When I was in middle school, I tried out for the basketball team, despite having never played more than a game of “HORSE” every once in a while. My dad had been a basketball coach, and in many ways I felt basketball skills lay dormant in my system, like a chick in an egg, and I would step on the court in a blaze of glory so bright I would probably be moved immediately to varsity. I knew I was athletic (my parents had told me so) and tryouts a mere formality.
It takes very little imagination to predict what happened next: I was terrible. Like really terrible, like uncoordinated spastic dribbling and flailing terrible. I did not make the team, but instead quit tryouts after the first day and said: playing basketball on a school team is just not for me.
I did not practice.
I did not ask my dad for help.
I did not even tell anyone how very bad I felt.
Instead, I quit and never touched a basketball again.
I think about the variations I see of this in my own classroom and other classrooms I work in: children that hide or throw out their writing, declare they “hate” something before they try it, have blocks fall over and then say they are “bored”.
Here is the truth that I sometimes try to hide from children (and let’s be honest, myself): life is full of failures. The fact I want to shield children (and again, let’s be honest, myself) from this experience means that failure is shameful, always negative, and something to avoid at all costs. Everyone agrees, right. Right?!
Actually, no. It turns out that although everyone agrees that failing can evoke frustration, anger, sadness, and disappointment, not everyone thinks failure is negative. Who are these magical fairy people, and can I become one of them? How?!
It turns out is has everything to do with your mindset, something everyone has an ability to change.
A Beautiful Mind(set)
According to Carol Dweck’s amazing and aptly titled Mindset, there are two ways to think about the world: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset (more on that below). Neither mindset is genetically pre-determined; rather they are constructed through the way people talk to us about ourselves, and our experiences with the world. People have one or the other, and sometimes a combination of both mindsets.
One (fixed) says you are what you are until you fail, SO NEVER FAIL. For example: self identifying as smart, athletic, funny means that you constantly work to PROVE that you are that thing. Therefore a failure wipes your sense of identity away. If I am smart, then ____ wouldn’t have happened! So one must bury failure to stay smart (funny, athletic). This a mindset of fear: fear I will be found out as false, fear that my parents won’t love me if I don’t prove myself “smart”, fear of new things that could undermine my identity.
The other (growth) says, you are what you become and everyone can become more than they are today with work and effort. If I fail, I learn from it, and in learning from it I continue to become smarter. Failures, though disappointing, are not threatening to my identity, because my identity is learner. This is a mindset of resiliency and perseverance. I haven’t lost anything by failing because with reflection I can gain insight on how to be better next time.
Which do you have? Which do you want your students to have? Full disclosure: I have a fixed mindset for myself, and I am working working working to build a growth one in its place.
Building a Better Mindset
Since these mindsets are constructed, as teachers we have opportunities to help children anticipate failure as a good thing, a learning thing. Dweck gives a scenario where a child does not win at a gymnastics meet. My instinct would have me saying “maybe next time” to the child, but Dweck states that acknowledging the failure and giving a way to learn from it is the most powerful path to a growth mindset. Here are her words on how that might sound:
“It’s so disappointing to have your hopes and perform your best but not to win. But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet. There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.”
At this point in reading, I put the book down and ran my mind back to The Great Basketball Experiment and thought, “Holy [expletive deleted]… I could have gotten better?!” The simplicity of my internal dialogue belies the cosmic shift in thinking Dweck’s words evoked. You are not “athletic” or “not athletic”. You are not “smart” or “dumb”. You are not “artistic” or “brave” or “pretty”. You are an alien species, an unknown organism, no one can predict what you will become with effort and time.
That is the message we need to deliver to children. Not having the outcome you want is upsetting, and may feel bad, but you can DO something about it. Think, reflect, try again. A failure is not proof of your shortcomings, but an opportunity to become more than you are at this moment if you reflect and grow.
Dweck says of parents (though it is equally about teachers):
“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence- like a gift- by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
As teachers, and teachers of young children especially, I can think of no greater call to arms. It meshes with an idea I have been thinking about since last year when I read Phillipa Perry’s book How to Stay Sane. Perry writes:
“Be careful which stories you expose yourself to… The meaning you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up… The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to having good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.”
As teachers we have to tell stories to our students of how we see them, so that they then tell the same stories to themselves. Marrying Dweck’s and Perry’s thinking leads me to the idea that we must tell stories of resilience, perseverance, positive failures and active problem solving.
So Now What? Classroom Practices to Construct Growth Mindsets
- Smart is now out of my vocabulary.
- No more, “Did you figure out how to spell pumpkin? You are so smart!” Using the word smart in this way means the next time a child may shy away from a long tricky word for fear of not being right, and no longer being “smart”.
- Effort is now the word.
- “You worked so hard in writing today, Look at how you filled your picture box with detail. That took a lot of time and thinking!”
- Anyone can give effort, in praising it you set a precedent that it’s not your work, but how hard you work, that determines success.
- Whole class meetings at the end of writing, reading, math, and choice time are around examples of persistence, resilience, and effort
- “Friends, let me tell you about ____’s work today in blocks. When she built her tower the first time it fell down, and do you know what she said? She said: maybe I need to make the bottom bigger! Can you believe that? She got a little upset, which makes sense because it took a long time, BUT THEN she thought: hmm how could I fix that? And do you know what? It worked! I wonder how many of you tried something and it didn’t work, then tried it a different way? How incredibly hard you worked!”
- These stories set a model, so a child can turn around and self identify as resilient: I am the type of person who doesn’t give up, I just try it a different way!
- No more “harmless lies”.
- When a child used to tell me, “I can’t write words.” I used to say, “Yes, you can!” Now I am trying: “Maybe not the way you see them in books, but you can write them in a way that will help other people read and understand your story, and if you do that every day and work hard at hearing the sounds, soon it will look just like the words in the books you read!”
- A child knows when you are lying, and when you do, you undermine yourself and the child’s perception of him or herself. Be honest and give a child a path to achieve what they want.
- Anticipate and acknowledge that failures will and do happen.
- “This work we are doing is hard, and maybe will take a few tries, but I know if I keep at it I will get better at it.”
- “Why didn’t that work? What could you try now that you know that won’t work?”
One week in, and it is HARD. I end up talking circles around myself: “My gosh that was so smarrrrr- hard working of you. You thought and thought about the colors you needed to make your picture look like the picture in your mind.”
In some ways the enormity of this task intimidates me. But to take a page from my new playbook: it’s the mess-ups that will make me better. Failure is what makes us grow. Failure, when viewed as a time to reflect and move forward, is a [good] option.