Familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’?
Most likely, but here’s a quick recap anyway: Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck spent 20 years studying learning, failure and success. She identified two mindsets: ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’.
In short, a fixed mindset assumes our character, intelligence and creativity are static; a growth mindset knows that the brain is muscle that changes and grows when you use it. A growth mindset sees failure as an opportunity to learn, and loves being challenged.
It’s saying, “When you think you can’t do it, remind yourself that you can’t do it yet,” or “Mistakes are welcome here! Our brains grow if we learn from our mistakes.”
It’s understanding that when you’re out of your learning comfort zone, your brain is forming new, stronger connections and making you smarter.
It’s recognizing that you’re on a learning curve, a path to the future, and that effort, strategies, focus, perseverance and improvement are more important than intelligence or talent.
CSI Literacy wasn’t founded on the growth mindset principle, but it might as well have been.
Growth mindset and the problem with leveling
My very ambitious (I’ll admit it) goal for CSI Literacy was to support teachers and their students to accelerate literacy achievement in the middle years of schooling. When designing the CSI Literacy kits, I had three goals: to teach students how to be more competent, to create texts and tasks that are deeply engaging, and to create student agency.
One of the first big issues I ran into was leveling: matching ability-based groups to ability-based texts. It’s a customary practice, and for good reason: teachers can work with small groups and provide more assistance to students who need it.
My problem? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students with a low-level reading ability are paired with low-level texts and they know it. As a result, the effectiveness of the leveled instruction can be compromised by the students’ poor self-esteem. This weakens engagement and ultimately holds back the very learning we are trying to accelerate.
Looking at it through the lens of Dweck’s growth mindset, leveled reading groups tell students that their learning is intelligence or talent-based – a fixed mindset. And in this fixed mindset, success becomes about proving you’re smart or talented, when, as Carol Dweck says, “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites ability and turns it into accomplishment”.
So, what’s the solution?
Put everybody on an even playing field with whole-group shared reading. This creates a true learning community – when students read the same text as everybody else, learning becomes about growth, not intelligence. Freed from leveled groups, students can worry less about being smart, and put more energy into learning.
Growth mindset and complex texts
One of the big features of a growth mindset is embracing challenge, and understanding that effort and difficulty are what accelerate learning. When you stretch yourself, Dweck says, your neurons make new connections, stronger connections, and you get smarter.
I was thrilled to learn this, because CSI Literacy kits pair students up with reading materials a little above their current level.
Texts aren’t too hard (students will lose interest), nor too easy (students won’t progress). Instead, my team has created engaging, rich and complex texts that push students out of their comfort zone just long enough to learn something new and difficult.
Growth mindset and scaffolding
What’s important to note here is that giving students challenging tasks is done with ample support, both from their teacher and their peers.
Why? As Dweck says, students aren’t going to improve from sheer effort alone – they need a repertoire of approaches to learn and improve, and need to be able to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck.
In other words, they need to be shown how to learn, and they need collaboration. They need scaffolding.
In CSI Literacy, learning is scaffolded throughout the reading process – by teacher modeling; with audio texts, multimedia (such as videos) embedded into the texts, and formative assessment (that shows next steps in learning); and by writing into graphic organizers.
So what does all of this look like in practice?
Here’s a quick snapshot of how it turned out: Nicky Simms, a learning support teacher, initially decided the texts in CSI Literacy would be too hard for her struggling readers.
She gave it a go anyway, and quickly found that for the first time her students were excited about literacy lessons. They were engaging deeply with texts, and doing things she had never seen them do before, like making connections and "thinking about their thinking."
CSI Literacy: growth mindset in action.
Want to try it for yourself? Check out our CSI Literacy kits, or get in touch.
About the author
Neale Pitches is the founder of CSI Literacy and a former teacher, principal and CEO of Learning Media.
Neale presents internationally on literacy and school leadership, and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 for his contributions to New Zealand education.
- Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007)
- Dweck, Carol. Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential (2012)
- What having a growth mindset actually means
- Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset
- Decades of scientific research that started a growth revolution mindset
- Fixed vs. growth: The two basic mindsets that shape our lives