Forcella addresses reporters in Northside Elementary School’s library.

CHAPEL HILL – Classes are now underway at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and with the start of a new school year comes the launch of the district’s new long-range improvement plan – all centered around a new educational philosophy.

Click here to view the long-range plan.

“We’re excited to have a new vision and a new long-range plan that will guide us for the next five years and beyond,” says CHCCS superintendent Tom Forcella. That plan – developed out of two years of conversations between administrators, teachers, students and community leaders – is comprised of 28 strategies to achieve five overarching goals, Forcella says, “all built around what we call a ‘growth mindset.'”

The idea of a “growth mindset” derives from the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her 2006 book Mindset, Dweck identified two opposing viewpoints about ability: on the one hand, a “fixed” mindset which holds that our talents and abilities are innate; on the other, a “growth” mindset which holds that we develop our abilities through experience and hard work. Most people believe our abilities come from both, to varying degrees – natural talent as well as hard work – but Dweck suggests that people who place more emphasis on the “growth” side tend to be more successful in life.

Forcella says that insight has significant implications for education.

“(This mindset believes) that all children can learn at much higher levels, that intelligence is not stagnant, and that there can be growth – significant growth – of all of our children given the right kind of instruction, with effort on the part of the students, effort on the part of our teachers, and the right amount of time to learn,” he says.

Among other things, translating the growth mindset into the classroom means moving away from fixed labels (like IQ) that peg students as ‘college material’ or ‘not college material’ at an early age. Research has shown that those labels affect the expectations teachers place on students – as well as the expectations students place on themselves – and those expectations in turn determine how well students end up performing.

Beyond that, Forcella says the new mindset also encourages teachers to move away from rote recitation and other top-down approaches – in favor of interactive, student-driven methods that motivate kids not only to think for themselves, but also to become aware that they can.

“What we’re trying to do,” he says, “is (to) train our teachers to ask the probing kinds of questions to get children to think, to have children challenging each other’s thinking in their classrooms, so that they will internalize the fact that (they) can get smarter.”

And since the “growth mindset” theory offers an explanation for why certain individuals perform better than others, Forcella says its use in the classroom could go a long way toward eliminating – or at least reducing – the district’s much-discussed achievement gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students.

“We think that with this vision in mind and this kind of thinking, we will see significant increases in our student achievement, and especially for our traditionally underserved populations,” he says.

That’s a concern for all teachers and administrators in the district – including Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan, who says the “growth” philosophy will be evident in every classroom.

“We will make sure that we’re always using the growth mindset as our guiding principle, to ensure that all students are learning to their potential,” she says. “And we know that all students can learn, given the right instruction and the right time.”

Closing the achievement gap is one of the five goals laid out in the district’s new long-range plan. The other four are: “instructional excellence focused on thinking and problem solving,” a culture that encourages “innovation (and) risk-taking,” a renewed focus on professional development, and an improved system of assessment and accountability.