September is a month I always greet with excitement…and trepidation.
Being a teacher this is the time when I get to meet all my new classes (which, after 15 years, I still find thrilling and nerve-wracking in equal measure) and I set myself all my targets and resolutions for the coming academic year. Things like:
I WILL keep on top of my marking this year, I WILL keep on top of my my marking this year, I WILL keep….you get the idea 🙂
However, this is not going to be a post about how I intend to be a better teacher in 2016/17. Instead, it’s about the need for us all to take advantage of the extra bounce and energy that kids tend to bring to the classroom after their summer holidays and to build on this by encouraging them to approach learning (and other aspects of life too!) with a growth mindset. For those of you who this is new to this means:
“…people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.” (Mindset Online)
Mindfulness links beautifully here in two-ways. If we as parents, carers and teachers are mindful of our language we can have a positive impact on an individual’s mindset. Secondly, if individuals (children or adults alike) are observing their thoughts in a mindful way then they are much more aware of when they switch from a Growth Mindset to a fixed mindset (the opposite of a Growth Mindset).
Have a think. How many times a day do we say “well done”, “good job” or “clever boy/girl” to our children? And yet science shows that this is pretty unhelpful praise.
Much better to be trying to work more comments along these lines into our conversations with children:
- “Wow you found….[writing a postcard or that Maths homework] really hard and still kept at it”
- “I love the way you are putting so much effort into practicing your….[reading/writing etc…] “
- or “that bit of your…….[picture, creative writing, performance] is particularly good because….which bit do you think could be improved?”
I’ll hold my hands up – until about 2 years ago I was very much in the “well done” camp of praise when it came to both parenting and teaching. I used (and still do) positive praise effusively to motivate my and/or other people’s children to do as I directed. Don’t get me wrong I still do this, just not as much. Also, I recognise it for what it is now – a verbal reward in order to encourage the child to repeat whatever it was that they did to gain the praise. That seems pretty harmless right? So why am I trying to be much more mindful of the praise I dish out these days then?
Because in 2014 I was lucky enough to hear the Stanford Professor Carol Dweck speak at a conference. What she said blew my mind. She managed to put her finger on what had been troubling me about my use of praise and also to understand why I, students in my classroom and lots of other people too, shy away from challenges most of the time. I bought her book ‘Mindset’ which is hugely readable and found it useful not only in the classroom but for other aspects of my life too.
The bottom line is that if you keep telling a child ‘what a clever boy/girl’ from an early age or ‘well done’ for doing something that is really quite easy anyway, they start to subconsciously believe that they oughtn’t do anything to disprove this opinion. Thus these kids end up avoiding risks, challenges and learning new skills for fear of being shown up.
So what can be done?
Firstly , do NOT (like I did initially) use this as another stick to beat yourself with for being a ‘bad parent’ and for somehow detrimentally affecting your child’s development if you have heaped ‘fixed mindset’ praise on your child over the years. In the end I told myself that no great harm will come to them as at least they know they are loved and valued. However, I have tried to be more aware of the praise I use day-to-day in order to help the children I engage with build their confidence, resilience and a love of learning. For example trying to:
- champion mistakes and (where appropriate) failure. Discussing things like the fact that scientists spend 90% of their working life ‘failing’ or getting the children to research people like J K Rowling, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson who all faced huge challenges and knock-backs before becoming successful in their particular field.
- celebrate effort, hard work, and process. Explain how Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children. It was their effort and hard work (and the team around Darwin) that helped them with their extraordinary achievements NOT a natural genius that they were born with.
- Focus chats more on strategies, persistence, progress and improvement instead of commenting on intelligence and ability. Dweck talks about the ‘power of yet’. Young people should be encouraged to add ‘yet’ to their statements.
Not: I can’t solve this Maths problem. Rather: I can’t solve this Maths problem YET!
So this month is definitely about setting our youngsters on the right path for a fulfilling academic year. If this means we start to moderate our language a little more so that we can help them to understand that “the hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort and they persist in the face of obstacles” then that would be no bad thing.