Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Power of Yet

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychology professor catapulted to fame with the emergent popularity of her theory of growth mindset, gave a TED Talk in 2014 that linked the power of yet with growth mindset.

Growth mindset became the newest trend in the K-12 classroom with teachers filling their walls with posters encouraging students to persevere, to evidence their grit. We have Angela Duckworth to "thank" for the imposed connection between growth mindset and perseverance. There are some who seem to think that if students simply tried a little harder and believed in themselves and their abilities, like modern day little engines that can, those students could be "successful."

In 2015, Dweck revisited growth mindset in an attempt to remind teachers that, among other things, it isn't just about trying harder.

When I think of all the children who experience stressors outside of the classroom about which we are ignorant or that we simply cannot imagine, growth mindset is the least of my concerns. Yet I am still perplexed when a student refuses to exert even a nanosecond of effort before whining "it's too hard" or "I can't do this." I try to imagine what has happened in a child's life that even in second grade there is a lack of willingness to try. Or is it a lack of willingness to fail? I don't know, though I do know that a child questioned about why they think it is too hard will often just put his or her head down and shrug.

Recently I was talking with a teacher about the power of yet, which motivated me to find the Dweck TED Talk and to do a bit more research. That's when I found this article making another connection between the power of yet and growth mindset. In "The Power of Yet: Do You Believe You Can Improve?", Sam Thomas Davies revisits that unorthodox grade of "not yet." Rather than give a student a failing grade, students at a particular school in Chicago are given the grade of "not yet." Let's not quibble about the details of how that actually works and focus instead on what it means to a student to get a grade of "not yet."

As I was thinking about how a student might respond to that idea of "yet," I started thinking about the challenges some of our schools have with students being respectful of themselves, their classmates, their teachers, and their school. Check out Step 2 in Davies' article which focuses on the belief of change.

You'll see this statement in Step 2: "You have a choice." All day long teachers talk to kids about making good choices. So very easy to say but my contemplation led to an epiphany: what is a student's frame of reference for what we call a "good" choice? Is a good choice one that keeps them out of trouble? away from a buddy room? Is a good choice one that keeps the teacher's focus on some other kid with behavior that doesn't necessarily lead to learning but also doesn't lead to being in trouble?

This idea of choice is connected to a belief in the possibility of change. I'd want to help students understand that some changes are incremental. That some changes are harder than others and are often marked as much by figurative (maybe literal) scrapped knees and elbows which means we have to be that much more determined to work towards change because it is work. By the same token, we have to be realistic about the reach of those changes and the possibility that some changes won't survive the boundaries of the school.

And that observation because of another epiphany or a slow realization: we really, really need to find ways to engage parents in making good choices, in understanding the power of yet, in understanding that change takes time and hard work. I fear their expectations of what can, should, and does happen in a classroom and in a school may be inaccurate and/or misguided.

On the other hand, I plead complete ignorance about what is really going on in our kids' homes. No matter where our kids go to school and live, I have bouts of concern that we make too many assumptions about the conditions of their home lives. I grew up in a nice middle class neighborhood and no one knew that my father was an alcoholic and my mother often took out her rage on me. Maybe we were better at pretend and false faces in those days. Maybe some of today's kids can manage the false front as I did, but I'd wager many others simply haven't the energy or ability and that's why we see what we see in the classroom.

I know how hard it is to get parents to be an active part of a school community. I know how difficult it can be for parents to find the time and exert the energy to learn more about their student's school and teachers. Parents, teachers, and kids need to be clear that learning is more than having green or purple at the end of the day. Sometimes a yellow day might still be a day of learning even if the behavior was a little rocky along the way.

In far too many of our classrooms, managing behavior has become the necessity making managing learning that much harder. Even so, my heart tells me that finding ways to help students understand how learning matters, that it really is worth the effort even when it seems hard, that not knowing or not being able to do yet is really the way of learning, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to make more progress with our kids, and their parents.

But first we have to spend a little time with ourselves and make our own good choices about not losing heart, about not giving up--on them or ourselves.

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