Mentoring Matters for Middle Level and Secondary Principals: April 2016

Leadership-life Fit: Mindfulness

Make these 4 simple mindful practices part of your daily routine to increase your efficacy and improve your well-being.

Leading Learning – Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University and well known for her mindset research and its correlation to student achievement, recently addressed misconceptions about her work at an Education Week event. Blogger Evie Blad shared a summary of the take-aways. The following is adapted from that, and her full blog can be accessed here.

Most who recognize Dweck’s name understand that people operating from a fixed mindset see intelligence, ability, and other skills as innate traits like eye color and height. The implication for teaching and learning is that students are viewed as limited by the skills with which they were born. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset recognize that the brain can grow, that skills can be nurtured and developed and that intelligence is not something static. Consequently, all students can learn and grow if schools adapt to their needs and identify the strategies and practices that will help each student to develop his her abilities.

Dweck offers six suggestions for effective application of her research:

  1. Growth mindsets are not a silver bullet. Dweck cautions against expecting that change in mindset alone will result in increased learning. She encourages educators to understand the power in believing that all students can learn at high levels. (Hattie’s research affirms that high expectations in terms of what teachers believe about their students and their own abilities to reach their students in addition to what students believe about themselves can most significantly impact student learning and achievement—the effect size is 1.44!!)
  2. Mindset is not an either/or proposition. Students and educators alike have degrees of fixed and growth mindsets. For example, if I ask faculty to draw a pictorial representation of a concept, I might be triggering a fixed mindset for some who believe they can’t draw. This can serve as a barrier to their deeper understanding of the concept itself. The key is to be aware of the triggers—of those things that cause learners (adults or students) to retreat or disengage.
  3. Name your fixed mindset. Dweck suggests bringing your fixed mindset into the open by naming it. If a student is uncomfortable and believes she will fail when called upon randomly, she might note, “When we’re in a large group, and the teacher poses a question to the group, then looks my way, Matilda shows up.” In this example the student is bringing to light the fact she retreats when she fears being called upon at random. Not wanting to look dumb or stupid is reflective of a fixed mindset.
  4. Move beyond effort to strategies and practices. Help students like the one mentioned above in #3 to understand what strategies she might adopt to help herself as well as how she might work with the teacher to create a strategy for helping her grow in her comfort when called upon randomly. Perhaps the student puts her pencil in her right hand when she doesn’t have an answer.
  5. Develop a supportive, learning-oriented culture. How does your school and district respond to mistakes? How are innovation and learning encouraged? Does learning equate to one right answer in most classrooms? Or, are students and teachers encouraged to inquire, try a variety of solutions and resolve the problems they encounter? 
  6. Avoid labels. Labeling can result in making excuses—if someone is labeled as having a fixed mindset, then we might use that as the explanation for low performance rather than working to identify strategies that will help that person learn and grow. Or, labeling someone with a growth mindset might result in assumptions that they readily adapt and need no supports to learn because they are “naturally” oriented toward growth and learning. Again, mindsets are not an either/or proposition.

You can view Dr. Dweck’s full keynote:

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do expectations for student performance impact your culture?
  2. How do expectations for teacher performance impact your culture?
  3. Where do you see examples of fixed mindsets in both staff and students? In yourself?
  4. Test your mindset:
  5. What strategies/practices might help you to support your staff in continuing to develop a growth mindset?

Leading Learning –“It’s a Project-based World”

When we consider what our Iowa communities want in a high school graduate, the profile looks mostly the same statewide. The question is how do we help our students develop and master these traits, dispositions, and skills? Project-based learning, according to a recent article in Educational Leadership, provides a foundation.

Author John Larmer shares the research regarding what makes for a high school positioned for success. The following list includes the most commonly mentioned, traits, dispositions, habits of mind, skills and knowledge.

Profile for Success Beyond High School:

  • Responsible
  • Resourceful
  • Persistent
  • Critical thinker
  • Problem-solver
  • Innovator
  • Team player (works well with others)
  • Effective Communicator
  • Time Manager
  • Productive worker
  • Open to possible failure at times
  • Open to and uses critical feedback

How Projects Contribute to this Profile:


  • place students directly in situations that require the skills and dispositions identified.
  • reflect what we do in our “real” lives from home improvement to planning family trips.
  • present students with challenging problems or novel questions.
  • invite students to analyze the scope of the problem or challenge.
  • prompt students to access relevant resources and to evaluate the quality and accuracy of those resources.
  • engage students in iterative cycles of critique and revision.
  • help students to navigate failure and trouble shoot problems when ideas don’t work.
  • involve group work.
  • stretch students’ thinking and learning.
  • expose students to the adult world.

Common Mistakes Associated with Project-Based Learning and How to Avoid Them:

#1: Using materials that aren't truly project-based. Lots of companies are marketing PBL products (think Common Core marketing). To ensure your projects will contribute to developing the traits, skills, and dispositions identified in the ideal high school graduate, be sure your materials meet the highest standard of quality.

#2: Providing little or no training and support for teachers.  As with any new initiative, it can take several years for teachers to become proficient. Ongoing professional learning is critical to success. Administrators need to create an environment conducive to a project-based approach—time for teacher collaboration, opportunities for cross-content/curricular connections, schedules that include longer or blocked periods, and support for risk-taking and mistake-making in order to innovate.

#3: All PBL, All the time. PBL is not an either/or proposition, rather a both/and. Start small. A project a semester. Keep your core courses intact.

#4: Lack of systemic implementation. If only one or two teachers are committed to PBL, students will not reap the benefits of this approach. The effects of a project-based approach are realized when PBL practices are systemically implemented such that all students experience multiple projects across multiple content areas each year they are in school.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What vision does your school community share for a graduate of your high school?
  2. What experiences in your current program are contributing to the development of your vision for the ideal graduate from your high school? To what degree? How do you know?
  3. How does PBL fit within your vision of teaching and learning?
  4. Where might you start the conversation about PBL in your school?
  5. Who do you know who has developed PBL?

Access the full article (subscription required): “It’s a Project-based World” by John Larmer

Learn more (freely available): “Insights from the World of Work” by Michael Kris

Resources that allow you to read, watch, or interact available at the Buck Institute for Education.

Monthly Checklist: 

These lists are intended as a guide—we encourage you to process in your mentor-mentee team to identify other items that may need your attention!