“I am not a maths person.”
“I’m awful at learning languages.”
“I’m not creative.”
“I’m not at all tech-savvy.”
How often have you heard these statements?
I have always identified with at least a couple of these myself. I can’t remember when it happened but at some point in school, I developed an aversion to maths and, to date, I doubt myself when I make the simplest of calculations. With art, it wasn’t an aversion but a conviction that I wasn’t skilled at drawing or painting. So instead I focused on the subjects which made me feel “smart.”
A few years ago, while I was teaching in the IBDP, I came across Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets and was struck with it and I went on to use it to motivate my students. I still didn’t feel it applied to me though because, hey, I was too old now.
The shift in my attitude has happened more recently after reading two books — the first is called Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter Johnston and the second, titled Limitless Mind: Learn, Live and Lead Without Barriers by Dr Jo Boaler.
Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University and the co-founder of a website called youcubed.org that strives to “Inspire ALL Students with Open, Creative Mindset in Mathematics.” She advocates for reforming mathematics teaching so that students learn to approach the subject fearlessly and with a genuine problem-solving mindset. Her most recent book is based on the latest cognitive science research and extends this belief by proposing that anyone can learn anything at any age.
While Boaler’s book deals with the what and the why, Peter Johnston’s book is about the how. He suggests that we make small shifts in the way we give our children feedback and praise, and in how we frame activities to reinforce the belief that we are constantly changing and growing in our abilities.
For instance, instead of giving praise like “You’re so smart,” “You’re really good at this,” or “Awesome!” we could ask, “Would you have been able to do this a few months ago?” or “Remember how hard this was when you first tried to do this? You’re getting better at this each day.” According to Johnston, even supposedly positive labels like “smart,” “intelligent,” “creative” can be damaging as these put pressure on the child to constantly live up to the label and ultimately causes them to become risk-averse. Even the seemingly innocuous “I’m so proud of you” or “I love how you …” might encourage children to believe that they have to please you. His recommendation is that we turn that phrase to “You must be so proud of yourself!”
When encouraging children to do a task, Johnston suggests that we frame activities that encourage a problem-solving or a “figuring-out” mindset. So instead of saying, “Do it this way” or correcting the child and saying “Let me show you how to …” you say, “How are you planning to do this?” or “You’ve figured this part out on your own. Well done! Now let’s try and figure out how to go ahead or what you could do differently.” And when a child has accomplished something well, “How does it feel to have figured this out on your own?”
In one of his other books, Choice Words, Johnston has written: “When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can actually do. Maybe you are even a figuring-out kind of person …” This really stayed with me. Isn’t this what we all want for our kids?
Isn’t this what being future-ready is all about?
The poet Diane Ackerman says it all too beautifully, Living things tend to change unrecognizably as they grow. Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant?
Flora or fauna, we are all shapeshifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.”