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UDL in 15 Minutes podcast with Shelbi Fortner: The follow-up

This blog is in response to my podcast with Shelbi Fortner.

Growth mindset is a concept that has received a lot of attention and for good reason. If you aren’t familiar with it, if you aren’t sure of what it is, or if it feels too shallow to you, read this clarifying piece from The Atlantic. And, because growth mindset is such a crucial component within the UDL Guidelines (check out Sustaining Effort and Persistence), we really need to understand it.

An important reminder that came from The Atlantic article is that all of us, learners and their educators, demonstrate a growth mindset when we turn to the resources around us to help us develop our solution (Gross-Loh, 2016). That is exactly what Shelbi described when talking about her design shifts during her interview. Note: If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I suggest you do and then continue reading. In other words, spoiler alert!!

During this podcast, Shelbi shared her professional journey as a teacher and as a learner. More importantly, she shared her willingness to try something that might not have worked in other settings. When she designed the assessment for her Honors Biology students, her focus was on giving them different ways to think about visual models like photosynthesis, DNA replication, and protein synthesis. She asked them to compare and contrast, to state which models they believed were better at describing a process and why, and which models were more accurate. The students didn’t even have to answer the same questions – they chose the questions that made sense to them. This UDL-driven design worked because (a) she was in a context that supported her growth mindset, and (b) Shelbi exhibited a growth mindset during the design process.

Shelbi’s administration gave her the room necessary to try things like her non-standardized final exam design. She turned to the administration as a resource, informed them of her idea, and they encouraged her to run with it. They knew that high quality teaching and learning were going on in that Honors Biology learning environment. The administration was also eager to hear the results of the of the students’ thinking. Ultimately, Shelbi and her administration were united in her implementation of UDL.

Next, Shelbi demonstrated a growth mindset in her willingness to turn to others for suggestions. Several from the UDL Core Team, Shelbi, and I sat and discussed ideas when she was first considering this exam design. She took those ideas and established a final that provided her learners the room needed to astound her. To do that, though, Shelbi had to grapple with her own beliefs around what a final exam is, the purpose of a final exam, and how to hear the voices of her students in those final exams. Instead of giving up, she pushed forward by reaching out for new resources. That’s what someone who has a growth mindset does.

There are several other ingredients that had to be in place for this final to work. Some of those included a year of discussions, activities, and assignments that required those students to evaluate, assess, and critique their own knowledge. They were practiced in this level of thinking. In addition, while Shelbi embraced and embodied a growth mindset, she knew that she needed to guide her learners in the creation of theirs.

As discussed in The Atlantic article cited above, growth mindset focuses on helping students learn to use the resources around them to problem-solve, not “try harder” and repeat methods that are not adequate or appropriate for the situation. They cannot learn this through modeling alone, though; learners need to be provided specific opportunities with clear feedback to help them know they are establishing a growth mindset. Shelbi provided those opportunities and feedback throughout the year. And, a final example of Shelbi’s growth mindset showed up in her desire to figure out how she will create a rubric to support her design and support her students in the future. Shelbi isn’t done learning and she’s not done using the resources around her.

A final note about growth mindset: Dr. Dweck points out that having a growth mindset does not mean always being in that state. In fact, depending on the context, we might experience a fixed mindset (I hope you saw the word context and immediately connected that to variability and UDL!) Context is key and none of us are a certain type of learner. I encourage you to think about times when you experienced a growth mindset and when you experienced a fixed mindset.

What triggered your fixed mindset?

How did your mindset affect your teaching?

How did your mindset affect your learning?

How does your mindset affect your route toward becoming an expert learner?