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Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Part Two

In 2020, there was a Facebook thread about student perseverance, resilience, and grit. The premise centered on the social-emotional well-being of students during this pandemic, specifically venting educator concerns about student engagement if required to do remote learning. Comments perceived as negative were met with push back citing the “grit” of students and the importance of keeping a growth mindset as educators. The social media dialogued that ensued prompted the content for Part II of Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Experiences. Specifically, the concepts of grit and  growth mindset. Some may be wondering:

  1. What is the connection between student grit, educator mindset, and culturally responsive teaching?

The premise of the aforementioned discussion centered on the idea that grit + engagement = deeper learning, and how educators have oversimplified these concepts.  Now, to be clear, the purpose here is not to dismiss the importance or role of grit and growth mindset in education. There is a ponderance of evidence supporting Carol Dweck's work, noting that having a growth mindset as an educator is essential. Students will need grit to demonstrate mastery of standards and overcome the challenges presented as a result of COVID-19. The purpose here, rather is to contextualize both from a culturally responsive lens.

In Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Experiences Part I, the discussion centered on how culturally responsive teaching is about helping the learner grow his or her brain power and agency as a learner who is competent and confident. In order for all of students to demonstrate competence and confidence, educators and leaders must remember that competence proceeds confidence. The brain must first perceive the improvement and increased ability to do something better before it begins to feel confident. "Inequity by design targets students confidence by reducing their competence" (Hammond, 2019).

To upend inequities, educators and leaders have to become the warm demanders of students’ cognitive development. This stance is central to culturally responsive teaching, not for classroom management purposes, but because educators and leaders understand that the way inequity by design works, it will always find ways to target and undermine diverse students’ cognitive abilities.

  1. How do we become warn demanders of students’ cognitive development?

Similar to a personal trainer, educators and leaders have to help students improve their learning moves, increase their cognitive stamina, build their background knowledge, and so on. Educators and leaders will not accomplish this by solely giving motivational speeches or admonishing them to display more grit by working hard and persevering through the challenges they encounter. Paul Gorski and a number of other researchers are uncovering the deficit thinking behind some approaches to grit methods in schools (Hammond, 2019).

The majority of our most vulnerable students (i.e., students of color, ELLs, students with IEPs, and students from low social economic families and communities) have “grit” in abundance. We have to affirm it and find ways to leverage it. Kathleen Cushman encapsulates this brilliantly in her book, Fires in the Mind (2013), which examines adolescent motivation. Instead of theorizing, she asks them. She posed the following question to over 200 young people across America, inviting them to become researchers of their own learning:

  1. What does it take to get really good at something?

Starting with the things they already knew and could do well, they analyzed the process that all learners go through when they take up new things and work toward mastery. The teens in her case study talk about what motivates them to work hard at a challenge, and this became what Cushman called The Practice Project. It’s brilliant in its simplicity: Help students see where they have already taken on something new and challenging and help them extract the principles of deliberate practice (Cushman, 2013). This is practice worthy of implementing into instruction.

Here are a few things Zaretta Hammond asks educators to keep in mind as you do:

1. Channel the principle of the first pancake. "We don’t help kids realize that conscious incompetence is the first step in getting good at something. We are always aware of how bad we suck at first. This is where the “warm” part of warm demander comes in. You have to reassure the student that they are on the right path. Don’t blow smoke at them. This is not time for a “grit” pep talk. You “warmly” let them know this is normal" (Hammond, 2019). 

Just like when people cook pancakes. For some universal reason, the first one is always burnt crispy on one side, and runny, uncooked, and beige on the other. But no one gets upset. No, people wait for the cook to make the necessary adjustments based on feedback of how that pancake turned out. The bad pancake just gets unceremoniously tossed in the trash (or given to the dog). Design thinkers call this prototyping and iterating. Educators and leaders have to help students begin to map the path to getting better and not be afraid of the first pancake.

2. Remember practice makes permanent. Deliberate practice becomes key to getting better at something. But, not all repeated actions are deliberate practice. Learn the difference and then create the right conditions for students to do deep practice. Educators cannot skim over skills in the rush to “cover content” or stay with the pacing guide (Hammond, 2019). Remember, only the learner learns. Therefore, educators must help students build these learning muscles so they can process the content. Attached below is Cushman’s list of the key elements of deliberate practice.

3. Accept errors as information. In order to get better, students need feedback loops. But before students can use feedback, they have to get and become okay with errors. Educators have to help students reframe mistakes as a source of information about what needs adjusting in order to hit the target. If kids are scared of mistakes because they think it says something about their intelligence, they will not push for the next level of mastery (Hammond, 2019).

4. Adopt a “let’s watch the game tape” stance through instructional conversation and actionable feedback. Related to accepting errors as information, educators have to help students extract the right information from those failed attempts. Help them take an inquiry stance to their own learning. Athletes and coaches watch game tape after the game in order to see what went right and what went wrong. They analyze it rather than get emotional about it. Help students develop their analytical eye toward their own performance so that when they are in the middle of learning, they can deliberately try new learning moves (Hammond, 2019).

This requires making time for conferencing where educators are able to have an instructional conversation with their students about what they were thinking when they chose a particular strategy or move. The instructional conversation helps to make the students' thinking visible for the educator to coach them to do a new thing next time.

5. Get meta-strategic rather simply meta-cognitive. So, this is related to watching the game tape. The instructional conversation has to be about what strategies the student employed and why. Again, it helps make the invisible visible so educators can help students level up their moves. Ron Ritchhart, author of Making Thinking Visible calls this helping students become “meta-strategic” – the ability to size up the task and then ask himself, herself, or themselves: “Of the four strategies my teacher taught me, which two are most helpful in tackling this problem?" When conferencing, this is a great question to get inside the student’s head.

Learn more about The Practice Project by checking out Cushman’s 5-Day curriculum. This takes longer than five days, but what she discusses can get educators started on a semester long arc of work around helping students become the leaders of their own learning. On her website, What Kids Can Do, there are six case study videos centered around different subject areas.


Cushman's Key Elements of Deliberate Practice

Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Slide Deck


Next Module: Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Part Three