David Dockterman on 4 Belief Statements Underlying Student Performance

David Dockterman would like to see more productive failure. But as a lecturer at Harvard’s GSE, Dockterman sees students afraid to blemish a polished transcript. As Scholastic’s chief architect of learning sciences, he sees K-12 students all too familiar with failure and schools that don’t know how to support productive struggle.
I interviewed Dockterman in October on the groundbreaking efforts to measure mindset in Math 180.
Yesterday over breakfast, at the National Charter School Conference, David discussed the magic charter (featured image) from the CCSR report on Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Non-Cognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance. (I discussed this report last week in Innovation Mindset = Growth + Maker + Team .)
Dockterman outlined 4 belief statements that underlie student performance.
1. “I belong in this academic community.” Evolution left us with a strong drive for status and belonging. Dockterman said it was critical that we “help students self identify with a positive group.” Mixed ability groups have the potential to improve everyone’s performance but the key is helping students see themselves.
2. “My ability and competency grow with effort.” Docterman reminded us that “Everything is relative.” He said “We need to shift the student point of reference for struggle.” He made four specific suggestions:

  • Words matter, for example, rather than “Let’s start with an easy question,” which won’t be true for every student, David suggests, “This may take a few tries.”
  • Model failure: Let students see you struggle, let them know you fail sometimes.
  • Use stories of perseverance: Success is almost always the product of lots of practice, failure, and struggle.
  • Teach children about their brain: Brainology, from Mindset Works, is a great example.

3. “I can succeed.” David said human beings “love making progress.” Conversely, “shaky confidence + early failure = total shutdown.” Learners need to “build a history of success.” Good games do this well–they start easy and ramp up difficulty gradually on a reward pathway.
4. “This work has value for me.” There are two ways to create a learning value proposition: interest or long term value–Candy Crush is an example of the first, career preparation is an example of the second. Using either interest or future value, powerful learning experiences connect to what Dockterman calls “purpose beyond the problem.” He suggested tying a topic to a possible future–and it’s better to show teams succeeding rather than an individual outliers (as stated above, human beings like to belong to groups). Connecting problems with projects with social value is another powerful strategy, it gives learners the ability to contribute to something bigger than themselves.
Dockterman is ’s working with Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, and Mindset Works, the company she started with Lisa Blackwell. They developed a growth mindset curriculum and assessment that is incorporated into MATH 180, Scholastic’s new blended secondary math intervention. A simple 8 question mindset scan can be used to track changes over time. (This Ed Week article includes a growth mindset quiz.)
Scholastic built Common Core alignment into MATH 180 and the updated READ 180. Both incorporates adaptive software, which allows students the opportunity to learn and master key concepts at their own pace.
For an update on READ 180, see Preparing Students and Teachers for Next-Gen Assessments
Scholastic is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Tom Vander Ark

Important follow up email comments from David:
I find that two important, related pieces often get left out of the mindset and grit discussions.
1) Transfer. Students, or any of us for that matter, can have a growth mindset and demonstrate gritty behaviors in one context but not in another. Developing the underlying beliefs that foster general behaviors of resourcefulness, innovation, curiosity, perseverance, and so on are great, but getting those behaviors to manifest themselves across disciplines, in history as well as in maker projects or science labs takes work. Even within a domain context matters. The culture of one math classroom can foster academic mindsets while another undermines them.
2) Domain specific knowledge and skills. At some point overcoming obstacles takes strategic know-how tied to the content domain. The strategies one uses to get started on a 3 paragraph persuasive essay are not the same strategies one uses to decipher a baffling math word problem. Having a growth mindset primes us for learning, but learn we must.
Our best bet is to integrate these growth mindset qualities into the curriculum and classroom and school cultures. It’s not clear it works to develop it in isolation and hope it spreads. What does it mean to teach math, science, or literature through a growth mindset lens, with a view to empowering students to support their own growth? Knowledge needs to be useful and tasks need to be challenging. We want it everywhere.
Maker projects can give kids the experience of learning from failure and working collaboratively. Games can similarly demonstrate the value of perseverance and challenge seeking. Now we want to use those experiences intentionally to support other parts of the curriculum. They can become models or analogs. Coming up with a writing topic might be like generating an idea for a maker project. Puzzling through a math problem might be like trying different strategies to complete a game level. Help kids (and teachers) make the connections. We can’t rely on them happening on their own.

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