Growth Through Risk - Encouraging an Adventurous Spirit in the Classroom

This week we’re going to look closer at the “K” in HIKER: Knowledge.  Specifically, we’re going to look at knowing what your students need to find success in your classroom and in the world.

One of the biggest areas of focus in the education world lately has been on having a growth mindset.  Do a quick Google search and you will find hundreds of blog posts, academic journal articles, and tweets about the importance of this mindset when it comes to student achievement.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, the basics are that a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is born-in, and that it cannot be nurtured and developed, whereas a growth mindset focuses on awareness of a starting point, setting a goal, and laying out a plan to reach it (see graphic below for additional traits of this mindset).

Source: Dweck, Carol. “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset.”  Rio School District , Rio School District, Oxnard California,

Source: Dweck, Carol. “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset.” Rio School District, Rio School District, Oxnard California,

I love this belief system!  It takes the pressure off having to reach some lofty height, and instead focuses on the journey through small, incremental steps.  It’s a lot easier to focus on the step in front of you on the trail, than on reaching the highest peak. Goal setting is important, even when we want to focus on loving the process of learning, but we must remember that the greatest growth comes when we step outside of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves.  That’s where an adventurous spirit comes in. When you match an adventurous spirit with a growth mindset, the entire world opens for you, and you can envision all the possible summits you might seek.

Cultivating this spirit in the classroom is not easy.  Many of our students today have been inundated with standardized tests, strict objectivity in lessons and assignments, and a general lack of focus on creativity and challenge.  Our students often come to us with questions like:

“Is this the right answer?”

“Can I have a worksheet?”

“What app am I supposed to use for this?”

These questions are very much tied up with a fixed mindset.  Students are expecting an exact right answer for everything. There is little growth, creativity, or critical thinking in these questions, and though the task may be rigorous, it isn’t adventurous.  While rigor (I still hate this word) is important in our lessons, we need to also allow room for some risk-taking and open-endedness in design. There is so much value in taking on a challenge and growing through the risk and possible struggle.  We need students to be okay with academic discomfort and an understanding that the end result may not be what they expected, but that they still learned from the process and appreciate the chance to push themselves out of their comfort zones.

This brings us to a second concern.  Our obsession with letter grades, points, and whether or not we “have” to do something.  Our students are conditioned to think (or ask) if a task will be graded or not, which leads them to not seeing value in anything that does not have a number attached to it.  I’m greatly concerned about this mindset because it diminishes, possibly even eliminates, any love of learning for the sake of learning. I understand that we live in a world where students are under tremendous pressure to perform and succeed.  It’s built in to our standardized testing world, with students spending an enormous amount of energy trying to get straight A’s so that can get into prestigious high school programs and colleges. We need only look at the current college admissions scandal for the inevitable, logical conclusion such a mentality will produce.  This obsession with an end goal likely breeds unhappiness, frustration, and anxiety that truly harmful to our students’ mental health.

I would suggest that an adventurous spirit combined with a belief in improvement produces a happier, higher achieving student.  Taking risks and challenging yourself combined with clear feedback creates a chance to grow both as a person and student. To foster this spirit, in my class I repeatedly talk about “Being in love with learning.”  I offer dozens of opportunities for side quests to use the gamification verbiage, where students can challenge themselves to go beyond the curriculum and explore interesting historical stories that are often overlooked in our curriculum.  There is no extra credit, and it has no impact on their grade, but is instead a chance to enjoy learning and creating with content. Learning is the goal, not the accumulation of points.

As far as assessed tasks, I set clear targets for students to strive towards, and assess them on single-point rubrics, along with feedback about their work.  When we talk about our learning targets in kid-friendly ways (I CAN statements, for example), and provide consistent updates about where they are at in their journey toward that statement, the process becomes the focus, not the end goal.  The best part about all of this is that it is not a quest to arrive at “perfection” or “straight A’s”. Instead it is a quest they are on, and each step along the way becomes a memory and marker of their growth.

While I know I must live in the “real world” of letter grades, and the consequences and pressures students experience are real and palpable, I never want my classroom to be a place where the pressure to perform is so great as to cause anxiety and stress to the point where students become obsessed with the destination, and miss out on the fun of the adventure along the way.

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two great educators: Rick Wormeli and Mindy Roberts.  Rick is a world-renowned educational consultant on just about anything related to middle school education.  I’ve not had the privilege of meeting him, but during the Hive Summit last summer, I was enthralled by his discussion of standards-based grading and why it is a more accurate, fair, and just flat out better model for assessment.  I’m still in the early stages of implementation, but I have been thrilled with the results so far, as it has provided me with the vocabulary and evidence needed to help my students see the value of learning and move past the obsession with letter grades.  I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without having learned about standards-based grading from Rick and I’m excited to learn more this summer at Summer Spark. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rickwormeli2  Mindy is an instructional coach I had the privilege of working with in my first year in Olathe.  Her help and advice through implementation of standards-based grading, to curriculum, to all the logistical aspects of being a teacher in a new district have been invaluable.  I’ve become a better teacher through our conversations and I’m very grateful for all her support this year. You can follow Mindy on Twitter @MRobertsIRT