On Supporting an Academic Mindset

Growing up, my parents were really big into organization.  Especially when it came to school.  When late August arrived, and the sadness that only the end of summer can bring arrived, my mother always made sure I had folders for each of my subjects.  We called these folders “pee chees” TM in my day, which were essentially pocket folders with pictures of athletes striving for excellence on the front.  You may recall using a “Trapper Keeper”TM or another type of binder in school.  In any case, I quickly learned over the years why my parents stayed on me to be organized, as I watched some of my friends’ and classmates’ backpacks begin to resemble portable trash and recycling receptacles.  And I suppose it might have been a clear understanding of WHY I needed to stay organized that helped me to actually do it.
As we all hurl ourselves toward a new year, many of us are probably thinking about what we want to be different next year.  And some of our students may be doing the same.  Around now (late December/early January), some of our students are beginning to think about goals, aspirations, dreams, changes, and resolutions they hope will make a difference for them in the year to come.  And for many of them, these resolutions may involve scholastic improvement in some way.  However, for many of them, scholastic improvement is far from their minds when it comes to thinking about the new year.
For many of us (adults), though, we would love nothing more than to find effective ways we might support our students in becoming more successful in their academic pursuits.  Allow me to suggest that we consider the importance of one word:  why.
In his excellent TED Talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, author and speaker Simon Sinek persuasively argues that it is the limbic brain, the part of the brain which houses our feelings, that drives our behavior.  The ‘why’ that Sinek is speaking about refers specifically to a “purpose, cause, or belief.”  He argues, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  In other words, the ‘why’ center of the brain (which not coincidentally is responsible for feelings like trust and loyalty) controls our behavior.
Sinek is talking about behavior within a market setting.  But how might we– mentors, parents, teachers– influence the literacy behaviors of our students?  How might we help them to believe reading/writing/school is truly worth doing?  How do we get them to engage with the important work of behaviors like risk-taking and persevering, both essential to literacy learning?  Harvard Professor David Dockterman, Ed.D. has devoted much of his academic energy to  addressing this question.  Part of his scholarship centers around developing a growth mindset (which I’ve written about before) in our students.  Dr. Dockterman maintains that a key belief associated with school success and an academic mindset can be phrased in the following way:

In other words, students must be present to a tangible ‘why’ they are doing something, or they won’t believe it is worth doing.  Some students (and perhaps parents) may argue that the reason students work hard to become stronger readers and writers in school is to, well, earn a good grade.  That’s why they work hard in school, right?   But Sinek would argue that a good grade is an example of a result, not a purpose, cause, or belief.  It’s really not a ‘why.’
Many of our students may likely fall into a category Dr. Philip Schlechty would call “strategically compliant.”  That is, these students do not act because they see inherent value or personal meaning in the work with which they are engaged; they act instead to earn “extrinsic satisfaction” or what we might call a substituted goal.  And this substituted goal replaces personal meaning (e.g., grades).  But don’t we want our readers and writers to be truly engaged learners?  According to Schlechty, truly engaged learners “learn at high levels and have a profound grasp on what they learn.” Isn’t that what we all really want for our young readers and writers?
Allow me to share and adapt some of Dr. Dockterman’s work around helping our young readers and writers believe literacy work is truly worth doing:

(1)     Connect to the future by showing the end—Most of us have heard, “You need to know/do this because you’ll need this in [substitute such words as high school, life, the workforce, etc.].”  While this statement may be true, it often lacks an inspiring element that leads to direct action.  Instead, we might think about how we can, “show the end,” as Dockterman puts it.  Showing the end can give purpose and a vision for learning.  What does “the end” look like for a successful reader or writer?  We can show them examples of places where this really lives in our real lives.  Dockterman says, “Don’t teach baseball just by playing catch.  Show them a real baseball game!”
(2) Make it interesting– Human beings possess an innate curiosity to know what happens next.  Think about wildly successful shows such as “Survivor”, “The Voice”, “American Idol”—all of these shows contain an element that makes people want to watch because…why?  Because they want to find out what happens next!  I am a great admirer of University of New Hampshire Professor, Dr. Thomas Newkirk.  Newkirk teaches us that it is the narrative elements—that is, elements that make a great story—that hook our interest in a way that supports learning.  To engage our students meaningfully in reading and writing and school, we must try to find ways to harness this power.  How can we help reading and writing be more interesting so that our kids want to “find out what happens?”  This might mean encouraging kids to try out a new YA series, or it might mean encouraging them to write a letter to the editor.  It might mean starting a Kid Blog about something they are super-knowledgeable about and fascinated by.  These few ideas all contain a common element– an element of uncertainty.  What will happen to the main character?  Will my letter get published?  Who will comment on my blog and what will they say?  Uncertainty, according to Dockterman, is more motivating than certainty.  People try more when they don’t know what they will get! Dr. Sidney D’Mello from the University of Notre Dame writes about how a bit of confusion is not always a bad thing for a learner.  In fact, it can act as a helpful factor.  D’Mello argues that confusion can actually help motivate learners to focus more because of the innate need to resolve the confusion.  In other words, a little confusion can make things more interesting.

(3)  Choice matters– Yes, I’ve written about this before, too.  When it comes to connecting the dots between personal meaning and literacy, the power of choice cannot be understated.  Kids must be provided opportunities to make meaningful choices about what they read and write.  When we promote choices in literacy work, we fuel agency.  And according to Dockterman, agency fuels value.

At the website WebMD, the authors write that it is normal for children to begin asking, “Why?” around the ages of 3 or 4.  Although this is young, might we consider the importance of such a question even throughout the rest of life?  Considering ‘why”, especially when it comes to supporting our readers and writers, can make a tremendous difference.

*Thank you to Dr. David Dockterman for his inspiration in writing this post.

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

2 thoughts on “On Supporting an Academic Mindset”

  1. Perfect timing for this topic. And YES! Clear picture of goal, choice and interesting are important factors according to Hattie! I find that the WHY is even more important (at my age) because those who cannot (or will not) articulate the WHY often seem to be wasting my time! This post is a great one for 2017!


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