Much of our job as educators is to get kids to do hard things and things they are not good at; these are necessary actions in the learning process.
The Engagement Equation outlines the process by which we can empower students to take on challenges, persist, make mistakes, and do the things good students do. This is especially important for educators working with intervention students, which in truth is most teachers. In California, state testing data shows that more than half of students in the state are not meeting benchmarks, and only one-third of 11th graders are prepared for college math courses. Based on data like this, we can safely assume a large number of students will need to know how to take on challenging tasks and do things they are not good at if they are going to be college- and career-ready.
In my previous post, I focused on the need for a task to have some sense of purpose and connection to a student’s life if we want him or her to persist when things get difficult. Similarly, we should not expect students to work hard, recover from mistakes, and take chances if they do not believe their actions will have any direct influence on their learning. Why would anyone persist and do hard things if they believe their efforts have no bearing on the outcome?
What the Research Says
This makes directly teaching students about the control they have over their learning and achievement an important aspect of being an exceptional teacher. This idea is what makes the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackburn, and The Mindset Scholars Network so important. Their work focuses on teaching students that they can influence the outcomes in their life through actions.
In Mindset, Dweck explains that students who attribute outcomes to factors under their control, particularly effort, are more:
- Receptive to instruction
- Willing to learn from others
- Honest about their performance
- Willing to take on challenges
- Willing to take risks
- Accurate in their estimations of their abilities
- Likely to view failure as temporary
- Likely to take action when depressed
- Resilient after failure
Another influential Stanford University researcher, Dr. Albert Bandura, described this sense of control over outcomes as the root of human motivation. He explains: “Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by one’s actions.”
These researchers highlight the simple idea that if students don’t believe what they do matters in terms of their learning and achievement, why would they be willing to put forth the effort to do hard things? In my experience, this idea can be particularly important for African Americans, women, students with disabilities, and other stigmatized groups. As a mentor, I saw firsthand the frequent struggle of many African-American boys trying to figure out if a particular outcome was due to their skin color or their actions. It scared me to wonder how corrosive this struggle must be for their motivation and sense of control.
The table below combines the learning-focused mindset research with Bandura’s research on sense of control. Whenever a student has a new experience—in this case, let’s say failing a math test—her brain’s job is to answer, “Why did that happen?” How she answers this question will have a large impact on her subsequent confidence and motivation to take future math tests. If the student believes, as many young people do, that her prospects for math are permanently fixed, she may be inclined to see little purpose in trying harder or learning new strategies. In contrast, students with a learning mindset are more inclined to see the results as temporary.