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Growth Mindset and the Music Teacher, Part II: Your Students

In Part I of this little blog mini-series, we discussed the ripple effect of how a music teacher that adopts a growth mindset affects their students through their instructions, almost like a trickle-down effect.  The focus of that article was on the teacher.  The focus on this article is the student.

Cartoon children enjoying the piano in music class

Do Your Students Know What Growth Mindset Is?

This is a concept that didn’t have a name about 30 years ago.  Thanks to Dr. Carol Dweck and her research on learning and growth/fixed mindsets, we now have words to describe what high-level personalities and individuals do to prepare for success.  We ask “How do they do it?” when we talk about athletes, celebrities that have it all and don’t have personal adversity that we always hear about, and CEOs that get to the top and stay there, while leading successful businesses.  We ask how they have the mental stamina, the peace among what we would see as stress.  We see endurance, strength and no sign of them “getting up in their heads.”  They’re almost superhuman and meanwhile there’s the rest of us that second-guess what we wear to work or school each day.  

These “super-humans” aren’t superhuman at all.  They have just been given a tool that they use every day that helps them focus and achieve on their steps for success each day, without worry about the mental blocks that we see and struggle with each day.  That tool is growth mindset.

Typical Students and Fixed Mindset, Where Failure Is Feared

Children taking exams

As a millennial, I grew up with a huge need to ace everything I could, so that I’d get into college and make enough money to live.  I stayed up at night worrying that I might have forgotten to write down a homework assignment, or about how many I got wrong on a recent quiz.  I had a lot of pressure from my parents to do better than I thought I could.  But my biggest issue was that I was a terrible test-taker.  My short-term memory has always been… not great, and I’d forget much of what was studied, not the night before, but all week.  I was a learner that needed to use what I learned in order to fully retain it.  Once I started college with a performance-and-project based music education program, I achieved a very high GPA, simply because I enjoyed what I was learning and because I very rarely took a test.

And our education system was not structured like that.  The unit tests and the exams make up most of quarterly grades and averages.  Failure is a huge setback and very rarely a learning opportunity (with exception to the lovely teachers that allow test corrections to gain back some points).

How to Begin Using Growth Mindset as a Music Teacher

As music teachers, we are in a unique educational setting, where we don’t (often) give written assessments, and if we do, we are encouraging our students to think critically and not objectively, or we are requiring them to create something.  The only exception would be in a music theory course, where there are right and wrong answers based on music literacy skills and the foundations of the knowledge needed to create music in a sophisticated way.  

The music classroom, in whatever form it takes for you, is exactly the place where students can learn growth mindset and learn how to apply it to their personal lives and to their other classes.  Even if they encounter a family member or other teacher that disagrees with them.

So where to begin?  How to begin?  There is no “when”.  When can be tomorrow.  I believe that changing your instructional approach into one that is based on growth mindset should begin with a little bit of self-analysis.  How do you teach?  What are the little words, catch phrases, compliments, criticisms, corrective phrases to praise the students, help them get better, teach them something new, have them perform something again, or build rapport?  Are they congruent with the language of growth mindset?

What’s your tone of voice?  Is there rise and fall to the pitch or is it so static your students cannot comprehend how you feel when you say it?  Are you smiling?  Does your smile reach your eyes?  Is your brow furrowed and your mouth a scowl, even if the situation isn’t so serious?

What do students say about you?  Are you their favorite or are they anxious to quit at the end of the year?  Do you even know their opinions?  Are you approachable or do you find that they refuse to ask questions?

Record yourself.  Watch it critically from the perspective of the age level you teach.  Do you like what you see and hear?  Watch your students’ reactions carefully and their expressions.  Same question.  

What can you do differently to get the response in yourself and your students that you want?  

It’s a lot of self-reflection and planning out responses.  Create a catch-phrase sheet where you write them out ahead of time of what you want to say, either when critiquing or correcting, or re-teaching.  We as teachers tend to need to say the same thing all the time, so how would you like to say it better, or the best?  I have my interns keep a catch-phrase sheet as part of their portfolio so that they can already figure out what to say to ensure a positive response in every way when they teach, whether it’s in the evaluated lessons I do for them, or whether they use it forever in their professional lives.  

Happy children in class

An Opportunity to Use Growth Mindset to Change Music Education Forever

Of course this is just the tip of the communication iceberg.  But it’s a starting point worth trying, especially if you know it’s hard to really connect with your students.  At Uplevel U: Music, we are currently developing a course to help a teacher revamp their mindset from fixed to growth.  Check out our blog for additional ideas and resources, and also our Podcast, where I discuss even more about this powerful soft skill (not necessarily in the same ways as on the blog).  

The human brain craves comfort and routine and often resists change.  Because of this, it isn’t easy, but the journey is enlightening and positive.  To watch your students and respond to you in ways that quickly build rapport, connection, respect, trust and musical results is absolutely fascinating.  And although there is no real end goal, it certainly makes the day-to-day of music instruction much more enjoyable for you and everyone in your classroom.

To read a little about the origins of Growth Mindset, check out 

Karen Janiszewski profile picture

This article was written by Uplevel U: Music's owner and creator, Karen (Kay) Janiszewski.

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