One of the most challenging tasks I face in the classroom with students is helping them to understand that when the work is easy for them, they aren't learning. To children, this seems counterintuitive, because they think that if the work is easy, it is because they are smart. To a degree this is true. The work is easy because they have mastered that skill or that concept. I want students to feel good about what they can do. The problem is that students also think that if the work is challenging or difficult, the converse is true; that they are not smart. The bigger problem with this thinking is that students often take this to the next step and rationalize that because it is difficult now that means they are not smart. They then conclude it will always be this difficult for them and because they are not smart, there is nothing they can do to change it. This kind of thinking leads to discouragement. Students often give up once they've gone down this path. This is what we in educational circles call a "fixed mindset".
In reality, powerful learning can occur when students make mistakes and encounter struggle. Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, in her book Mathematical Mindsets (Boaler, 2016) states that "every time as student makes a mistake in math, they grow a synapse." She goes on to state that this synapse growth occurs "even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged, and this is the time when the brain grows the most."
Unfortunately, far too many students have learned to equate this struggle as a reflection of their ability or lack of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I find that a student in my classroom or in a private tutoring session is operating from a fixed mindset, I approach it in several ways. Here is how the conversation usually goes:
Student (stuck on a math problem or stalled on an idea for a writing piece): Ugh. I'm not good at (insert whatever subject is challenging here). I'm so stupid.
Me: Whoa. Hold up. Let's take a look at that thinking. So when you first learned to walk, do you think that one day you just stood up and walked without falling right across the room?"
Student (laughs): No! Of course not!
Me: And because you didn't just get up and walk perfectly the first time, did that make you a bad walker for life? Did that mean you were stupid?
Student: No! (laughs)
Me: Did you learn to walk eventually?
Me: Did you have to try it more than once? More than a few times?
Me: Why do you think that is?
Student: Maybe because I had to grow some more?
Me: That's right! Your body and your brain had to develop more and the only way it could do that is by you going through that process of trying and failing and trying again.
Student: Okay. What's that got to do with (insert any difficult subject here)?
Me: Let me tell you a secret about life. This is a big one. The same process you went through to learn to walk, you will go through in some way to learn anything. It's when you make the mistakes or face the struggle that you learn.
I then provide the student with some examples of this from their own life. For example, if the student is a basketball player I ask them if they've ever sunk a three point shot. Usually (because I work with students in elementary school) they tell me no. In fact, no one has said yes to this yet. I ask them why they think that is and they usually give me reasons like they aren't big enough or strong enough yet. Maybe they aren't tall enough yet. They might even mention they haven't used the correct form when shooting. I then tell students that study and school and just about everything else they will encounter in life is just like learning how to sink a three point shot. You don't usually ever get it right the very first time. You have to learn the correct form. Your brain (and body) have to develop. You have to put in some practice if you want to get good at it. I conclude with "just because it's hard doesn't mean you are bad at it. It doesn't mean you will always struggle and it certainly is not a sign that you are stupid. In fact, quite the opposite, it means that your brain is growing and learning!" Obviously, it takes many such conversations and many mistakes and challenging opportunities before students begin to see mistakes and challenges as merely a part of the learning process instead of seeing it as personal and permanent inadequacy.
Students who make this connection and who then work through the challenging parts again and again, end up making significant gains in their learning and achievement. One of my favorite examples is a young student (let's call him Carson which is not his real name) who was in second grade and was struggling in math. He would dissolve in tears when he got stuck on problems and would berate himself saying "I'm so stupid." Carson and I had many conversations like the one I just outlined. I took a few minutes at the start of each session to show a growth mindset video or to set a growth mindset focus or goal for the session. There were numerous sessions where the same routine of struggle, dissolve into tears, and give up occurred. Every time I brought up the example of the basketball player practicing the three point shot. "Look, do you think LeBron gave it up after he tried a three pointer the first time and missed? So here we are. You are working on mathematical three point shots. They are hard! But you have to keep trying to make the shot."
This went on for about six months. Gradually, bit by bit, Carson's attitude about mistakes changed. Sure, he'd be frustrated, but he wouldn't melt down. He wouldn't give up and quit trying. He no longer viewed his lack of knowledge or skill as a personal deficit. He would be frustrated, but instead of giving up, he would keep working on solving the problem in front of him using the strategies he had to help him approach the next challenge. Of course, along the way, I was providing Carson with carefully designed tasks that would help him develop the skills he needed but which would present him with opportunities to struggle at a level that was productive for him. I also included the opportunity to gain new skills and strategies at each session. And every single session, I reminded him that we are on the "math basketball court" and that he was working on hard stuff like sinking shots from half court (problem-solving can seem like that some days).
Once Carson was able to see for himself that he could accomplish these tough tasks with a bit of effort, the rest was easy. A year later, when he was in third grade in the middle of a pandemic, with only online instruction, Carson was completing his work proficiently at grade level and working on challenge questions. Even better, Carson sees himself as a capable mathematician and he understands that when he faces challenges, it's simply another opportunity for his brain to grow.
I have many examples just like Carson both from my years in the classroom as well as my work tutoring students privately. When student understand that the struggle and mistake are not evils to be avoided, when they can truly grasp that mistakes and getting stuck are exciting opportunities for growth, that's when the magic happens. When students quit seeing mistakes as failure and see them as the wonderful opportunities they are, growth happens. They begin to try different approaches knowing that if one approach doesn't work they can keep trying until they find one that does.
In life, so many things require consistent practice if one is to master them. The dancer practices hours of positions in the pointe shoes before becoming the prima ballerina, the violinist screeches out sounds fumbling with the bow on the strings before reaching first chair in the symphony, the basketball player lobs the shot over and over and over again each time perfecting the form until, "swish" the ball sinks effortlessly into the basket for the game winning three point shot.
Does your child give up easily on a subject in school claiming it's too hard, or they can't do it? One day a week, of intentional practice on a skill, in a private session with me can keep your child's skills at grade level over the summer. Two sessions a week, can accelerate that process so that your child begins the new school year with confidence and the skills and mindset they need to succeed. Yes, it is late July, but that the perfect time to enroll for a month of private instruction in preparation for a new school year. Even four weeks of weekly private instruction can help keep your child's skills sharp creating a smooth transition to a new post-Covid school year. Contact me today by filling out the contact form on my home page and we can set up a free consultation to discuss how to best keep your child challenged and growing through the rest of the summer.
Meet The Tutor
Hi, I'm Cat Crenshaw. I have 25 years experience as a public school educator in Oregon. I've seen many changes in schools, teaching, and academic expectations during these years. I also have a large network of education professionals from all over the world that I draw on as a resource and support for the work I do with parents and students. I provide this blog as a resource to parents and others as we work together to prepare the next generations for the work ahead, whatever form it takes.