Cultivating a Growth Mindset at TNCS

“You can do hard things,” author Barbara Kingsolver regularly told her Montessori-educated children as they were growing up. The independence that the Montessori method fosters in the youngest of children manifests later as the perseverance to work through difficult math problems, learn another language, and make deadlines in upper grades. And there’s that word again—perseverance. It has peppered this blog ever since author Paul Tough spoke at the Patterson Park Public Charter School during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 about his latest book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power to Succeed. Since then, grit and perseverance (they’re never solo anymore, always hand in hand, the Brangelina of the education world) have become superstars, rising meteorically to the top of the class. So pervasive has perseverance become that it even gets billed as one of the skills your preschooler will learn by watching “Peter Rabbit” on Nick, Jr.! (Peter is always getting into scrapes and must think on his furry feet, take chances, and make a few mistakes before ultimately avoiding the hungry Mr. Fox’s stewpot or the broadside of angry Mr. MacGregor’s garden spade by the end of the show.)

The New Century School, although strictly Montessori only in the primary program, embodies the principles of independent learning, self-guided discovery, and the curiosity to delve deeply into a topic of inquiry throughout its curricula, from primary all the way up through elementary. Independence, curiosity, the wherewithal to see something through . . . what does it all add up to? Self-esteem, which, in turn, cultivates better learning. In an interview with The Sun, Kingsolver explained“There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail. If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s not even a human life. Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks. It’s as simple as that.”

Authors Kingsolver and Tough aren’t just waxing poetic, either. “Grit” in the education context (as in the persistence, determination and resilience needed to succeed at learning) was coined by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, who won a MacArthur Genius grant for her pioneering research. Thanks to work like hers, we now recognize that academic mastery requires an enormous outlay of time and effort as well as being able to start over if at first we don’t succeed (something that artists of every stripe have always intuited). The next logical step must be to figure out how to systematically inculcate grit, perseverance, and the self-esteem they engender in students. Can grit be taught?

Mindset Works

Mindset Works has developed the Brainology curriculum to teach students that they have the power to learn. IQ is not ultimate benchmark for learning!

Mindset Works has developed the Brainology curriculum to teach students that they have the power to learn. IQ is not ultimate benchmark for learning!

According to Janna Peskett, Curriculum and Professional Learning Specialist at Mindset Works®, yes it can! Profiled recently on NPR’s Morning Edition, Mindset Works’ flagship product is the Brainology curriculum, which is designed to cultivate a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. “Growth mindset,” the brainchild of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, means believing that success comes from effort, not inborn intelligence or talent. Dr. Dweck is a cofounder of Mindset Works, and, like the gritty Dr. Duckworth, hopes to help students believe that not only are frustration and mistakes part of learning, but that intelligence is not static—it can be developed; it can grow.

Mrs. Peskett says, “Cultivating a growth mindset is connected to the grit and perseverance movement, but goes a step further into developing student agency.” Students who have a fixed mindset tell themselves things like, “This just isn’t my thing” or “It’s [so and so’s] fault that I can’t do this” in response to failure. Eventually, avoiding the risk of failure becomes habit, and scholastic progress comes to a screeching halt. With a growth mindset, by contrast, students faced with failure ask themselves, “What can I learn from this?” and “What different strategy can I approach this with next time?”. “Whereas fear of making mistakes holds students back, struggling and taking risks facilitates learning,” explains Mrs. Peskett.

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed, whereas a fixed mindset holds that intelligence is static

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed, whereas a fixed mindset holds that intelligence is static


Underwritten by a grant from the Raikes Foundation (“Empowering young people to change their lives”), Brainology is currently being implemented in eight Washington, D.C. middle schools. The D.C. school system is undertaking this pilot year as a research study to determine whether the curriculum’s concrete strategies will improve education outcomes in its underserved communities. For example, in one lesson, students are taught about how negative emotions can interfere with learning and are given four specific strategies for circumventing those negative emotions:

  • Square breathing: Inhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, exhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts. This allows time for emotion to drain out from the frontal lobe and let the rational brain take over.
  • Positive self-talk: Reframe negative thoughts in a positive way. “I don’t understand this word” becomes “I don’t understand it yet, but if I ask for help or practice a different strategy, over time, I will get it.” (Recall that Dr. Bonnie Zucker named similar strategies in her recent TNCS presentation.)
  • Visualization: Visualize a desired outcome; see yourself doing it. “I want to read this book from start to finish.”
  • Avoiding “fight or flight”: Recognize that the brain is sensing a threat when, for example, the palms start to sweat. “Recognize it, name it, and then let it go,” says Mrs. Peskett.
Just like our muscles, our brains can be shaped and toned---worked out.

Just like our muscles, our brains can be shaped and toned—worked out.

Brainology is a blended curriculum (some takes place in class and some online) and is appropriate for 4th through 10th graders. Says. Mrs. Peskett, “it all boils down to helping students believe that their brains are malleable.” She sums up this concept of neuroplasticity by telling kids, “You can change your intelligence through effort.” Because fixed mindsets can affect students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and prevent them from realizing their potential, Brainology potentially has quite a broad appeal. Even at TNCS, where cultivating growth mindsets is inherently part of the everyday curriculum, students naturally experience frustration, negative thinking, and anxiety. Helping them learn how to respond to failure can subvert such barriers to learning. Of course, exercise, sleep, and nutrition also play important roles and are integral to Brainology. Certain foods (e.g., those containing omega-3 fatty acids, leafy greens, etc.) increase neuronal communication; exercise also gets those synapses firing. Sleep optimizes waking brain function. But all of this relates back to those conjoined concepts, grit and perseverance. “Everything you learn from is going to require you to take a risk and possibly fail,” says Mrs. Peskett.

We can help our kids recognize that they can do hard things.


What’s your mindset? Find out here.

Want more Mindset Works resources? Click here.

Find Brainology and Mindset Works on Facebook here.

Read about the perils of overpraising your kids here.

Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!

The Importance of Being Artistic

In a scholastic environment increasingly focused on science, math, and technology, the arts can get short shrift. This issue is not a new one, and yet, despite empirical data, loud protests from the vox populi, and common sense, the arts are always first on the chopping block. According to The Impact of Arts Education on Learning study, “The arts enhance the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning.” But education policymakers seem to persist in the belief that art is less important than the scientific disciplines.

Process-oriented Art

Not so at The New Century School, fortunately, where balance in all subjects is a primary goal, and the arts are as highly valued as anything else. Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia, with a B.F.A. from The Maryland Institute College of Art supplemented by classical art study at The Schuler School of Fine Art in Baltimore, originally began teaching at TNCS in their first year as Patterson Park Montessori and has been affiliated with the school ever since. The 2012–2013 schoolyear is her first year teaching dedicated art classes to all levels, pre-primary through elementary. She tailors classes to each level, so that no matter what their ages, kids are making the most of art class (see Art for All Levels below).

Jenny Raccuglia

Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia believes that art education is essential to human development

Mrs. Raccuglia’s approach to teaching art meshes very well with TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired approach. Instead of perpetuating the dichotomy that traditional education is a teacher-led series of instructions to follow and Montessori is a student-centric and completely volitional (i.e., kids do what they want when they want, within reason), art class (and TNCS in general) merges the two. This union produces what Mrs. Raccuglia calls “process-oriented art” in which students are taught certain steps to create a project, but the spaces between those steps, says Mrs. Raccuglia, “leave a lot of room for individual interpretation.” The results are not only technically sound, but individual pieces show a broad spectrum of style, creativity, and  innovation. They’re really wonderful, in short.

Art for All Levels

Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “I approach each of the four groups [pre-primary through elementary levels] differently, but always with the goal of priming them for the next step.” Each group is assessed on age-appropriate manual dexterity and expression of creativity.

• Hands-on skills: In pre-primary (ages 2–3 years) classes, kids are taught the basics, like color-mixing. They learn what the materials are and how to use them appropriately (i.e., not to eat them, joked Mrs. Raccuglia). A typical pre-primary project is painting a paper mouse. Kids are given pre-cut mouse shapes to paint with a blotter, using their choice of color(s). This project gives them plenty of creative space and also takes into consideration that their manual dexterity is still developing. Grasping a blotter in their fists comes much more easily to them than holding a paintbrush. Thus, they build confidence by seeing the results of their handiwork while learning technique and effective material use. “Kids learn with their hands,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “that’s how they explore the world. As long as they are confident in using the materials, I give them the opportunity to practice doing what they want with them.”


Primary art class

Primary students hard at work snipping, gluing, and arranging their own Snowy Days

• Creative autonomy: In primary (ages 3–5 years) classes, kids continue to develop their new skills and are encouraged to try new ways of approaching tasks. Assignments vary, but skills such as gluing, painting, cleaning brushes, and cutting are reinforced periodically throughout the term. Classes begin with what Mrs. Raccuglia calls an “imagination sparker,” which is a storybook that inspires the class project. Beginning class with a story also helps kids at this age transition to a new work cycle; it helps them shift their focus. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is a recent example of this project structure. After hearing the story, kids were asked to design their own interpretations, using paper cutouts similar to the book illustrations. Mrs. Raccuglia stresses that the students should approach the project in new ways, rather than simply reproducing the original artwork, to gain confidence in their ideas. This approach drove another recent art project, in which kids designed owls to roost in a tree hanging in the TNCS all-purpose room. Parents might have noticed quite a bit of variance in each owl, even though kids drew from the same sets of materials. Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “the eyes shouldn’t always have to go on the face.” That’s one good way of making an owl, she concedes, but it isn’t the only way, and those other ways can spark tremendous creativity in children.

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Art room

A variety of materials at the ready, placed Montessori-style within kids’ reach

• Command of ideas: In kindergarten (approximately ages 5–6 years) classes, kids are further encouraged to explore. They have some technical fluency; now it’s time to really put it to use. Younger kids are willing to explore, according to Mrs. Raccuglia, but by this age they tend to think there’s only one right way to approach a project. We talked about why that is. By age 5 years or so, kids have begun to develop self-consciousness, to see themselves outside of themselves. This is a natural part of human development, but the initial reaction to this new awareness of self can be self-doubt and a tendency to retreat. So, Mrs. Raccuglia counters that with encouragement to trust themselves. “I don’t necessarily set out materials and say, ‘have at it,’ ” she says, “but I do introduce the project, set boundaries, and then leave plenty of room for experimentation.” It’s clearly working. In a project inspired by The Littlest Matryoshka (pictured at bottom), by Corrine Demas Bliss, kids designed their own matryoshka. Given just the basic outline of the doll, kids then had free range to design their doll however they chose. Other than their graduated sizes, sets of nesting dolls don’t vary, so this was a real test of kids’ ability to produce something according to their own lights. Just see how well they rose to the challenge!

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll---isn't it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll—isn’t it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

• Being artists: In elementary (ages 6 years and up) classes, kids have mastered basic techniques and are ready for new aspects of art to explore. They learn about artists, for example, and art history. More importantly, they learn how to think like artists. “The big secret of being an artist is not being afraid to make mistakes to get to something you like. Being an artist is fearlessly making mistakes,” says Mrs. Raccuglia. One way she fosters this receptivity to the experience of making art is by giving the elementary students “free days,” during which they present an idea to her, and she makes it happen by supplying materials and advice, if necessary. So, after a recent lesson about Da Vinci, the kids were naturally enthused about inventions and suggested building robots. “The main thing is to capture that idea,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “and then we work out the how.” If the robots (pictured) are any indication, those kids feel incredibly empowered by this kind of trust and collaboration. The students also keep portfolios at this level, which they are encouraged to go back through periodically to finish up or revise individual pieces.

This robot likes to look her best

This robot likes to look her best

Elementary kids "invented" these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Elementary kids “invented” these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Postscript: Why Art?

It may be safe to assume that anyone reading this post has already answered that question for him or herself, but a new book on the subject could offer some new twists. In The Artistic Edge, author Lisa Phillips suggests that art is critical to teaching the life skills that kids will need to navigate adulthood. Phillips also lists the Top 10 skills children learn from the arts, a list that promotes qualities like perseverance, similar to those gaining currency by education researchers like Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed and profiled in Getting the Education Nitty Gritty in this blog last November.

Mrs. Raccuglia says that Phillips’ list aligns closely with her own goals, and that’s easy to see. Creativity, Confidence, and Problem-solving (also a recurrent theme of this blog), are the top three on the list, and those themes cropped up again and again during our discussion (which, by the way, preceded publication of Phillips’ list). “If there’s one thing I want to successfully teach the kids, it’s how to build skills but stay open,” she says. Expanding on that thought, she says she often asks herself, “What is my role?” as she designs a particular project or lesson. “Not all of these kids will become artists, so what can I teach them that will help them through life? The ability to trust in their imagination and their own ideas,” she finishes emphatically.

What better qualities to instill in kids facing a very new and different world?

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

Projects start with the "imagination sparker"

Primary and kindergarten projects start with the “imagination sparker”

Have an anecdote, question, or comment to share? Your participation in this important discussion is welcome!