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[Educator Network] What Can Ruth Bader Ginsburg Teach Us About Asking Growth Mindset Questions?

[Educator Network] What Can Ruth Bader Ginsburg Teach Us About Asking Growth Mindset Questions?

In the middle of writing this blog on growth mindset the nation lost another hero. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a., ‘Notorious RBG,’ died on September 18, 2020. Whether you agreed with her decisions or not you cannot deny the impact she had on education and the rights of women. I own my house (well, the bank and I own my house,) I have credit and credit cards. I don’t question my abilities to try nor do I tolerate others questioning that ability, it is understood that I can be the primary bread winner in a family, and that the 18-year-old me is no different than an 18-year-old male in the state of Oklahoma when it comes to buying beer. Ruth Bader Ginsburg held on tight to the belief that I am capable, something I take for granted. This belief stems in a large part, to the laws of the nation she enforced. This is not another article touting the immense impact she had in our world nor is it what it originally started out to be, another growth mindset conversation. This is an opinion on where these two intersect. A view into a life that demonstrates that the action of growth mindset has a personification.

All children are born with the need to find answers. All children are born curious. It can be how that curiosity is met that can dim that light. Giving up when encountering failure can come from many places, a belief in not being good at the activity, believing in a lack of the intelligence to succeed, or believing that this isn’t something your gender is destined to do. This is fixed mindset. Justice Ginsberg was once asked why she was taking a man’s spot at Harvard Law School. Can you imagine what that must have felt like, the pressure to be smaller from the institution you were learning from? Having the strength to know you are right when there is such force telling you something else?

This is a great example of growth mindset. The brain is capable of overcoming the challenges it faces in new areas of learning and then have great impact. It is possible to develop a growth mindset, and doing so can help a student, or an entire institute of learning, overcome the hurdles they face in understanding and developing the necessary skills to persist. The same concept applies for young people; a growth mindset works to instill confidence in students regarding their ability to develop and learn. The idea that a child is predestine to a role or a level of learning should not be dictated by established norms. There are not, nor should there be, limits placed on a child based on arbitrary expectations. All children are born curious, and that is simply wonderful. Our role as educators should be to encourage that curiosity and foster it. Not an easy job when there is such systemic pushback and lack of equity of resources, but by fostering growth mindset we can put processes in place that challenge the established expectations and celebrate grit and defiance. Curiosity fostered rather than following a pattern that pays no homage to the individual child.  

“Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Teaching children the need to know and fostering the skills to forage for their strength cannot be a more powerful calling. Fostering growth mindset doesn’t mean handing out participation trophies. Praise has positive impact, but not when it is hollow or unsubstantiated. Students need to find strategies that support them individually on their quest to develop as individuals. Growth mindset allows us to seek out new ways of learning or finding success when something isn’t working. There’s always a way. Reading is the path that worked for Justice Ginsburg; what will work for that quite kid in your classroom? How do you support the trial and error process in your classroom?

One of the hardest things in the growth mindset process is letting students struggle. Frustration is different, and teaching a child that struggling is part of the process of learning is a razors edge, but worth it. Struggling in finding the right process, not relying on an inherited trait, is beneficial to students. Teaching a child to learn from mistakes, to try new things, and to see failing as part of the process is critical to long term success. When students learn to learn from challenges and apply that new knowledge when they are faced with the next obstacle, teaching moves away from the standards instruction and into creating lifelong learners.

“That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Developing a growth mindset as a student isn’t always easy; in fact, is also a struggle for adults. Not stepping in when a student is struggling, sure, that is a challenge. But as an educator moving to growth mindset yourself, learning to accept that struggles are part of the learning process requires that you too must expect to try, and sometimes fail, and then learn. Your process can look similar. Remember that you too will make errors. The magic happens as you learn from your own mistakes, just as it is for your students to learn from theirs. For those moving to the digital classroom, growth mindset means not beating yourself up when things go wrong, but finding out why they went wrong so you can keep it from happening again.

“I didn't change the Constitution; the equality principle was there from the start. I just was an advocate for seeing its full realization.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, you are educators and your obsession is learning. Apply that to yourself. Never stop growing and learning, but consider that the learning process contains moments of failure. Celebrate your curiosity.

There is no one perfect method for teaching. Your approach and interests will drive the lens but remember to be innovative and experiment. Innovation isn’t just about technology. The opportunities are there to explore new projects, new mediums, new locations, as well as new technology.

It is easy to do what is comfortable and expected but it is in the challenges that innovation happens. What possessed a woman from Brooklyn to enroll Harvard Law at a time where women were not made to feel welcome there? That conversation could not have been easy, but without it, so much might have been different. Feed the soul of your students with kind and honest feedback. Recognize their effort and encourage daring. Find time to examine your strengths, vulnerabilities, wins and losses, reimagine your goals framed not by what you can do but what you would do. Continuously adjust, be brave. Lead the charge.

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.