Montgomery County school chief starts special book club

Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua P. Starr offered a glimpse of his educational philosophy, and his cerebral personality, during his first official book club gathering last week.

The auditorium of the central office in Rockville was transformed into a talk show studio Tuesday for an event scheduled as part of the new superintendent’s transition plan. Starr relaxed in a leather chair. Green plants and a dark wooden bookcase were nearby. Guests sat on a sofa across from the coffee table.

The featured guest — author Carol Dweck — “attended” via Skype from her study in California. A cardboard display of her book, “Mindset,” was propped up on a side table.

Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her book looks at developing a “growth mindset,” or a belief that your intelligence or abilities can be developed through hard work. Research shows that people who believe this, as opposed to the notion that talents and abilities are fixed traits, are more likely to be successful.

Dweck said teaching a “growth mindset” often comes down to how we give praise. “Praising students’ intelligence backfires. It makes them afraid of taking on challenges, and it makes them crumble in the face of failure. What we have to do instead is focus on the process that students engage in,” Dweck said.


Montgomery school superintendent Joshua Starr, left, with Rocky Hill Middle School staff development teacher Karen Scharff, parent Peggy Sorensen and Monique Felder, director of the division of accelerated and enriched instruction. (MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS)

“Does the teacher make it clear that the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer?” she asked. “That a mistake-free paper isn’t always the best paper? Does the teacher praise people for taking on challenges?”

Starr said parents can reinforce the idea at home. He recounted a story about how his 3-year-old son recently discovered that the word “brown” starts with “b.” “My wife says, ‘You are so smart,’ ” he said. When Starr discouraged her from saying so, “she looked at me like I was crazy,” he said.

He invited the panelists, who included a teacher from Rocky Hill Middle School, a Montgomery parent and an administrator, to discuss how the school system is trying to develop such a mindset in school through curriculum or teacher training.

Teacher Karen Scharff said she had taught her students about famous mistakes that have been made historically in science and other areas to encourage students to keep trying.

“We have always known that intellect could be developed. It’s nice to know that research is backing that up,” said Monique Felder, director of the division of accelerated and enriched instruction.

The school system, which is the second largest in the Washington area, has pursued multiple ways to give all students greater access to enriched instruction, including open enrollment to many Advanced Placement classes.

More than 80 people joined the live discussion. Some held copies of the book on their laps. One woman brought her knitting. Viewers online and via cable television were invited to e-mail or tweet questions.

One woman asked how it’s possible to encourage a growth mindset when students are often divided into the “smart” or the “slow group” in class. Dweck said it’s important to avoid such labels and to coach students in the less-advanced groups that “our job here is to work hard and work smart so you will get into the next level.”

Students who appear to understand quickly and easily also need to be challenged, so they will not be led to believe their intelligence will “automatically take them to some great discovery . . . or achievement,” she said.

“Ability doesn’t have a motor,” she said. “It needs to be propelled by the individual.”

Starr talked about the history of public education as a history of “sorting children.” He cited another book, published in 1962 — Raymond Callahan’s “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” — which examines how public schools over time have bent to the demands of business models of efficiency, rather than to what is most educationally sound for all students.

“We inherited this system. It’s the way we were conditioned and brought up and the way our economy works. . . . One way we can get around that is to introduce different ideas to people,” he said.

For the Jan. 31 book club session, Starr will host a discussion about Daniel Pink’s “Drive.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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