Poor Students, Richer Teaching - Eric Jensen

Mindset alone is not enough to empower students in poverty to be successful academically. Jensen's arguments focus on mindset as a powerful intervention to student success which, while not without merit, puts too much focus on the student's shortcomings without recognizing the real and powerful causes and effects of poverty. Given that nearly 50% of US public school students live in poverty (Jensen, 2016, p. 14), it is frustrating that the author did not offer more concrete steps for teachers - and schools in general - to work with local social services to meet the emotional and physical needs of students living in poor households.

Jensen's goals and arguments are compelling for the teacher's own reflection and can serve as starting points for looking for ways to better serve their students, but fall short as a holistic approach for effectively teaching students from impoverished backgrounds. The implied problem given the focus on mindset is that individuals in poverty work less effectively (or just less) than wealthier counterparts. This ignores larger societal issues that play into poverty and does not afford discussion of other practical supports teachers can provide.

The science of impactful instruction

Jensen's exploration of the effect of neurotransmitters on the processes of learning are helpful because they can stem new behaviors from the teacher in order to stimulate those responses in their students. Much of this work requires recognizing the emotional stressors present in students with backgrounds in poverty and working to establish new normals (Jensen, 2016, p. 60).

Once normalcy and a realization that happiness can be within reach, we start to lean into engagement to stimulate positive neurotrasmitter releases in the students' brains. These are teacher initiated actions which require no former experience or prerequisite commitment from the students to engage with the activity. Instructional mechanisms like kinesthetic activities, problem solving, group work, or tasks in which students have control and agency promote the positive effects of serotonin and dopamine releases in the students brian.

Serotonin and dopamine increases lead to higher brain function (improved attention) and overall feelings of reward. The positive feedback loop can be used by the teacher to continually engage with students of any background.

Jensen (2016) highlights the disparity between students of affluence and students of poverty in overall affirmation by others in their lives (p. 24). Genuine statements of affirmation from an adult in the child's life can have a signficant impact on their sense of belonging and self-worth, which can temper the normalization of negative experiences happening in their minds. The reality of the physiological responses that can be stimulated through teacher action is powerful and should cause educators to pause and reflect on implicit (or explicit) biases preventing these actions from manifesting in practice.

Missing the mark

Mindset as the primary mechanism for action ignores the emotional and physical wellbeing of students living in poverty. Angela Duckworth's cult status in education is established, but there are concerns about her research which are rarely discussed. For instance, Duckworth's methods relied on self-reporting, which opens the door to survivorship and confirmation biases (Sridharan, 2018). Notably, Duckworth herself admits clarity in the initial publication of her best-selling book, Grit, could have been improved (Kamenetz, 2016).

Growth mindset has enjoyed the same popularity, but Dweck recognizes that "many educators misunderstand or misapply the concepts," (Teachers, parents, 2015). The spread of teacher-to-teacher advice has accelerated with social media and many first exposures to grit or growth mindset are limited in scope and application. But, because the frameworks are based in research, the general principles are used without further exploration. Jensen replicates this behavior throughout the entire book, relying on deficiences of mindset and grit in students to argue that teachers should be teaching these principles as a main avenue of helping the neediest population.

Jensen's hyper-focus on mindset development pushes him dangerously close to negative teaching practices, particularly with young students. Introducing college planning at early ages (Jensen, 2017, p. 139) can have detrimental effects on students' perceptions on the purpose of school, undercutting the culture of learning the teacher is trying to develop with mindset development activities. John Dewey (1916) cautions subordining education to other aims:

In our search for aims in education, we are not concerned, therefore, with finding an end outside of the educative process to which education is subordinate...We are rather concerned with the contrast which exists when aims belong within the process in which they operate and when they are set up from without...For in that case, some portions of the whole social group will find their aims determined by an external dictation; their aims will not arise from the free growth of their own experience, and their nominal aims will be means to more ulterior ends of others rather than truly their own (emphasis mine), (Dewey, 1916, ch. 8 paragraph 1.)

Where can mindset help?

Active engagement and partnership with the community are habits not to be ignored. Teachers are often the first face of the school to the community and should play an active role in outreach and advocation. Jensen's (2016) position puts teachers at odds with the realities of students of poverty. Focusing on grit or a change mindset exacerbates the idea that the poor are lazy and that it is up to the student to make change happen.

This is not to say that a teacher should not work to build student confidence or positive frames of mind. Building student confidence in skill and application are important educational practices rooted in sound instruction. They are not, however, reserved for the neediest as a means of raising their social station. Focusing on mindset activites and changes as the primary way of helping students in poverty perpetuates their station by placing blame on the student for not being positivie enough or not working hard enough.

The teacher's role is to guide and mentor. Building genuine relationships over time with students will lead to chances for growth in both confidence and academics. As teachers, we need to carefully examine our own biases and reflect on how those biases are signalled to students. By tackling those beliefs head on, we are modeling positive mindset habits and students can see them as useful life skills rather than quick-help strategies. As we eliminate biases in ourselves, we become more effective with all students, rich and poor alike.

Mindset can help in instruction, but only when it is modeled by the teacher as a life skill and not a targeted problem-solving strategy.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education [Project Gutenberg version]. Retrieved from

Jensen, E. (2017). Poor students, richer teaching: Mindsets that raise student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Kamenetz, A. (2016, May 25). MacArthur 'genius' Angela Duckworth responds to a new critique of grit. All Things Considered. Retrieved from

Sridharan, S. (2018, February 11). Grit: Jumping off the bandwagon. The California Aggie. Retrieved from

Teachers, parents often misuse growth mindset research, Carol Dweck says. (2015, November 23). US News. Retrieved from