Friday, December 3, 2010
“You’re So Smart” ?
One of our third grade boys finished his spelling assignment, closed his book, and declared himself ready to work on his math.
His teacher said, “Open your math notebook. There’s a subtraction problem ready to get you started.”
“I hope it’s nice and long,” he said.
I was sitting there at the lesson table and was curious why he said that.
“Because I want to get really good at subtraction and then I want to get really good at multiplication and division.”
Two girls in another lower elementary classroom were learning to use the checkerboard, an aid to multiplication. Here’s the problem they wrote for themselves: 377,734 X 72.
They were on the steep part of the learning curve, but they were fearless. In fact, as soon as they finished writing the problem in their math notebooks, one said to the other, “I forget how to do this.”
I was sitting next to them on the floor and could have helped out, but I wanted to see how they handled this situation, so I offered no adult intervention. In fact, their teacher sent me over to observe them because I told her I was looking for students confronting a difficult passage in their work. These girls had already been given a lesson on the checkerboard, but were not yet independent using it.
As she walked by, one of their classmates said, “Do you need help?” She spent the next fifteen minutes re-teaching them how to use the checkerboard. At one point she offered to simplify the problem, shortening the mulitiplier from two digits (X 72) to one digit (X 2). They declined her offer. “We want to do this problem.”
Three years ago Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck wrote Mindset: the new psychology of success. If you have ever said to your child, “You’re so smart,” read on. If you tend to correct them whenever you think they’ve made an error, read on.
As a young researcher, Dweck encountered children very much like the ones I saw in our classrooms today. She observed, “Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, ‘I love a challenge.’”
Confounded by this unexpected behavior from children, Dweck asked rhetorically, “What’s wrong with them? I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?”
“Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They obviously knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure it out—to understand the kind of mindset that could turn a failure into a gift.”
“What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”
At the heart of Dweck’s discoveries, after twenty years of work, are two opposing mindsets. Some of us see ourselves (and others) as smart or not smart. And we see smartness as a fixed characteristic, something we ourselves cannot change or influence. In fact, we might even believe that smart people don’t need to work hard to learn something. And that if you do need to work hard, this proves that you’re not smart. As parents, when our child learns something new we say, “You’re so smart.” This helps us pass on to the next generation that mindset.
Other people see themselves (and others) as learners. With this mindset, we understand that errors are a natural part of learning. We also see that learning builds intelligence. We expect that we need to work hard to learn new things, and that through our hard work we make ourselves smarter. As parents, when our child learns something new, we say, “You worked really hard at that, didn’t you?” This helps us pass on to the next generation that mindset.
Dr. Montessori said that we must help children develop “a friendly relationship with error.” This gets communicated in little ways and big ways and over a long period of time, helps develop a learner’s mindset.
When a child is running indoors, do you say, “Don’t run!” or do you say, “Walk”? Saying “walk” is not only more effective (children often hear only the last thing we say, so a child hearing “don’t run” hears only “run”!), it also entails no correction, no error. Hearing about the error is often the worst part. The control is external. You are being controlled and feel like you are being controlled.
This is a reason that many Montessori classroom materials have a built-in control of error: the child can check herself and does not need the teacher to tell her if she is right or wrong. If she is wrong, she simply re-does it. Errors are a normal part of learning.
If a child drops a plate and it breaks, he gets the broom to sweep it up. He does not need to be told, “You broke a plate,” (A comment that is often embellished with some additional insult about the child’s carelessness.). We are aiming to develop a friendly relationship with error. We are aiming to develop the mindset of a learner, someone who understands that errors are a normal part of learning. We are aiming to avoid a fear of mistakes, a fear of failure, which can paralyze a learner. If you are afraid to make mistakes, you’ll be reluctant to try something new and hard.
We aim to develop a curiosity about errors. A child mixing colors wants orange. She combines red and blue and gets purple. “Oh, that’s interesting. You’ve made purple. How did you do that? What colors did you mix?” Compare this to an error-oriented approach: “No, that’s definitely not orange!” An adult taking this approach might then tell the child what to do: “Mix red and yellow to get orange,” or even say, “Let me do that for you.” Either way, the message to the child is this: you’re wrong and you’re incompetent. Reminds me of Thomas Edison’s 10,000 attempts to develop the filament for the incandescent light bulb. Or Spencer Silver’s development of a glue that didn’t work very well (think Post-It Notes). Some people deny their errors. Or cover them up. Or get discouraged. Or throw the whole mess away. Or leave the workbench and go watch TV. Others maintain an air of curiosity.
What’s the difference? Mindset. How do we develop the mindset of a learner? It begins with our attitude toward error, toward effort and toward intelligence.