Helping Students Attain a Growth Mindset

John Wark and I - this is going back several months now - were discussing Carol Dweck and her research into Growth/Fixed Learning Mindsets and how it relates to out work at Nashville Software School. I had watched some of Carol's TED talks, and read a few articles she had published, but John suggested that we buy her book Mindset for the entire instruction staff. I completely agreed, and we told everyone to read the book in stages. At our weekly Learning Team meeting, we would have a discussion about what everyone has read so far. The point was to take her conclusions and assertions and devise strategies that would help students, and help us as coaches.

After about a month everyone had finished the book, and we had lengthy, and at times heated, discussions about how the conclusions, how each team member felt about it personally, and then how we could apply things in the classroom. What was the most helpful is that we could name this "Thing" that we had known about some students for years.

Two Types of Students

When presented with the challenge of an accelerated bootcamp, and then all of the individual challenges that are along that path, some students jump at the chance to learn everything possible and accept that they won't understand everything the first, second, or even third time they try it. However, they know that eventually they will.

Unfortunately, other students crumble, cringe, and retreat from the challenge. They fear pushing up their code to Github for the world (and, worse, their peers and instructors). They don't do any coding if they feel they don't Truly Understand everything there is to know about what we're currently focusing on in. They don't ask for help. They will stare at their screen for hours upon hours thinking, "If I just think a little harder, or read one more article, it will all click for me."

Now we have some guidance for helping these students. Some are already in the growth mindset, and some are deeply trapped by their fixed mindset.

Starting a month ago, I asked both the full-time staff, and the part-time staff to think about and record strategies that they have used over the years to help students understand that failure is a source of learning, not shame.

Here's what we all came up with.

Growth Mindset Strategies

  1. Lightning Exercises.
  2. Foundation Workshops.
  3. Morning Memes.
  4. Value Awards.
  5. Being clear that their focus on projects is learning, not completing
  6. Being intentional about creating an environment - both for students and from instructional team - that mistakes are not to be feared, but to be seen as a learning opportunity.
  7. Personal professional stories about when shit happened and the world didn't end.
  8. Mantra: You don't know it yet.
  9. Have students talk at their currrent level of understand about the code and coach on how to ask questions, and empathize about their understanding.

I will discuss some of the strategies here, but the strategies that are hyperlinked above have individual articles about them.

Focus on Learning, not Completing

Starting 3 cohorts ago, I started being very explicit with students that their job on a group project was to learn a very specific set on concepts, which I would itemize for them. We show them the sprint ceremonies and have them decide on which tickets they feel they can complete in a week-long sprint, but I make it very clear that it is for educational purposes only. I do not hold them accountable for completing the number of tickets they chose. The phrase I use most often is, "I don't give a shit how many tickets you complete. It means nothing to me."

What I hold them accountable for is learning the concepts.

During the sprint retrospective, I ask each team member to discuss specific things that were learned during the sprint. It is usually a mixture of the technical concepts that were applied, and more personal skills involving communication and effective teamwork.

You Don't Know it Yet

This is such as incredibly powerful message that I deliver nearly daily in the first 3-4 weeks of the course. Most students come in with the experience of largely being able to grasp things that they are learning. That's the experience for many of them in traditional education. They learned they could coast and get by.

Not at NSS.

They get a very cold splash of water in the face when they immediately realize how hard the concepts are to grasp, and how quickly we ask them to grasp them. They aren't used to it, and many panic.

Therefore, any time I'm discussing things with an individual student, or the entire cohort, and I see the looks of confusion and panic start to show up, I gently remind them, "You don't know this... yet. It will require time, patience, and practice to understand this concept. If you put pressure on yourself to understand it immediately, then you're doing this wrong."

Every cohort eventually internalizes this message and I start to hear them sharing this encouragement with each other, and then with students that start the course after them.