In the case for “normalizing struggle” in schools, how do we do a better job of encouraging the failures of our students rather than punishing them or viewing struggle as a weakness?
Mistakes can be the best opportunities to explore different ways of thinking, especially when students and teachers listen to one another. It’s a good experience to see that, by making mistakes, you can learn even more than you can by grinding through traditional ways of doing things. If mistakes are addressed in constructive ways, students will develop confidence in their ability to tackle problems that can seem insurmountable.
As children grow, they will face numerous struggles – academic, social, physical, financial, emotional – and it will be how they learn to approach such obstacles that will strengthen their character, self-understanding and perspective.
According to UCLA psychology professor, Jim Stigler, we in North America often tend to see struggle as an indicator that a person is “just not very smart” or “of low ability”. After all people who are smart don’t struggle. They just naturally get it. Wrong – even though that can tend to be our folk theory. Some very high achievers have experienced struggles; however, they have also demonstrated courage and resilience when faced with an obstacle.
For those of us who work with children, our beliefs about the source of academic excellence can shape whether we are able to help children develop resilience.
If we believe that children are successful in school because of their innate intelligence, then it’s logical for us to associate struggle with intellectual weakness. There’s a connection here to the danger of having what Stanford University professor, Carol Dweck, calls a “fixed mindset”: the risk in valuing smarts over persistence is that we unintentionally communicate that some children “have it,” while others don’t.
As we work with our children and students this year, let us all make the commitment to encourage their learning in ways that celebrate their natural ability, while at the same time honouring their patient endurance!
Success in school is about more than just intelligence – it’s also about the habits we form, the work ethic we develop, the way we learn from mistakes, and the self-discipline we inspire.
Classrooms need to be safe havens for mistake-making and for struggling in the face of challenge. Even something as simple as the language that we use with students – as teachers and parents – can set the tone for learning and help children recognize and grow their own inner courage and strength.
When we embrace the kind of growth that comes from learning from our mistakes, we accurately reflect the intent of our school motto. I must, I can, I will.
Ric Anderson, Head of School