As a Special Education educator, I have struggled my entire career with the various labels that are assigned to students in our schools.  When students are viewed through the lens of their particular label, whether it be dyslexic or autistic, learning disabled or emotionally disturbed, other important descriptors, such as persistent, thoughtful, curious, wry sense of humor and a multitude of other characteristics that our students possess, often take a back seat.

Recently I watched Rethinking Giftedness and realized that labeling our “smart” students also carries with it several negative effects.  When students are led to believe they are gifted or have a “math brain”, and later struggle, that struggle is often absolutely devastating. At that time students start to believe they were not, after all, gifted, or that the gift has “run out”. 

It occurs to me that labeling students supports a “fixed mindset”. “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” ( Dweck, 2015)

If we as educators truly embrace a “growth mindset”, when students understand that their abilities can be developed, we must do more than put up bulletin boards and hang posters that describe the differences between the fixed and growth mindsets. First of all, we need to change the way we talk to students.  I wrote about this in a previous blog. I also touched on this in my most recent blog regarding feedback.

Once we adjust the way we give feedback to our students, so that it encourages them to think harder and appreciate the struggle that learning is, we help our students understand how their individual effort determines how smart they can become.

As a parent of two daughters who swam competitively, I came to appreciate the way swimmers celebrated their personal bests. It didn’t matter if they finished a race in first or last place, if they beat their own best time in a race, that was cause for celebration amongst the entire team.  Each swimmer raced against herself to continually improve. That was a much better indicator of improvement than comparing herself to other swimmers, who she had no control over.

Yet, comparing students to one another is the default mode of calculating grades in many classrooms.  Some students, who are aware that they don’t measure up to others, give up before they even start knowing they will come in last place. 

Teachers with a growth mindset may ask themselves, “Who is motivated by my grading system?” If they realize it is not motivating for their struggling students, they will look for ways to make the grading system more appealing to them.

One of the great joys I had in running an Arrowsmith Program for four years was that I did not assign letter grades.  Instead, my students measured their own progress and tried to break their own personal bests in their various cognitive exercises. We celebrated everyone’s personal bests and worked together by combining personal bests to earn time to play games together. Students were very motivated to do the hard work, knowing that their sustained effort would pay off in rewiring their brains in the long run, and in the short run,  allow for some social times of fun and interaction as they celebrated each other’s progress.