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A Textbook Case

3/4s teacher Jenn Drake thinks through some of the barriers students face to motivation and participation. -Ed.

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Once I had a parent tell me that her child was fed up with homework.  My gut instinct was to crack up – aren’t all kids fed up with homework?!  But this was a child who I found tending toward the fixed mindset, one that needed lessons in effort and the learning mindset, so I perked up at the opportunity to listen and guide the family.  

This child wanted to know when she would get to learn something new instead of having to practice all the time.  I explained that homework is designed for practicing skills learned at school or rote memorization tasks that were not the best use of classroom time (like math facts); these skills are often practiced in isolation.  This is different from our classroom work which is designed for introducing new concepts, practicing skills in the context of a larger problem, and assessing student understanding.  The way I saw things, getting homework that was repeated practice would be a good thing for this child – perhaps a little humbling and an opportunity for her to give her best effort.

But then there was the classroom piece.  How could I get her to be open to learning?  One day in math, she quickly drew 6 of the 11 possible nets for a cube.  When I asked the class for strategies, most said they were just guessing and she wanted to share her strategic thinking.  While she was explaining about the four in a row, I interjected to keep the conversation focused.  She told me she didn’t figure it out, rather that she already knew the six because she’d done this problem before.  Bells go off in my mind, right?  Great!  Here’s an opportunity for learning!  How would she get the other five?

So we sat down together and I asked questions to get her thinking about how to move forward.  But she was stuck and shutting down.  There was no effort, no sign of progress.  Only the occasional pointing out that another student has written the wrong thing or was attempting to flip or rotate a shape they already had.  How to move forward?  I told a story about when something was hard for me.  Blank stare.  I use some growth-mindset self-talk and labeled it as such.  No response.  I wrote down a mantra on top of her paper “I am here to learn.”  Nothing.

I thought back to that conversation with her mom.  When I suggested that practice was good for accuracy, she blamed the size of the paper for her mistakes.  When I suggested they try a math club to build community, she said the clubs had all kinds of kids, even those with “learning problems.”  When I suggested a competitive group, she said no way – her daughter was too competitive already.  With the parents feeding into this trap of fixed mindset, how would I ever change the mind of my student?