- Created on Monday, 27 February 2012 00:00
- Written by Ann M. Renker, PhD
Located on the Northwestern corner of Washington State, the Neah Bay Schools are a complex of public school buildings sharing a 20 acre campus, and serving the families of the Makah Indian Reservation. As the secondary principal of the middle and high school programs, I serve 170 students in total, 90% of whom are Makah Tribal members, and 66% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch.
My interest in student success began in 1982, when I taught Makah language to Neah Bay High School students. At the same time, I was conducting research for my dissertation on Makah syntax, and was struck by the frequency with which students abandoned challenging tasks. After successfully completing my doctoral work, I joined the faculty of the Neah Bay Schools in the fall of 1993 as both a bilingual program coordinator and ESL teacher. After close to ten years as a teacher and an instructional coach for faculty, I became the principal of the secondary program in the fall of 2005.
I first learned about fixed and growth mindsets in 2008, while attending a professional development program for principals. At this point, I had spent three years with the Neah Bay Schools, and had been unable to generate much consistent progress in building students’ mathematical skills. I attended the program sponsored by the University of Washington, the focus of which was Complex Instruction, a coordinated approach that melds cooperative student work with the questions of a facilitator. In addition to the valuable information provided about the Complex Instruction strategy, I also received a take-home packet on development which included a reprint of Dr. Dweck’s article, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids”. As soon as I read the article, I knew I had found the tool I needed to increase the motivation and performance of my students.
Armed with the “Smart Kids” article, I approached the middle school language arts teacher as well as the high school science and social studies teachers, in hopes that each teacher would read the “Smart Kids” article with their classes. I approached these teachers specifically because each of them was a Makah tribal member and an alumnus of Neah Bay High School, and all three had completed both undergraduate and Master’s-level educations. In this way, they could serve as real-life examples for students, of the very same mindset information that would be covered in class.
The results were immediately gratifying. While I provided professional development about fixed and growth mindsets to the remainder of the adult staff, the teachers created assessments and instructional materials to reinforce concepts with the students. As staff, we adopted the language that “hard work, not natural intelligence” was the key concept in success, and with the help of our school psychologist, we embedded a growth mindset philosophy, school-wide, as a classroom management system.
This system, which is based on the Social Thinking curriculum of Michelle Garcia-Winner, helped test scores improve immediately, especially at the high school level. Our daily bulletins contained a Tip of the Day for Student Success, a reference to the application of the growth mindset in a student context. Teachers of math, language arts, and science embraced the growth mindset philosophy in their own practice, and began actively participating in professional development programs offered by our state’s GEAR UP program, as well as Western Washington University’s CRISP (College Readiness in Science Partnership).
By the beginning of the ‘09-10 school year, we had increased our attention to teaching students about growth mindset. I asked the middle and high school language arts teachers to read The Blind Side, with all students in grades 6-12, and to connect the success of the main character to his use of the growth mindset.
Below are our benchmark scores for tenth graders, released in June of 2010 (I offer the scores from the years before I became principal, for comparative purposes):
Reading 60.9% 95.0%
Writing 21.7% 100%
Math 4.3% 47.6%
Science 0% 55.6%
While we celebrated the success of the high school students, I was disappointed that the same level of success did not appear in the scores of our middle school students. For some reason, providing direct instruction about growth mindsets was not enough to affect middle school students in the same way as it did high school students. After some research, I discovered that strategies promoting success in high school students should not be expected to promote a similar level of success with middle school students. I believe that we need to change the middle school program so as to capture the attention and galvanize the motivation of these students.
A preliminary survey of our middle school students in September 2010 showed that 62% of students self-assessed that they “did not do their best” on the state benchmark assessment or on other school assessments, while 86% of high school students assessed that they did their best on these tests. Reasons for the middle school self-assessment ranged from “I had a bad day” (18%) to “Tests don’t matter” (26%) to “I don’t like tests” (28%).
In response to this data, I developed a mentoring program called the Catalyst Corps, which matches a struggling middle school student with a successful high school student. The pairs meet after school three times each week for tutoring, and take high-profile science/math field trips together. The Washington STEM Foundation awarded me a 2011 Inaugural Entrepreneur Award for developing this program; I used the prize money to rent a research vessel that took the mentoring pairs on a scientific excursion in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Did this attempt to instill a growth mindset in middle school students work? Using the MAPS assessment system, 70% of the middle school students made “above typical growth” compared to 45% of the middle school students in a control group with no high school mentoring. By September 2011, the number of middle school students who self-reported that they “did not do their best” on state assessments decreased to 47%.
Soon after, an external education survey indicated a perceptual gap I had not anticipated: teachers perceived that we had achieved a school climate in which students fully understood that hard work, not natural intelligence, was a key to success. However, the data showed that students were actually only beginning to develop this concept. Having attained a growth mindset myself, I enlisted teachers to help implement a school-wide effort to increase understanding and acceptance of the growth mindset among students. Below is a professional development piece I designed called, ‘Mindset and Work Ethics’, specifically for this purpose. Language arts teachers began the year assigning Mindset (2006) instead of popular non-fiction. Our teachers were asked to include a standardized explanation of growth mindset in each syllabus, and specific examples of what growth mindset would look like, in each classroom. Our Tip for Student Success in the school bulletins continues to provide daily examples of, and inspiration for, the growth mindset.
Is our effort producing results? I believe it is. While I won’t have the most recent state test results until next spring, I have found other qualitative evidence of progress in our school. For instance, our football team recently won the first state championship in the history of our school. Fans were actually cheering “Mindset, Mindset, Mindset” during the game, and the team pulled through and won. Additionally, our students in Neah Bay just won a finalist slot in Samsung’s second annual ‘Solve for Tomorrow’ contest, which required students to write a proposal and make a documentary about a local environmental project focusing on math and science. It garnered us $70,000 in technology with a shot at $100,000 if we make it to the grand prize level! While these anecdotes may not contain scientific data, they do illustrate my perspective that the growth mindset has helped shift our student transmission into drive.