions, in addition to performing better in school.  

The growth mindset toolkit “has given corps members a new language to reframe challenges for students,” says Richel’la Washam, a City Year Impact Manager who trains and guides the AmeriCorps members working at Clark. “I’ve seen a change in corps members who might now redirect students to try a different approach.”

The toolkit prompts mentors to first reflect on their own attitudes about intelligence and abilities before they attempt to pass on techniques and skills that cultivate a growth mindset to their students.

“Corps members are checking themselves more,” says Washam. “Before, they might say, ‘I’m not really a math person.’ Now, they would think twice before saying that in front of students, because they would not want students to believe that about themselves.

“We are role models and how we see ourselves affects how we interact with our students, either consciously or subconsciously.”

Davis says the training has made her more aware of how her own fear of failure and perfectionistic streak have held her back, and how she might help her students to grow in confidence as they grapple with new concepts and skills.

“I see how I’ve always been very discouraged by failure, and I’ve allowed that fear to block me from doing some things,” Davis says. “But now I look at my students and it would be heartbreaking if one of them didn’t try something new or didn’t believe they could accomplish something.”

Davis tries to let students explore options and wrestle with questions for longer than she used to. “I try to encourage them but not answer right away,” she says. “And when they don’t get something right away, I remind them, ‘We can get better, right?’”

It’s a balancing act. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who pioneered the concept of growth mindset, has warned educators to not fall prey to “false” growth mindset: praise for effort alone, rather than for outcome. Growth mindset should help students become more resourceful about solving problems, achieving goals and persevering through struggle, not just be a pat on the head for trying, Dweck argues.

Davis tries to bolster her students’ confidence and enthusiasm for learning even as she pushes them to take on more challenging work and correct mistakes. She and Washam reflect on the afternoon’s math lesson after Malik, De’jon and Destini leave.

Davis mentions that Malik told her recently that he wants to be a firefighter.

“But then he said he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to become one. He said he’s afraid he’ll mess it up,” Davis said. “He’s the most empathetic kid, and he doesn’t see that as strength.”

He tries to finish his math problems quickly because he sees his school as a competition, Davis tells Washam, and being first to complete a task can make some students feel more engaged with school. She wants to maintain that enthusiasm while trying to show Malik that taking more time to focus brings its own reward. If he slows down, he may not be first, but he might get all the answers correct the first time.

They discuss strategies to build in more steps in the math problems so Malik would be inclined to work more methodically and feel a sense of accomplishment. “Then you can check in with him and ask, ‘did you do all the steps right? We can keep working on that,’” suggests Washam. “You definitely have their attention, and you can tell they like math.”

Davis nods and begins planning tomorrow’s math lesson. She is hoping that along with a greater understanding of mathematics, her students are also gaining greater self-confidence and tenacity – a combination of skills that will help them succeed.

“I’m invested in my growth because I’m really invested in their growth,” she says. “These students are resilient and I want them to believe in their own potential and to know that even when we get down, there are ways to pick ourselves up and get through the challenges.”

To explore the free toolkit, visit: https://www.mindsetkit.org/growth-mindset-mentors

*Student names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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