Swinging for Greatness: How Motivation and Mindset Impact Student Achievement

Swinging for Greatness: How Motivation and Mindset Impact Student Achievement

Ted-Williams4You’ve probably heard a lot of talk recently about Growth Mindset. Based on the work of Carol Dweck of Stanford University, this theory argues that people with a growth mindset believe that their talents and abilities can be improved upon with hard work and practice. These types of learners expect the process to be challenging—and even expect to fail every so often. Failures are seen as opportunities to grow, rather than end points in a learning journey.

Conversely, learners with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence has a limit. These fixed traits or talents can be displayed, but not necessarily increased. They believe that learning a new skill is a result of one’s intelligence, and success or failure with said skill will be determined by his/her fixed capacity.

Let’s take an example outside of the classroom and onto the baseball field. The late Ted Williams played his entire 19-year major league career for the Boston Red Sox. During that time, he established himself as arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Even compared to today’s top athletes, sports experts agree that no one comes close to “The Kid.” But here’s the interesting thing—he hated when people chalked up his success to talent.

“No one ever swung a bat more often than I did,” he once said. “No one practiced harder than I did.”

Was Williams talented? Absolutely. Was he skilled? No doubt. But even “Terrible Ted” himself realized that his great accomplishment was due to an even greater focus on hard work, grit, and pure determination to be the best.

This difference in perspective is the elephant in the (class)room. Do our learners believe they can grow their knowledge? Do they believe that hard work and grit make the difference between success and failure? Or, do they believe that they don’t have what it takes to achieve a certain goal? That maybe he’s “not good at math,” or perhaps she “never got spelling.” I’ve devoted many blogs to helping our students build up their perseverance in problem solving, and creating a more inquiry-based classroom where failure is seen as the first step in the learning process. For now, I want to take a step back and examine this issue from the teacher lens. How do your beliefs about learning and motivation impact student learning?

Below are two questions to consider as you prepare for a new school year and a new opportunity to make a lasting difference in your students’ lives:

Do you truly believe that all of your students can learn?
Dr. Wayne K. Hoy and his colleagues at The Ohio State University have done extensive research on the effect that teaching Academic Optimism has on student achievement. For teachers, this centers on three main statements:

  1. I can teach effectively.
  2. I trust my students to learn, and their parents will support me.
  3. Thus, I can set the bar high and emphasize academics.

Let’s spend some time thinking about statement number two. Do you truly believe that all of your students can learn? Do you have a growth or fixed mindset about your students’ abilities? As you skim your new roster, is your schema already buzzing with information about the new kiddos? Are you letting your pre-conceptions (positive or negative) shape your expectations for behavior and academic achievement?

Students who struggle in the classroom may have developed a learned helplessness. They may feel like school is too hard, and they don’t have what it takes. If we as teachers feel the same way, these students have little hope of developing the grit and perseverance needed to succeed.

So what can we do? Try a blank slate. As hard as it may seem, try not to let the gossip influence your characterization of students. Think about ways to approach instruction from a student-centered perspective. By giving students opportunities to ask and answer their own questions, and explore the content in their own unique ways, we can help all learners achieve the ultimate goal: a life-long love of learning and a mindset to match.

How do you motivate your students to learn?
Dan Pink’s book Drive delves into the interesting world of human motivation. He challenges the reader to abandon some closely held beliefs about what truly motivates us. The research is clear—carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments) actually decrease motivation. As he states in his Ted talk, when it comes to motivation, “We’re doing it wrong.” Study after study has proven that using rewards and punishments actually decreases intrinsic motivation, crushes creativity, and encourages short-term thinking, and can even lead to unethical choices.

Beyond that, they can also become addictive. Think about rewarding your students to complete homework. It may work for a while, but once the luster of the prize wears off, you see a sharp decrease in the desired behavior. Your choice? Up the ante, or get a sharper stick. But now, you’re stuck in the vicious cycle of addiction, rather than building the intrinsic motivation for the desired behavior. What to do? Dan Pink talks about the three real motivators behind human behavior:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

For teachers, let’s take a closer look at autonomy as it relates to our classroom culture.

AutonomyDo my students have choice?
We all like to feel valued and respected. And we work better (and harder) in conditions where we feel like we have some choice. It may be a structured choice (would you like X or Y?) but at least we have some say over how we’re spending our time. Think about your classroom. Do you include opportunities for students to exercise some choice through the day? If not, think about ways to sprinkle in some autonomy. It not only increases motivation for the task, but also builds responsibility.

Examples for increasing student autonomy in the classroom

  • Student-selected book clubs
  • Literacy or Math Center appointment books/menus
  • Time for free-writing
  • Assessment–provide a variety of ways for students to show what they have learned
  • Inquiry teams–what do you want to learn about? Provide open-ended time for your students to experiment, research, tinker, write, talk, etc.
  • Approach to math problem-solving – allow student experts to share different strategies

When teaching our students, we have to keep in mind that there is no “fixed capacity,” that striving to be better is the true way to achieve success. Talent alone doesn’t hit the ball out of the park. Working on your swing does.


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