Mimicking the urgency that a runner feels at the start of a race, so too should educators feel about a race against the clock with middle level students. This critical urgency is with the development ofacademic resiliency that is highlighted by a sense of agency, and a growth mindset in students as they prepare for high school.
My own sense of urgency with the matter comes from my research with low-income, 1st generation college-bound Latino high school students. Next week, we will return to their voice and the experiences in middle school that were telling to their futures. This week, we will build the foundation of critical urgency by reviewing the works of Johnston (2004) and Dweck (2006).
Ready, Set, Go!
Johnston (2004) wrote about the different levels of agency that students may have, “Children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks, and they plan poorly. When they face difficulties, they become confused, lose concentration, and start telling themselves stories about their own incompetence. In the long run they disengage, decrease effort, generate fewer ideas, and become passive and discouraged” (p. 40). He continued, “When children decide that they have no agency with respect to their learning, their learning is limited in terms of both personal experience and potential trajectory” (p. 41). According to Johnston, this often begins in 5th grade, and worsens through the middle level years of school.
Fortunately for our youth, a student can develop agency and have the opposite experience of what was explained above. Johnston wrote that students with a strong sense of agency are “competent, (they) plan well, choose challenging tasks, and set higher goals” (p. 41). In short, students with agency had a mindset towards success, and they achieve success. This sense of agency is aligned with Dweck’s growth mindset framework discussed in the prior blog-posting.
In fact, in Mindset: The new psychology of success (2006), Dweck specifically pointed to the transition from elementary school to middle level schooling as being a very difficult time for adolescents. Insomuch, this is a time when the development of and fostering of academic resiliency is highly needed – especially for traditionally underserved youth. At this time in school-life, Dweck recognized that “The work gets much harder, the grading policies toughen up, the teaching becomes less personalized. And this all happens while students are coping with their new adolescent bodies and roles. Grades suffer, but not everyone’s grades suffer equally” (p. 57).
Both authors found that students with “indistinguishable grades” in elementary school began to separate from one another in junior high school. Students with a fixed mindset showed an immediate drop-off in their grades, while those with a growth mindset showed an increase in their grades. Both sets of grades trended through the middle level experience for students. Look in horror to how Dweck shared that some students with a fixed mindset explained poor academic performance, “Many maligned their abilities: I am the stupidest or I suck in math,” or the students placed blame on their teachers with negative comments, name calling, etc.
Ready, Set Go!
This is why middle school is such a critical age. The good news? Whether it is Johnston’s discussion of student agency, or Dweck’s terminology of fixed mindset versus growth mindset, they both play directly into academic resiliency in students. And they can all be fostered and developed within students. It is a race against the clock with the malleable spirits of the children within our care that we can help change the trajectory of student futures, with the aid and support from home.
So what now? Next week we will reflect upon student voice from the middle school experience for high achieving Latino youth in high school. Then following that, we will dive into the practical side of the equation on how schools and families can foster these different protective factors in their students.
Ready, Set, Go!
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY:
Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning.
Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
"Critical Resilience" This work is dedicated to the equal and fair education of all children, locally and globally.