Tagging on to my reflections about mindsets from the DLMooc work, I wanted to share an experience I had as a teacher this past week.
Every winter, the Grade 7 class spends three days north of Toronto in the forest, making peace with winter. This was my first time on this particular trip and I fully embraced the minus 30 weather (that’s in celsius) and all the winter-themed activities, being the enthusiastic teacher I am, even though I fully admit that winter is not exactly my thing.
Our first activity was cross-country skiing. Once we strapped the skis to our little boots, our incredible instructor first taught us how to fall! This is genius, I thought, everyone needs to know how to fail and fail well right from the get go. You need to know the steps for how to get back up and you need to know that falling is totally normal and just part of the process of learning something new. This, I thought to myself, is actually how I should start my school year: teaching my students how to fail well. How do you bomb a test or revise your work based on feedback? How do you take risks and learn from those setbacks? I’m also actually wondering how you design learning experiences that require students to take big risks and experience failure by design…but that might be another blog post. Back to the snow for now.
Once I started to realize that cross-country skiing is just a really cold (or cool) metaphor for academic mindsets, I started to watch and talk to my students in a completely different way. I was watching with interest one student, I’ll call her Sadie, who just kept on falling over and over (and over) again. It was like a mini slap-stick comedy watching this young person take a few strides and then collapse like a rag doll repeatedly. The most amazing thing about Sadie, though, was that she just kept getting back up and had a huge smile on her face the whole time. She didn’t complain once either: she just fell, got back up, tried something new, maybe fell again, and then kept on going. She actually got pretty good too after 2 hours of this process! Thinking about Sadie in the classroom, this pattern is also present: she can take bold risks, she can improve her learning, and isn’t afraid of not being “right”. It was incredible to see how these are linked! Once I saw how important this skill is, I was deliberate in how I praised her in front of other people, “Hey Sadie, I really love how you are just getting back up again after every time you fall. You are really showing so much persistence with learning this new skill. You are going to get stronger and better just because you are not afraid to fall down and it’s not a big deal for you to get back up again.” It’s not as important to just be “naturally awesome” at cross-country skiing and praising that skill; it’s more valuable to praise the effort and persistence, because this is what I ultimately want my students to develop.
But not everyone had Sadie’s mindset. I was at the back of the pack, so I could see most of the group ahead striding forward or falling back. Another student, I’ll call her Rebecca, was really having a hard time. She had little experience cross-country skiing and so was hesitant (like me) about what she was doing. She asked me if she had to do this. She asked at one point if we could turn around. She said a few times, “I’m just not good at this,” especially after she would fall. She also complained vociferously about her cold hands. The way I coached her, I decided, had to be about her mindset, not about her skill. I asked her if she was born being good at volleyball and how she developed this skill, and she said, “I just practiced.” I responded by saying, “Yes. And this is just practicing something different. You have to be okay at being terrible at something for a little while to learn something new.” But I started to see that just telling her to be comfortable with this “stage of sucking” wouldn’t necessarily be enough for her to think differently about her learning. Luckily for Rebecca, she actually started to get better at it over the course of the 2 hours. This was my moment! “Hey Rebecca!” I called to her. “Check out how you have been falling way less over the last 20 minutes. You are slowly starting to get better. You also seem to be having much more fun now too! If you can stick to something through the uncomfortable parts, it can actually become more fun.” Taking these moments to reflect for our students how they are growing is so important. It could be an informal moment in the woods in the winter, or it could be a more formalized report card comments, but students need to hear praise framed with academic mindsets in order to develop this thinking themselves.
I can now see that students with a fixed mindset will avoid and complain about what they find challenging. Off the trail, I am now seeing this in my classroom all the time. Students will disengage from projects that they think they might experience failure with. One student recently told me that our debate project was boring (gotta hand it to young people, they don’t hold back what they really feel), only to then later acknowledge that she was actually really struggling with finding good arguments for her resolution. If I can set up my program to start with learning how to fail well, I wonder if students could approach academic projects like Sadie on skis: ready to take risks and get back up again in pursuit of learning. If I find moments for students to see that it is okay to struggle with something and not being amazing at something often has to happen before we really start to enjoy what we are doing, could students embrace the process of learning as well as the final result? If I cultivate moments to prove to my students that they are indeed growing and changing, would they be more likely to take on bigger challenges because they know they are capable of amazing things?
While it might be possible to see mindset moments in the peace and tranquility of a forest on cross-country skis, it is less easy for me to see how to build this developing understanding into my projects and classroom learning experiences. In the meantime, I think it is incredibly valuable to outwardly praise the evidence of growth mindsets when they show up in my classroom and reflect for students how they are growing and changing overtime to help them see that their intelligence is not fixed. In other words, I am still figuring out growth mindsets and embracing my own “stage of sucking”, for the sake of my students.