Sunday, January 20, 2013


Looking at my twitter feed this morning I came across an interesting link to a fabulous article
by Daniel Coyle.

As a teacher this article resonated with me.  So many times students will position themselves as being hopeless or incapable of doing a task, succeeding at a particular academic discipline or sport.  I have often thought that when I teach students, especially in English, that it is matter of building up the students' confidence to see that they indeed are capable of reading an entire novel and understanding it; that they are indeed capable of constructing a perfectly good essay with worthy things to say; that they are indeed able to be creative and imaginative with their narrative writing.

At times, being frustrated by their negativity, I have often thought that the plaintive cries of "I can't ...." or "I not good at..." was just work avoidance.  Especially when I have heard it from the same student for the umpteenth time.  But if I truly taught from the heart and listened carefully to the student then I would see that it really was a quite of them perceiving themselves as incapable and they are crippled by self-doubt and the lack of confidence to struggle and work at the problem, seeing it as too big, too hard, and being too ill equipped - not having the skills.

So how to reframe the view; how do you get students to reposition themselves in the classroom or playing field; how do you give them the confidence to "have a go" and work towards mastery???  Especially in the face of their simple and firmly held belief  " I'm not good at ...." or "I can't ...."  And as Daniel Coyle points out - it is with the simple and powerful three letter word - YET.  "I'm not good at ..... YET".  This starts that student and teacher on a different path, and firmly foregrounds the notion that anything can be achieved but it needs effort and it needs to take time.  Those that are talented at things, don't have to work hard, and students will often measure themselves against the best.  I would not measure myself against the best swimmers in the world when I do my morning laps - because I have not worked at my skills and technique or fitness - YET - nearly enough.  And that powerful little word hints to all parties in the exchange, that it will come, if you work at it.

"As Dr Coral Dweck and her work on mindset ....(has) shown how small changes in language - even a few words - can affect performance. 
Her core insight is that they way we frame questions of talent matter hugely.  If we put the focus on "natural ability", kids tend to be less engaged on put forth less effort (often all, if it's just a genetic lottery, then why should I try?). When we put the focus on effort, however, kids try harder and are more engaged."

And as Daniel Coyle says "... because "yet" tells a clear story about the value of effort and struggle, and that story is aligned with the way the brain grows."

Working with teenagers, I feat they they could become resistant or deaf to the effect of the word "YET", but there are also other ways of reframing the viewpoint of the student who sees themselves as incapable, no good, why bother.  Acknowledge their fears, listen to them and not blithely dismiss their feelings and viewpoint countering their negativity by saying "Yes you are good at ..."  You have just dishonoured them and their dignity has taken a blow.  You might not see them as "no good at ...", but they most certainly do. For them it is a statement of fact.  Johanna Hedgardh suggested to say to the students "Ok, but if you could, how would you do it?"  They might elicit "I don't know", because the student genuinely doesn't know the first thing about how to tackle being better at.  So this is where the teacher can step in and give them the skills and confidence to start working their way towards mastery in the particular skill or subject area. 
Another way to tackle the finality of what students are saying -" I am no good at...." which is somehow supposed to be the end of the conservation - how it will always be.  YET you could also say to the student  "You're not good at it NOW, BUT ....."  which again opens up the valuing of the learning and acquiring of skills as a long-term process, of something that requires effort and then the mastery and achievement will come.  And always remember that success is measured differently for everyone.  For one student, reading an entire book is going to be a huge achievement, whereas for another, achievement will be reading the entire works of Jane Austen in a year.

As a wonderful school counsellor always used to remind the teaching staff, never underestimate the power that you words have to influence your students.

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