Measure Students by How Much They Grow Rather than How Much They Know

Now that the school year is really under way, morning for most students means pulling on backpacks and climbing onto school buses.

Where I work as a school principal, students are eager to learn, teachers are ready to teach, and hallways are shiny with fresh coats of wax. It’s a familiar routine that hasn’t varied much for several past decades. But in other ways, things have changed dramatically to match our changing world.

Some of the changes are simple. School shopping now includes picking out a colorful iPad case and matching earbuds rather than just folders and matching pencils. Other changes are more complex because our public schools are in the midst of a paradigm shift away from the old industrial model. In support of that shift, Growth-Mindset is one of the hottest topics in education this year.

The concept of Growth-Mindset comes from Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her work has sparked widespread inspiration on education blogs, in the education twitter-sphere, and in schools all around the state. Her conclusion is simple: people who believe they can improve their abilities do better in life than those who don’t believe they can improve their abilities.

For me, that means accepting that even my singing voice could be improved with practice and coaching.

Now, if it seems surprising that something so obvious could be causing such a groundswell of interest amongst schools, consider that despite its simplicity, Dweck’s work has profound implications. The twist comes in that it moves our educational emphasis to growing rather than knowing. And if schools value growing over knowing, it will alter our traditional grading system. If schools value perseverance and the process of learning over talent and knowledge, it will challenge our traditional methods of instruction.

These distinctions lie at the very heart of a nationwide soul-search for how to improve our schools. And Vermont has been a very active participant in that search. In fact, Act 77, the 2013 Flexible Pathways Law, points schools in the direction of measuring individual students by how much they grow rather than how much they know. The results could mean groups of students graduating high school at various ages rather than the typical age of 18, more students taking college courses sooner, and less sitting in traditional classrooms just to fill out a traditional transcript.

The necessary changes will require a growth-mindset from all of us – a mindset that believes we can improve. So the next time a school bus goes by, I hope we’ll not only take a moment to enjoy the things that aren’t changing, like the smiling faces, and the excitement of new challenges, but also to embrace some of the things that are changing and recognize them as healthy and necessary growth.



Mike McRaith 2013 Cohort

Mike McRaith is in the 2013 Cohort of Rowland Fellows and is the Enosburg Falls Middle School Principal. His 2013 autumn sabbatical and his continued work is documented in his blog Building Perseverance into School Culture.

This commentary by Mike McRaith was written for Vermont Public Radio and aired on October 22, 2014.  The transcript can be found on VPR’s website at McRaith: Growth Mindset and can be listened to here!

Thank you to Mike and VPR for permission to republish it here on our site.

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