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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mindset: How to help your child succeed and fail

In a couple weeks, a colleague and I are giving a keynote address to a group of parents and teachers. Our topic is an area that has fascinated me from the first day I started working with gifted children. Mindset, specifically how learners' self-efficacy influences their ability to take academic risks (or not take).

One of the first behaviors I noticed while working with exceptionally bright children is that many of them are inhibited by fear, the fear of failure. For most of their lives, they have been told by teachers and family "oh, you're so smart". Unbeknownst to the adults, a comment like this can have devastating effects on a child's psyche. The child infers that if he cannot do something easily, people may discover he is not smart. You cannot blame the child. He has been complemented for years on his achievements.

The way to help your child is by not praising achievement, but instead, praise effort. This is something that many people have known, but fail to do. Renowned educational psychologist Carol Dweck has developed these concepts into a book, Mindset. Every coach, teacher, parent and leader should read and internalize this book.

I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the school year introducing the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets. These two concepts detailed by Dweck can be life changing if one follows the advice. Children and adults alike cannot simply rely on their abilities and talents. To be successful it is critical that failures are not seen as dead ends but as an intersection. One must internalized that failure, whether it be short-lived or reoccurring and know that this is the path to true success. It really comes down to how a person handles failure. Does he move forward, dig deep and analyze lessons learned or does he blame, complain and quit?

I find that the title of one of Carol Dweck's presentations captures the explanation well. It is "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids" Hint: Don't tell your kids that they are". She goes on to explain that the focus should be on effort, not achievement. I strongly believe and see evidence every day of the power of mindset. Our young students need guidance to recognize what each mindset looks like and how to increase their ability to build resiliency skills.

I am including a couple links for information on Mindset. The first is a New York magazine article about Dweck's book Mindset. The second is Carol Dweck's site promoting the book. Pass them along to any "fixed mindset" folks you know



Friday, February 17, 2012

Failure, college applications and resilency

I can only imagine how difficult it must be for college admission officers to read hundreds of applications. One of the new trends shared by a panel of these readers is to predict if a student will be a success. One way to do this is for a student to share how he rebounded after a failure or setback. Does he acknowledge his shortcoming and show evidence of accepting it and moving forward? This is what the admissions folks look for. They see pages and pages of student accomplishments-as they should, but life is a journey filled with challenges and setbacks. Students with a growth mindset (Dweck) and fortuitous attitude will be more likely to handle challenges and ultimately succeed.

When I work with my students on various projects, lessons or assignments, it never fails that they are so afraid of failing that they quit before they begin. This fear of "I will look stupid if I do it wrong" cripples children and adults. I admit it. I recall many times sitting in an undergraduate class completely clueless as to what the professor was explaining. Rather than raise my hand and ask for clarification, I would sit quietly and ask a classmate after class. This fear inhibits creativity, learning and confidence. I was relieved when another classmate chimed in for clarification-and by the looks of many others, they were too.

Each day and each lesson I verbalize the mantra that smart people ask questions, successful people do not fear failure. Early in the school year I introduce a simple but difficult pre algebra puzzle/problem to my gifted elementary students. The math is simple, adding and subtracting less than 100. The concept is challenging. Students must decipher shapes and assign weights based on certain rules. The puzzle is a mobile, like the one that hand from a ceiling. It has two sides, both are equal in weight. But, one side may have two shapes and the other three or more. So it requires some trial and error, calculation, planning and critical thinking. More often than not students want to quit. Their comments range from "this is stupid" to "I don't get it". Any parent or teacher knows that "I don't get it" means "do it for me".

Two critical lessons are attached to the algebra. The first is that wrong answers are ok. It will eventually lead to the correct one. The second and most important is students learn "What to do, when I don't know what to do". In other words, problem solve. Identify a problem, make a plan, test it, and revise as needed. Once the learners realize and internalize these lessons, they have the tools to take risks. They are so used to being able to cruise through a lesson or the curriculum that when finally tasked with a difficult situation, they are so afraid to look "dumb" that they won't even attempt something difficult. A lifetime of living in fear like that will lead to a waste of talent.

So encourage children (and adults) to try, work hard and be resilient. Praise their effort not their achievement. Teach them how to learn from failures and move forward. I love the Michael Jordan Nike commercial that played a few years back. It was a narrative by MJ explaining how many game-winning shots he missed, how many games he lost, all of his set backs...his closing line was "I failed over and over and over again in my life....and that is why I succeed!

Struggling readers and cooking

Reading is a complex process that humans were not biologically designed to do. Speaking and communicating is what we are innately designed for. I was listening to a neuroscientist speak about the wonders of the brain. He described how babies still in the womb can hear the mother's voice. The baby can hear others too, like the father and family members, but those voices are somewhat distorted and muffled. The mother's voice is clearer. When babies are born they cry and coo in their native language. A baby born in France cries with an inflection that rises; babies born in Germany, the cries end abruptly. This is the case throughout the world. So, learning occurs prior to birth. Humans have been communicating through language for thousands of years. We are genetically wired to do so. Conversely, reading is relatively new on the continuum.

According to Gee (2003) there are two major schools of reading instruction. The first are the traditionalists. The see reading as acquiring a set of skills through instruction. It must be overtly taught. The second group are the whole language advocates. They see learning to read as natural process. It is attained by immersion in literacy practices. Both have support for their positions but both lack what Gee calls Discourse learning processes. He explains that the process should be similar to how we learn to cook. Most people learn by watching others, helping in the kitchen, learning traditions passed down by their elders (mentors). So, learners must observe masters work. The masters model what works well, scaffold skills needed and give feedback, encouragement and guidance as the novice delves in.

This model should be mirrored in reading instruction. I believe more should be done to decrease the overt instruction and increase the mentoring, modeling and sharing. Not just in school, but at home with reading materials in the students' native languages.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Neuron Memory and Pain

Living with pain is a daily occurrence for me and many others. Recent research indicates there is a neuronal key to how pain is stored. Further studies may help people alleviate many types of pain. Wouldn't that be great!? Read more here