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Teacher Mindsets Drive Classroom Change

One of the assumptions at the heart of programs like the CityBridge Education Innovation Fellowship is that teachers can make transformational changes to the way classrooms and schools operate. Well, actually, there are two parts to that assumption: the first is that we at CityBridge believe that teachers can play a pivotal role in redesigning schools through the work they do in their classrooms, and the second is that teachers in our programs believe the same. It’s a mindset, a belief on the part of teachers that they have the power to break away from tradition and shape the future of school.

Looking back on the work of the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, I keep thinking about the importance of mindset. “The fellowship made me dissatisfied with the status quo,” wrote Stephanie Spangler, a 4th-grade teacher at Tubman Elementary, in a reflection at the end of the fellowship year. “I hope to work from both within and beyond the classroom to implement change.” She was not alone in adopting a mindset that encompassed dissatisfaction with current ways and optimism about the future. The work of many fellows demonstrates that seeing change at the classroom level builds confidence in the power of teachers to shape new educational models.

Take Eric Dabney’s work while he was a 4th-grade math teacher at Orr Elementary during the spring of 2016. (Eric moved on to an instructional coaching role at Kimball Elementary in the fall.) Eric’s classroom innovation was a scheduling system that expanded student choice and agency. After carefully reviewing individual testing data with students so that they understood exactly which skills they needed to work on, he showed them the remaining standards in the curriculum and gave them a wide variety of choices for how they, individually, could learn and practice those standards. Here is how he described the system in his design portfolio:

Students will look over test data and choose the standard they want to learn. They will then be able to choose how they want to practice that standard: with practice problems, video lessons, projects, or word problems. The sheet below will track what the students have been doing for the week and each particular task is worth a certain number of points. This strategy also has the added benefit of allowing me to work with students one-on-one for lessons and goal setting.

Below is a poster illustrating some of the options students could select for how to work on their individual math standards—including projects, peer tutoring, online software, games, and meeting with the teacher:

Less focus on the teacher and more power to students, who can now select the order and the modality of their learning. Just one month into testing the new classroom prototype, Eric’s students were growing twice as fast as they had been during the previous semester. His mindset was changing, and his students were learning more.

Embedded within the Design Principles that inform the work of Breakthrough Schools teams is the concept of student agency, and a belief that students should “take ownership for the pace and pathway of their learning.” When many traditional instructional models emphasize the teacher as the focal point of the classroom, moving towards a reality of student ownership can be challenging.

Janis Dingels, a first-grade teacher at the Walker Jones Education Campus, also built a system that allowed her students to work at different paces through different learning pathways. Using a simple laminated grid, each of her students could make decisions about which of several learning stations where they would work during daily time blocks—they simply arranged a teacher-curated selection of moveable cards to create an individualized learning plan five days at a time. The process was not straightforward, and it took a long time. Janis went through more than a half-dozen iterations of the schedule cards, making tweaks and adjustments each week. She described the ideal vision in her design portfolio:

Imagine a space where students, with assistance, set their own schedule by choosing from multiple enriching experiences, all aligned to academic standards. Through a weekly conference with a caring educator, students measure their own progress towards goals and receive guidance necessary to make the best choices for their learning. Through multiple workstation options and the inclusion of technology, students are not forced into one size fits all literacy. Instead, as they develop the skills to manage their own learning, they become empowered as students.

A sample student schedule—using the sixth prototype—could look like this:

After all that tinkering, Janis saw significant impacts on her students’ happiness and learning. She reported that during the spring semester of 2016, when she implemented the personalized schedules, her students averaged five levels of reading growth, compared to one level the semester before when the student experience was not personalized. “It has opened up my classroom to more student control and unlocked a lot more growth in my classroom,” she wrote in an end-of-year reflection.

It’s worth noting that both of these prototypes were low-tech, oriented mainly around a paper-based schedule. The mindset-changing impact was not the result of a complicated software platform or a radically redesigned learning space. Change starts small.

“This fellowship helped me start changing my thinking around helping students,” wrote Eric at the end of the fellowship experience. “At first I felt when students were not learning that it had something to do with the lesson. Now I also think about the structure and investing students in the process of trying to figure out what’s going wrong.” Structure, investment, and a process for identifying and solving problems—those elements have also been core to the fellowship programs over the past four years.

Near both the beginning and the end of the 2016 fellowship year, we asked fellows to assess their skills in several areas: design thinking, race and equity, leadership, and knowledge of personalized learning models and tools. Virtually every member of the 2016 cohort indicated that they felt more confident in their skills across all of those domains at the end of the fellowship than at the beginning. Confidence is not the same thing as impact, but recognizing your own growth is important: It underscores the fact that our own mindsets can change as we practice new skills, learn new tools, and see the connections between adult learning and student learning.

Our team is currently building the next set of programs for teachers at Breakthrough Schools. One of the lessons we’ve learned from our past programs is that mindsets matter, and mindsets can change. If teachers believe they have the power to redesign classrooms and schools, then they can, and they will.

Andrew Pratt
Program Manager, Education Innovation Fellowship