"I CAN'T do this, because I'm not good at it" are the heartbreaking words I heard my 11-year-old son say as he gave up trying to play a song on his bass guitar. Of course he wasn't good at it. How could he possibly be good at playing the song he had never really practiced? Yet, for a bright kid who typically picks up new skills relatively easily, his words made perfect sense.
Our society has become increasingly focused on ‘success’ while increasingly impatient with the tedious, time-consuming process of practice that allows us to develop the skills needed to achieve. We seek shortcuts and envy natural talent while seeing hard work and struggle as things that are only necessary for those that will be mediocre at best. We praise the outcome while hiding the effort needed to get there. In the spirit of esteem-building, trophies are given to 5-year-old soccer players just for showing up. Yet, true self-esteem comes from overcoming obstacles and obtaining the skills that will give us confidence to tackle new uncertain tasks in the future.
To improve student learning, we need to make struggle and failure a part of a supportive learning process rather than an end point - a reason to give up. In order to prepare our children for the complex world they are growing into, we must provide them with a rigorous learning environment in which each student is challenged at their own appropriate level and provided with the interventions that meet their personal needs.
Easy classes are a waste of a student’s time. True learning requires effort and often failure. If students do not experience frustration, then they are not being challenged at an appropriate level. In a supportive environment, failure and frustration lead to significant cognitive growth.
Dr. Carol Dweck's growth mindset theory has become pivotal to my teaching practice. In “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,1” Dweck describes two polarized mindsets - fixed-mindset individuals believe their talents and abilities are fixed, while growth-mindset individuals see effort and overcoming failures as key components to improving their skill level. Students with fixed mindsets view failure as an end point in the learning process, and they will avoid the risk of challenging tasks because failing will identify them as ‘failures.’ I have found the brightest of my students with a fixed mindset are hesitant to seek extra help or try suggested study techniques because they may not believe that additional effort will make a different. Students with growth mindsets seek challenges and see failures as learning opportunities.
I believe that mindsets are conditioned and changeable. In the spirit of building self-esteem, we often praise children for succeeding in tasks requiring minimal effort and struggle. By doing this, students learn to associate praise with accomplishment and effort as something that is only necessary for those lacking ability. When presented with challenging tasks, many students lack the skills to partition the task into smaller, attainable steps and push through the struggle that allows them to progress toward mastery. They begin to avoid academic risks and become easily frustrated when forced to confront challenging tasks.
The power of Dweck's theory lies in a teacher’s ability to help students shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. I teach AP Biology to high-ability sophomores, many of whom come to the course with fixed mindsets. Within a few weeks of beginning the course, they realize that this course is unlike any in their past and frustration begins to take hold. Many will admit that their success in school has usually come with minimal effort. Typically the top students in their classes, they are not accustomed to struggling and find it uncomfortable to seek help. They have learned to associate assistance with a lack of ability. While the primary focus of my course is biology, significant time is spent learning how to learn while creating an environment where students feel safe taking academic risks. Effort is expected, and students learn there is no shame in an incorrect response as long as effort has been put forth and they have learned from their mistakes. In-class activities and homework assignments are purposeful in their design to provide students with opportunities to practice the learning that will lead to success while not being overly time-consuming. Frequent, low-stakes opportunities are provided for students to assess their progress while allowing me to provide ungraded formative feedback. Many of these opportunities for feedback prior to a test are voluntary. Rather than complying with a teacher's demand, I want students to see that seeking assistance is a choice they can make to improve their understanding. This helps them to develop into empowered learners.
On the homefront, conversations with my son when the going gets tough have begun to shift - as has his mindset. We have made a point of giving effort and success equal billing in the praise department. He is becoming less likely to avoid a task he thinks is too hard, and I knew we had turned a corner when we were discussing whether he would be participating at the statewide MATHCOUNTS competition. He had qualified for the competition by earning a high score on the school-level test. Yet he didn't want to go because he had heard the tasks were more difficult and the competition was fierce. Before I had a chance to say anything, he said, "Ugh, I know ... because I think I'll fail means I need to go and give it a try." All I could do at that moment was give him a smile and a big hug.
Learning is the ability to use prior knowledge and experiences and apply them to new situations. Can we recall the world as we knew it 35 years ago? Can we solve today’s problems with a set of directions derived 20 years ago? We cannot allow our students to be unprepared for the future. They need to learn, and this can only occur through struggle.
1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.↩
Valerie May has taught a variety of biology courses for the past 18 years. She currently is teaching AP Biology at Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, CT. She lives with her husband and son in Pomfret Center, CT, and spends her free time cycling and transporting her son to and from karate class.