September 2, 2021

Fostering a Growth Mindset: An Interview with Matthew Woods

Matthew Woods
Matthew Woods headshot

Matthew Woods is the Director of Student Support Services and K-12 educator in Virginia. As an educator and educational administrator in a diverse community, Matthew supports nine elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools throughout the county.

Matthew was inspired to become an educator by his own mother, who was a teacher. Through her, he saw the hard work she put in as an educator and gained an appreciation for the impact she made on students. While studying education in college, Matthew had a professor who required a high standard of excellence in the hardest class of his life. But from those classes, he came out a better student, a better future educator, and a better person. Those two significant experiences set him on the trajectory for his career in education and laid the foundation for all of his work today.

In the interview below, Matthew Woods shares his thoughts on having a growth mindset in an educational setting.

How would you define a growth mindset, and why is it so important right now?

“The first word that comes to mind is reflection. Understanding that there's always room for improvement.

In light of everything we’re going through right now, you’re really starting to see who had already adapted to a growth mindset. The whole idea of being in-person, and then virtual, and then hybrid — every day it feels like something’s changed. And some folks seem to get it. You wonder, ‘How are they adapted to all this stuff?’ It’s because they have that growth mindset. 

I think all educators have it by virtue of our profession, but you can tell when someone has a firm understanding of a growth mindset because they're constantly reflecting and being intentional before a situation happens. They're very proactive, not just reactive. And I think that is probably the biggest key for a growth mindset. 

The educators who were very growth-minded before COVID were proactive as we all got displaced and transferred to virtual learning. As we were trying to pick up the pieces, you could see those educators being innovative and playing with ideas. While it was a bit of a slow burn, you saw them catching their breath and hitting their stride again. And then for others, you saw them just spinning the wheels because they were reactive.”

How do you foster a growth mindset in your students?

“Curiosity. Having lessons that are very engaging, but engaging to the light bulb moment — where someone has to kind of pause and really process what exactly you're asking, but they're doing it in a way where they're not getting frustrated. 

We talk about the level of rigor, and it is possible to have rigor so hard sometimes that a student can't really make sense of the gap where they're at compared to that level of rigor.

So you’ve got to put in steps — those safety mechanisms — to push them enough where they’re bending, but not breaking. Where they’re not getting so frustrated that they’re just going to throw their pencil down and close the computer. You've got to push them enough where it causes them to stop and they have to process and think about what they’re doing, not just on overdrive.”

How do you learn where that tipping point is?

“It all comes down to how you're engaging kids and whether you are being very proactive in your lesson. You put forth that reflection where you're building in steps for growth because you know the level of your students — because you have developed those relationships where you can anticipate where their level of frustration might start kicking in. You've differentiated enough and put in enough supports along the way that when a student is going to get to that plateau, you have something there to give them that gentle nudge up to the next steps. Then they're going to play around a little bit there, and then they're going to get that general little nudge again.

What you're doing is sparking that curiosity, but you're sparking that growth mindset, because you're forcing them to step outside their comfort zone. You’re forcing them to think, you’re forcing them to engage. And that right there is going to lead to the students taking more ownership of their learning.”

How do you create a space for new ideas and discovery?

“It goes back to once again how you've reflected on your instruction. Where are you trying to take kids? What standards are you trying to cover? What are the objectives? Then that gives you a framework for the space you’re trying to create. That could be in a traditional classroom, walking outside on the track while doing something interactive, or it could be in a virtual classroom. Focusing on the objective of what you're doing will allow you to think about and create that space for that discovery and for that learning. 

From there, you have to also keep in mind that not everybody will get to the objective the same way. Everybody's different. But a lot of times, unfortunately, when we think about a task, we say, ‘This is how you need to do it,’ instead of saying, ‘Here's the objective — I need you to go from here to here. And here are just some boundaries we're going to put in place. If you follow this format, as long as you get from here to here, you've met the goal.’

When I go with that approach, I'm still asking them to do the same thing, but I'm building in those safety mechanisms for that growth mindset. I'm allowing that creativity. I've given that safety net in that space to get to where they need to go. And you know, at the end of the day, as the teacher, as the instructor, the administrator — I'm going to keep my students safe by making sure I remind them, ‘Hey, you’re going a little too far; remember our non-negotiables today. As long as you stay within that, you can have the autonomy to reach that goal.’

And that, once again, is where that discovery comes in, because kids are very intuitive. They’ll come up with ideas sometimes that I wouldn’t have thought of, but they’ve gotten to the goal. And it just leads itself to show that as long as you give enough flexibility, but you give safety measures and boundaries in place, kids will surprise you and do some amazing things.”