It is rather amazing to me how often I hear or read something so pertinent to what is going on in my classroom right when I need it! I had this experience today with my initial reading of another book my Peter H. Johnston, Opening Minds.
We are in the midst of what seems like billions of assessments during these last two weeks of the third quarter. During one district assessment today, students had to write three reasons why giant pandas are endangered/becoming extinct based on a nonfiction book that we read as a class. Two reasons were very apparent and students listed these easily. It took some inferring to come up with the third reason and threw many students for a loop. I found it interesting, however, that the student who struggled most was the highest reader in my class. She knew the importance of sticking to the text and only citing evidence that the book had included. This made it more difficult for her than some to come up with a third reason that giant pandas are becoming extinct. After the students had had sufficient time to complete the assessment, this student placed her paper in the “still working” bin and glanced over at others’ completed answers to get some ideas. From there we went to lunch and the student asked if she could go to the bathroom. When my assistant said that sure! She could go to the bathroom down by the gym, the student looked a bit perplexed and decided that she actually did not need to visit the restroom. Both my assistant and I realized that the student was hoping to go back to the room to add the last answer on her assessment.
I remember all too well feeling like this student when I was in school. Everything came rather easily for me, and thus I had very few if any opportunities to experience difficulty or failure. Not until after graduating from college and running a classroom of my own did I truly experience a world in which I did not feel that I could accomplish everything that was expected. That even if I worked from waking up to going to sleep, I could not get even close to getting everything done. This was devastating to me and I can still feel some of the effects of anxiety and self-doubt that this created. Looking back, I wish I had hit more walls or experiences more mini-failures as a student so that I could have had access to the skills and perceptions needed to cope with the sense of failure.
I got home from work today and pulled out Opening Minds to read the assigned chapters for my class this week. It only took me three pages to realize that the themes Johnston was address directly relate to my experience and reflection on today’s assessment.
Johnston begins by explaining that “Events happen, but their meaning only become apparent through the filter of the language in which we immerse them” (pg. 2). He then goes on to describe two different types of people: those with a fixed-performance frame and those with a dynamic-learning frame.
Fixed-performers (FPs) believe that people have fixed traits, such as smartness, intelligence or personality. These traits are believed to be unchangeable. FPs believe that the goal is to look as smart as you can, even if that means tackling an easier task or cheating to make yourself look smarter. FPs look at challenges as indicators of one’s lack of intelligence. Finally, FPs evaluate their own success based on how they compare to others around them.
Dynamic-learners (DLs) believe that the more you learn the smarter you get. Traits can grow and are constantly changing. DLs recognize that learning takes time and effort and that it is how hard you work rather than how smart you are that truly matters. DLs value the process rather than performance and have the goal of learning as much as they can. They see challenges as opportunities to learn something new and find such activities engaging. Finally, DLs value collaboration and seek ways to increase their own learning as well as the learning of others.
I really want to be able to describe myself as a dynamic-learner. But I strongly identify with many of the characteristics of fixed-performers. In fact, I would argue that most people I know, including the students in my class, align with more of the fixed-performance description. I wonder how much of my own fixed-performance tendencies I have subconsciously rubbed off on my students.
Reading Johnston’s first chapters on the difference between these two types of people was simultaneously frustrating and freeing. I recognize some things that I want to change about my fixed-performance ways but also find it freeing to finally have terminology to describe so much of what I feel each day. I am constantly trying to measure my own success by comparing my performance to that of others, which is extremely time-consuming and agency-crippling.
I am excited to learn through the rest of Opening Minds how to embrace the mindset of a dynamic-learner. In turn, I hope to help my students to adopt the same mindset through my model and in my interactions with them.
I’ve got a long way to go. But the good news is that I am able to change. And as Johnston would say, I’m just not there yet.