Superteachers: Part Four on Optimism

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Students aren’t learning.  Presentations are broken.  Lectures don’t work.  It is time for a teaching and learning revolution.  In Superteachers: An Introduction (read more here), we learn that superteachers embody five key qualities.  Part One on CreativityPart Two on Passion For Learning, and Part Three on Doing The Work cover the first of these five characteristics.

Today, we focus on the fourth characteristic of a superteacher: natural and genuine optimism.  Why is a superteacher optimistic?  Because he or she has a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset.  In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck explains the difference between the two approaches.  People with a fixed mindset “believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong” (Source).  On the other hand, people with a growth mindset “believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities” (Source).  So how does a growth mindset relate to our fourth quality of a superteacher: optimism?  Because a growth mindset is all about optimism.  Developing a growth mindset means seeing “failure” as an opportunity to learn.

Earlier this year, I overheard a Public Speaking teacher on campus talk about charisma. Charisma, she argued, was something people were either born with or not; it was an inherent, fixed trait.  I argued (to her and, later, through a series of blog posts) that charisma was something people had to develop over time, practice, and effort.  The basic difference between our arguments was that this particular Public Speaking teacher has a fixed mindset about charisma, and I have a growth mindset.  It’s important as instructors that we ditch the fixed mindset; otherwise, tests determine intelligence and failure is a permanent measure of someone’s worth.  With the growth mindset, instructors support students as continuously learners, and the instructor’s goal is to cultivate and expand that learning.

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Superteachers are people who possess an optimistic, growth mindset, and these instructors see the maximum potential in everyone.  As long as a student puts in the necessary effort, he or she can work to do well and learn material.  This isn’t an act; a superteacher truly exudes confidence and encouragement because this is a way of thinking, a mindset.  A superteacher knows his or her job is to cultivate learning, to be a curator of knowledge, and in order to see students grow, the teacher must believe the students can improve and develop their skills.

Dweck tells us that growth mindset teachers set high standards, create a nurturing learning environment, and push students to work hard.  Teachers with a pessimistic outlook would hold different students to different standards; these instructors believe that some students are just “dumb” and won’t ever “get” it.  Pessimistic teachers only nurture some students.  They support and adore “smart” students but cast away, ignore, or give up on “dumb” students.  Pessimistic teachers never push students to work hard.  They believe intelligence is “natural.”  Some students are smart; some aren’t.  This is a sad way to live, and pessimistic teachers with that fixed mindset are hurting the field of education as well as each and every student that passes through the classroom doors (Source).

Now, we’re not talking Pollyanna here.  Sometimes, teaching situations suck, and the optimistic growth mindset is difficult to maintain.  For example, earlier this year, my fellow superteacher, Chiara Ojeda, led a really difficult class.  Read Chiara’s account in her blog post “Losing My Superteacher Way And Finding It Again.”  Chiara didn’t lose her growth mindset; she knew the students could be great if they tried.  However, the students weren’t willing to put in the time or effort necessary for success.  Even with the difficult classes, optimism still resides inside of a superteacher.  Sometimes, the optimism is simply believing, “I’ll manage a challenging class better next time” or “I’m looking forward to trying again next time.”

How do you cultivate optimism?  To learn how to change your mindset, click here.

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