The importance of grit and resilience, the ability to get back up again when things get tough, is not new. However, now the research/practice gap is closing. St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls in Perth, Australia, made headlines recently when it adopted a new policy to reduce praise, to foster an ability to cope with difficulties. The self-esteem movement, it seems, is officially over.
Dr Carol Dweck’s research into mindsets and perceived notions of fixed intelligence offers an insight into why some students give up when faced with learning setbacks. Children who have found success easy often fear looking ‘dumb’ when tasks get more difficult and they start to make mistakes. Children believe that they have lost their ‘intelligent’ status in the false understanding that intelligence is a fixed state. This is more likely to happen during transition phases in education.
So what helps create this defeatist attitude? Praising children’s intelligence is to blame. Telling a child how smart they are closes their mindset according to Dweck, making them fearful of making errors. When we praise their effort, and provide support, children’s mindsets stay open to learning and challenges. They are also able to set goals and manage stress when things don’t go to plan.
What about tests? Don’t test results tell us in an instant if we are ‘intelligent’ or ‘dumb’? Isn’t that what we base our educational systems on? Favourable test results can have the same impact on our psychology as being praised for being clever. As no one wants to look stupid, a bad test result can change the way children look at learning. It can close their mindset and discourage growth. There is a way of using appropriate tests without shutting down the desire to learn, as Dweck says,
“I think that undue emphasis on testing can be harmful if it conveys to students that the whole point of school is to do well on these tests and if it conveys to them that how well they do on these tests sums up their intelligence or their worth as a student.
The same tests might not be so harmful if they were simply seen by educators and students as assessing students’ skills at that point in time and as indicating what skills students need to work on in the future. In this case, the tests needn’t dampen students’ excitement about learning.
The current zeal for higher standards and more testing follows a period in which many educators believed that giving students lots of successes would boost their self-esteem and love of learning. This did not work. Instead students became used to low effort and became uninterested in challenges. Their self-esteem did not rise. So, many educators are clamoring to forget about self-esteem and return to the good old days of high standards, with the risk of widespread failure. What’s the answer? Are these the only two alternatives?
There is another alternative, one that addresses students’ achievement and their self-esteem: Teaching students to value hard work, learning, and challenges; teaching them how to cope with disappointing performance by planning for new strategies and more effort; and providing them with the study skills that will put them more in charge of their own learning. In this way, educators can be highly demanding of students but not run the risk that large numbers of students will be labeled as failures.” http://www.educationworld.com/a_issues/chat/chat010.shtml
There is a powerful word that Dr Dweck has reminded me of. It is a most underused word and a word that educators need to use more in the classroom to encourage a learning mindset, to let children know that with effort, they can develop and achieve progress. It is the word yet. If a child says that they are not good at something, the door to learning is closed. If the child says that they are not good at it yet, the mindset remains open to future endeavour.
The research into mindsets emphasizes the significance of word choice. Humans respond to intricate meanings in words, that can have huge effects on our motivation. This places a responsibility on educators to choose words carefully, to praise effort thoughtfully within a context of support and positive goal setting. For further information on mindset research, listen to this podcast. I think it is essential listening for every teacher.
A guide to building resilience is available for download from the Australian Scholarships Group