A Growth Mindset about Growth Mindset Research


Two weeks ago Teach for America asked me to write a commentary on growth mindset research. You can find the article here. Below is the full version of the article:

A growth mindset for the growth mindset and what it should mean for Teach for America

Growth mindset research illuminates a common trait among successful and motivated learners, but the recommended classroom strategies are underdeveloped. But that’s where we, Teach for America corps members and alumni, come in. Our job should be to take this profound scientific understanding and let it flourish in our classrooms. The researcher reveals the most promising programs and psychological processes affecting our students, and great teachers turn that science into art.

Students with a growth mindset believe intelligence is malleable and increases with hard work. Students with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is predetermined and immobile. What’s interesting is not who is right, but who does better. Students with a growth mindset outperform the other group in academic achievement, academic risk-taking, and resiliency in the face of setbacks. Why? For a similar reason you dress up before a first date or fold in a game of poker. If you think greater effort will have a greater effect, then you step up. If you think success is beyond your control, you do less.

The importance of the research is undeniable. If students believe intelligence can increase, then classroom efforts and challenges are not markers of ineptitude but the cognitive weight-lifting that lead to even greater ability.  Growth mindset leads to motivation, which leads to greater academic growth. (For more about the relationship between intelligence and motivation, check out “Stop Praising Kids for Being Smart.”) However, I am less impressed with the recommended classroom strategies stemming from this literature.

Psychologists at Stanford University demonstrate strong gains in GPA when college students read letters from other students about rocky starts to later successful college semesters. Carol Dweck has an online program called Brainology that illustrate the pliable nature of intelligence. I’m not dismissing the results of these strategies, but I am asking us to entertain a very likely and probable consideration: If these brief interventions demonstrate lasting changes, imagine what happens when teachers and school leaders develop classroom and school systems meant to nurture a growth mindset for an entire year? Surely the latter will have even greater results than the former!

Even the psychologists will tell you that what allows them to become confident in the results of their research is the same reason they are not in a position to create comprehensive educational programs. Researchers seek out large sample sizes so they can be confident that their findings reflect natural processes that affect the entire nation, not a particular classroom, school, or subset of student. To study a wide and diverse array of subjects, the researchers need to design interventions that can be quickly and easily administered (often by graduate students). Psychologists do not have the position those in education do, which is continued exposure to the exact same student population for an academic year.How then can educators and those who work with educators leverage their position to take growth mindset to the next level?

How then can educators and those who work with educators leverage their position to take growth mindset to the next level?

(1) Promote self-efficacy, the psychological term for when a person feels that success is within their reach. For some classrooms that could mean trackers for objective mastery but for others it could be filling in a weekly bar graph for all quiz grades. Rigor is good but only if self-efficacy is not lost in the process. Self-efficacy is the foundation for a growth mindset.

(2) Expose students to different topics to cultivate interest. Both you and I may believe our trombone skills can improve with dedication, but you may opt to spend your Thursday evening playing volleyball and I might try out a new waffle recipe. We have different interests. Students may find reading, writing, and even math problems more interesting if they compare America and Norway’s prisons, examine the effects of stereotype threat, and create FBI profiles of criminals. The content is equally as important as the skill our lessons teach.

(3) Create relevancy by connecting learning to long-term aspirations. Students need to see their academic goals aligned to their future goals. Poetry may be a great way to build compassion and perspective, but our students who want to be social workers, nonprofit founders, and journalists may need their teachers to help make that connection. (For a greater discussion of the many influences on student motivation, check out my blog post here.) Believing your intelligence improves with effort is an important part of the student success equation, but there are other important parts, and its up to us, as Teach for America corps members and alumni, to find the best ways to promote them all.

Growth mindset is only a piece of the puzzle that motivates humans. When we enlisted in Teach for America, I doubt very few of us were solely interested in student academic achievement – we wanted students to become addicted to the self-satisfaction that comes from reaching ambitious goals; we wanted student identity-development and learning to be so interconnected that to promote one necessarily meant to promote the other. As an organization and a community dedicated toward educational equity, let’s recognize the importance of the growth mindset research yet take its implementation to ambitious, unseen heights.

Response to the New York Times


The Times Editorial Board explores the perennial problem of decreasing high school rigor to increase graduation in “The Counterfeit High School Diploma.” High school graduates are often unprepared for college-level coursework, especially in low-income districts. These schools lack the means to provide college-prep resources, advanced coursework, and necessary supplies and instruments for a quality STEM education. As the writers acknowledge, the testing movement deserves some credit for introducing an element of accountability. If students pass their high school courses and the standardized tests, then the diploma means something.

The Times, however, neglects the complexity a solution would require. I have been a high school English teacher in a low-income urban school for 5 years. We do not have the money to send each student that needs remediation to summer school, and retaining even more underperforming students would make our overcrowded classrooms even larger. With higher teacher turnover than our suburban counterparts, we more readily lose quality teachers, a necessity for students that need to make the greatest growth in the shortest amount of time. A high-school degree will start to truly reflect career and college readiness once we have the financial resources to provide greater academic supports within our struggling schools. We do not have a diploma problem, we have a school quality problem.

Check out my article published by the Journal of Urban Ed


The Journal of Urban Education just published my article on how teachers’ knowledge and experience of their own school context profoundly affects teacher performance, which is unfortunately an ignored aspect of teacher education programs.

You can check out the article here: or

The New 2% Standardized Testing Cap: Breathing a partial sigh of relief


Many celebrate the Obama’s Administration’s ceiling on standardized testing not to exceed 2% of instructional time. As a teacher in a low-income urban school, I watched standardized testing eat 26 instructional days, which did not include any of the periodic quizzes and assessments teachers create and administer themselves. But I’m also someone who does not believe less tests is necessarily a good idea. Whatever the new national testing philosophy becomes, it should attempt to honor some of the admirable intentions that has guided the national preoccupation of standardized tests among policy makers.


One of the top motivators behind the high-stakes testing movement has been finding objective and reliable data on student performances. While multiple-choice questions and checklist writing prompts do not accurately represent the complexity of student learning, they nonetheless provide indicators of how students of different racial, socioeconomic, and regional background compare to one another. A thermometer is not going to diagnose your illness, but it’s a simple tool that can let you know if there is a problem. Standardized tests are limited but they continue to provide implicit testimony that our nation is not doing enough to help our poor students of color, especially in urban and rural districts.

I’m continually perplexed by so many of my knowledgeable friends and family who live in middle- and high-income communities. They dismiss the importance of standardized tests in support of the “not in my school” opt-out testing movement. These are the same people who look at my in disbelief when I say my incoming 8th graders test at a 3rd grade writing level and 25% of students in my school district qualify for special education resources. My response to them is, “If you aren’t looking at the national testing data, then at least our policy makers are.” Whatever the 2% cap looks like, I hope it continues to demonstrate our nation has still not done enough to help our most needy students.


American public schools receive a lot of their funding from local property taxes. I teach in one of the most underfunded school districts in the nation. The tax base of our residents is so low that if my school wants to provide even a 2% annual salary raise to teachers or fund a library, we must look to alternative sources of funding. Only last year, I taught in one of the premier high-poverty, turn-around schools of my city. They paid teachers more, invested in more teacher coaches, and provided students with more field trips. This would not have been possible without the additional funding that came from testing. Certain federal and state grants are tied to specific high-stakes tests, which helps explain why there are so many of them. While those twenty-six days of high-stakes testing was a bit much, it was a necessary evil to give the students a far better school than they would have received otherwise. Whatever the 2% cap looks like, I hope students become more connected to schools with more resources.


I want an avenue for greater school funding that does not facilitate wasteful spending. During my five years of teaching, I’ve seen class sizes increase and school resources decrease with each passing year. I’m the first to want to see more supports in my school but I want to see the money put to good use. I was speaking with an administrator who accepted a job in Camden, New Jersey and wanted me to come work for her. Camden is one of the nation’s poorest and most violent cities, but due to the New Jersey State Supreme Court it receives equal amounts of state funds. Her job offer pitch was, “We have so much more money for our schools students have a textbook for each class and a textbook for home.” For the last 5 years, I’ve created my own curriculum. We profile serial killers and write psychological essays on them. We read graphic novels and write our own memoirs. My thought was, “ I would not spend any money on any textbook! I would much rather have seen that textbook money go to my classroom library of teen fiction.” Whatever the 2% cap looks like, I hope it facilitates wise, not foolish, spending.


Motivation Matters


Motivation matters. The Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, Barack Obama campaigned to become president, and Frida Kahlo painted. These acts required drive and commitment. Motivation matters in school. Self-response questionnaires about perseverance are one of the most powerful predictors of academic success. High school GPA more accurately estimates future college success than any standardized test (including the SATs) precisely because high grades often favor effort, such as completing homework assignments and revising essays. While we see the powerful impacts of motivation, we know much less about what it is. This mysterious phenomenon empowers protests, scientific breakthroughs and every human achievement we have known. Here is a breakdown of what we know about motivation and how all the pieces fit together.

Motivation can be domain-general or domain-specific.

A domain is any area of knowledge. Perhaps it is highly academic, like poetry or mathematics. Perhaps it is physical, like playing football. It can be anything a person can eventually develop an expertise in, which is absolutely anything. Motivation can be restricted to a specific domain. Take the motivated musician who practices hours in a garage but cannot hold down a job. Motivation can be across multiple domains. Maybe the musician loves guitar, babysitting her little sister and chemistry.

This element of motivation exists on a spectrum, and it’s very unlikely we find anyone at either extreme. We would probably not see someone solely motivated in poetry unable to focus enough to eat, nor would we find someone who is equally fascinated by everything. See Diagram #1 below:

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 9.31.34 PM

Motivation can be unconscious or conscious.

We can be aware (conscious) of our motivation or unaware (unconscious). A dedicated teacher could easily launch into an explanation of why he loves his job and how he invests in his craft. His motivation as a teacher is conscious. This same teacher may struggle to maintain a long-term romantic relationship and be relatively clueless about why he continues to breakup with his partners. His romantic motivation is unconscious. Our awareness of our own motivation also exists on a spectrum. You can probably think of many decisions you could easily explain and many you cannot. See Diagram #2 below:


Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 9.33.38 PM

Motivation is the result of an interaction of many differnt psychological process

The utility of making our X and Y axis consciousness and domain-specificity is that we can now make sense of very important psychological constructs in explaining motivation. See Diagram #3 below:


Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 10.17.14 PM


Personality refers to a stable aspect of a person that does not change dramatically by context. You might describe your uncle’s personality as short-tempered specifically because you have seen him lose his cool multiple times across many different types of situations. It’s precisely these reoccurring behaviors that allow us to consciously describe a person outside of one particular context. As you might have inferred, it’s a very valuable thing that humans have this notion of personality. While I may never learn much about my mechanic’s upbringing, I’ll eventually conclude he is a trustworthy person by interpreting his interactions with me and other customers. Understanding a person’s personality provides one window into motivation. To look through this window, you must be conscious of their behaviors across multiple domains.

Disposition indicates someone’s inherent and inborn qualities. This is not to these things are fixed; it’s just our starting point. You may have a disposition toward anger during political conversations while your friend may have a disposition toward boredom in the same context. Psychological research has identified half a dozen needs people may have in varying strength based on their disposition. Some have a strong affiliation need, so they have innate drives to be accepted by their community. Others have a strong power need and want to feel in control of situations. Disposition is unconscious since we do not have full awareness of the emotional needs that drive our decisions. It is also domain-general since it impacts all situations. Understanding disposition is another window into motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to a specific category of motivation when a person is more interested in the consequence that results from an act than the act itself. For example, if I do not care about understanding math but just want an A in the class, I’m extrinsically motivated. I’m interested in the consequence (grade) than the act (learning math). This motivation is very conscious because I’m very much aware I want the A. This motivation is also very context-specific. I may be extrinsically motivated to pay rent on time because I do not want my credit score to lower rather than any interest in the act of being a reliable tenant.

Intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation’s opposite. Intrinsic motivation is interest in the act without concern for the consequence. A student who is intrinsically motivated in biology class finds studying the living world exciting and enjoyable without the needs to attain praise or avoid detentions.

Understanding the components of motivation is the first step toward deciding how to promote motivation in school. Is the student motivated across multiple school contexts, only one of them, or none? Is the student aware of his/her motivation or not? Is this motivation a product of personality or disposition? Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? Answering these questions allows educators, parents, administrators and even students themselves to adapt classroom and school structures that hinder or facilitate academic motivation.

Check out my latest article!


Hey all,

A manuscript I submitted to Spirituality and Health Magazine just got published in their September/October edition. You can find a PDF version of the article under the “my articles” section of this website. It explains how motivation and intelligence are opposing constructs and how the former is more important than the latter in education.

Preferring Pragmatism to Determinism in Educational Discourse


A specter is haunting education — the specter of determinism. All the powers of education have entered into an unholy alliance to embrace this specter: consultants and administrators, teachers and teacher coaches, superintendents and students. Determinism, a philosophical idea, holds that a set of preconditions guarantees a specific outcome. In many scenarios, determinism is appropriate. We study to ace an exam, eat when we feel hungry and go to sleep when we feel tired. Why? In each of these scenarios, we have confidence that such choices determine whether our goals are met. In fact, it seems foolish to question it. But we give too much power to determinism and not enough to pragmatism when the context if far more complex than it really is. Take human health.

Human health is certainly complex, with our body battling the interminable advance of bacteria and viruses. Assume a new pain reliever for headaches hits the market called Advail and after two pills your headache disappears. Since placebos have been shown to be effective pain reducers, are you sure it was not your hopeful confidence in the new medicine rather than the medicine itself that determined whether your headache would dissipate? Herein lies the problem with determinism. While you are certainly confident in your decision to take Advail, it’s an entirely separate issue to be confident that the Advail determined your recovery over the placebo effect. This is not mere semantics. “Advail cured my headache” is a deterministic sentence; we are prematurely assuming a cause-effect relationship that may not exist. “My decision to take Advail cured my headache” is still describing cause and effect, but it’s a pragmatic sentence; I’m not attempting to ascribe any causal powers to the Advail itself, just the decision to ingest it.

What we thought was deterministic was actually pragmatic. My decision to take Advail was practical. I do not really know whether it was my Advail or my confidence in the pill (“the placebo effect”) that deserves credit, and nor do I care. I made a practical decision. I know Advail works in these situations, ignoring the deeper issues of causality, so I took it. It would be problematic, however, if I thought my practical knowledge was deterministic knowledge. Pragmatism allows me to take Advail for my headaches. Determinism enables me to prescribe Advail to other people and pass it off to some friends who have headaches, much bolder decisions with perhaps disastrous consequences.

Just like the hypothetical Advail, determinism is hastily employed in education. We are looking to solve educational controversies by answering deterministic questions when we would be more successful answering pragmatic questions. Not only do we not realize this mistake, we are not aware how it prevents the systemic change we need to see in public education.

Are charter schools better or worse than public schools? Should we use inquiry, project-based, or direct instruction? Are teacher unions good or bad? Every participant in these debates positions specific causes as possible determinates of good and bad consequences. Rather than come to pragmatic conclusions about what is best for our specific families or school districts, we are distracted by these abstract questions. We foolishly think that assessing the deterministic power of teacher unions or types of pedagogies across all contexts somehow outweighs the pragmatic knowledge of understanding what works best in a specific context.

Take the debate about charter versus public schools. Some charter schools make amazing use of public funds without private dollars to support low-income students as they not only graduate high school but college as well. Some charter schools embezzle money, underpay teachers by tens of thousands of dollars, and have disastrous dropout rates.

Given such variance in charter school performance, a parent or teacher should be more concerned about which particular charter or public school is a better fit based on the child’s needs and desires than what the answer is to the abstract question of “Are charter or public schools better?” that flood newspapers and talk shows.

With very large-scale studies that compare thousands of charter schools to thousands of public schools, the particularities surrounding any one school or city are diminished. This is one of the key foundations of quantitative research that makes answers to such abstract questions possible. While such a rigorous study might very well reveal if public or charter schools are superior generally, such a finding is meaningless to answer the question if the public or charter school across the street is worth attending specifically. In the zip code of my school, I’d recommend any parent to attend my charter school over the neighboring public schools. But if I learned that the parent’s child had superior academic marks in middle school, I’d immediately recommend the magnet public schools over any of the city’s charter schools. My advice would likely change if I taught in a different zip code, city, or even state.

Certainly policy makers should fund such large-scale research that attempts to reveal if certain educational innovations are good or bad ideas. But such research illuminates the victor across all contexts, a meaningless tidbit given how each of us makes decisions based on our particular context. To assume that the answers to such general abstract questions is even slightly helpful to the decisions you and I should make as we navigate America’s education system is preposterous. We are haunted by determinism. Public education will never see impactful education reform until we recognize and celebrate the promise our pragmatism holds.


An Educational Policy of Perseverance: how much grit should make you succeed in Philadelphia?


I teach at a neighborhood charter school in a low-income neighborhood that is well above the national average in every category of violent and non-violent crime. It is a 10-minute walk from my house. I’m also a 20-minute drive from one of the highest performing school districts in the state. (The latter receives an additional $10,000 per pupil in funding). By trolley, I’m 15 minutes from Dr. Angela Duckworth’s office, the leading psychologist on the study of “grit,” the stable character trait of perseverance. I live in the state that is home to both the nation’s most inequitable school systems and the positive psychology movement; the intersection between the Philadelphia School District’s chronic and consistent financial crisis and the epicenter of research on academic achievement and character education. My neighbors attend protests advocating for greater school funding while I attend professional development on how to increase the motivation and determination of our students.

Herein lies the debate that has continued to garner attention: when we want our nation’s students of color and poverty to demonstrate academic achievement equal to their wealthier white counterparts, should we seek to increase their grit or their school’s resources? The answer is more about how to do both rather than one or the other. But this question is not an easy one. Philadelphia’s meritocracy needs to require a reasonable amount of grit to guarantee success: perhaps Pennsylvania can incorporate any of the following 3 initiatives other states have used:

(1) Guarantee that a certain high school academic performance ensures affordable state tuition. Florida does this with the Bright Futures Scholarship fund. With this program, a feasible yet ambitious grittiness in Florida can keep college tuition more affordable.

(2) “Ban the [criminal record] box” on college applications. While criminal wrongdoings deserve amends, it should never be a barrier from attending any college. If the criminal act allows the individual to once again live freely in society, then it should not be any extra impediment toward college matriculation. There is no link between having a criminal record and posing a safety risk on campus, and 66% of colleges nationwide unnecessarily require criminal record identification.

(3) Invest in sustainable work-study programs. Many college and universities across the nation provide students with creative ways to help fund their education. If we want college to be a realistic option for all students, no matter their family’s income, then providing them with the opportunity to demonstrate and be rewarded for their grit is important.

Finding the Middle Ground on Standardized Tests


Both left-wing and right-wing standardized testing policies continually prove extreme, overly simple, and unproductive. Conservatives may champion test score performance as the be-all and end-all indicator of student learning and teacher accountability. Progressives may call to eradicate standardized testing entirely. Neither represents a constructive approach. As a teacher in a low-income school whose pay and employment depends largely on my students’ test scores, I’m very mixed about the debate. I’ve seen both my classes’ high and low test score performances reflect and belie their academic potential. Only if the nation comes to a collective understanding of what test scores truly indicate can we begin to craft effective policy around what we should do with such data.

When my school’s high-stakes standardized test scores become available, no matter if they were good or bad, too few of us choose to ask: What do these test scores really indicate? A successful test score performance may deal more with the quality teacher who preceded me in an earlier grade than my new family outreach strategy. I may look at my low test scores and think, “The exam preferences such discrete, irrelevant and boring academic material. Are high test scores even worth celebrating?” I would look at my high test scores and think the very same thing. I may think impressive test score show my school how my creative and engaging curriculum is working, but someone would use my success to argue, “No. That’s because Dan has a great principal.” Even more perplexing, a disappointing or impressive test score performance seems to indicate the simultaneous need to pay teachers less or more based on who you ask.

After four years of teaching I continued to ask myself how can there be so many polarizing interpretations to both high and low test scores? My answer: unpredictable interpretations are natural when we recognize that standardized tests are actually a very simple tool. Test scores are like thermometers.

If you go to a doctor curious if you are sick, the doctor pretty readily pulls out a thermometer. It’s an imperfect but reliable indicator of a problem. If you have a fever, it’s your first indicator for a medical intervention. However, it does nothing to tell you what you are sick with and how to solve it. In fact, there are many ailments (like cancer or diabetes) that you’d miss if you only used a thermometer. Does this mean we should abandon thermometers? Of course not. It just means we need to develop a better understanding of what high and low readings on a thermometer indicate.

The current educational debate on test scores is like observing two doctors fighting over how to treat a patient. One says that the thermometer is the most important instrument and the other says we should never use it. Both sides are equally ridiculous; they need to come to an understanding of when to use it and, after considering many other medical elements, what the temperature reading actually suggests.

Just as a thermometer is the first step in a medical inquiry, so to should be the case with test scores. Your temperature is high. Does your throat hurt or are you just feeling faint? Your test scores are low, is this common across your entire school or just your classroom? Your temperature is fine, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t check your blood for any concerns. Your test scores are fine, but are your kids engaged in what they are learning and actually excited to attend your class each day? Until conservatives and progressives recognize that large scale standardized tests that occur at times across an entire state (like Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exams or the several states (like the National Assessment of Education Progress) are reliable but simple measurements of discrete academic skills, the extreme policies and inflammatory rhetoric in education debates will never prove constructive.


Check in next week


I’m working a summer job as a teacher coach for summer school teachers. Expect a new blog post next Sunday.