Friday, August 3, 2012
I'm Just Not Good At This, Mom!
The other day, I asked my 17 year old son to put together a bookshelf for me. This was no fancy dancy bookshelf. It was one of those 19.99 fiber board shelves with the wimpy backs you tack on - you all have one of these in your home or classroom somewhere, I know you do. Anyways, not a difficult task. . . if you follow the directions that come in the box.
He worked on it for about an hour. I came down to see the finished masterpiece, of which he was proud of. It was put together. . . but, three of the boards were facing the wrong way exposing the fiberboard in the front instead of the back. He hadn't noticed this when putting it together (nor did he read any directions).
These situations always make me itchy. I'm proud of the fact that he got it together, as is he. I don't want to sound critical, yet, I need it to be put together the right way. Word choice here is difficult.
I thanked him for working so hard to get together.
Then, I said, "I notice that some of these boards are exposed this way instead of with the finished side facing out."
He was befuddled.
"AWWWW. . . . MAN! I can't believe I did that!" he complained. "I'm just not GOOD at these kind of things! Geez, does it really matter, Mom? Can't we just leave it that way? You are going to just fill it up with books anyway and no one will even see it."
We go on to have a conversation about how it's just as easy to do things "right" the first time, what "right" even is, maybe some people like the exposed side out (his idea), the importance of following directions, how in a real job situation - this would not be acceptable and it would need to be redone.
Well, I deflated him. However, I don't think it was because of our conversation. I think it runs deeper. I believe he was frustrated because of his beliefs about performance.
After he started taking the shelf apart to redo it, he must have said "I am just no good at this kind of stuff. . . putting things together and reading those stupid directions, " at least a dozen times.
Fireworks were going off in my brain, because I was just reading about "dynamic-learning beliefs" and "fixed-learning beliefs" in Peter Johnston's Opening Minds: Using Language to Change People's Lives, of which you can preview the ENTIRE book here at Stenhouse.
A dynamic-learning frame is one of which a person believes that learning takes time and effort, so trying hard is valued, problems/challenges/errors are to be expected and even valued if a person is taking on a challenge and also, challenging activities are engaging. Most importantly, someone with this belief system believes that the more you learn, the smarter you get. You can change your mind, your smartness, and who you are.
Compare that with the fixed-performance frame. With this belief system, one believes that people have fixed traits, such as smartness and intelligence that they cannot change. They believe learning happens quickly for smart people, so trying hard is not valued and if you even have to try hard, you probably aren't smart. Problems and errors are indicators of one's intellectual ability and challenging activities are in fact risky or stressful because one might fail.
My son has a fixed performance belief. In his mind, he made errors in putting the shelf together, so he is bad at putting things together. . . he believes he is "not smart" at this. I had to help him get it apart and redo it because he was so upset by the fact that he "failed". The entire scenerio explains the fuss he put up about even having to put it together in the first place. It was a risk.
I notice this in students at school, especially those who are highly intelligent, as my son is. They are used to "school" being easy for them. They "get" things right away and do them quickly. Many avoid challenges because they could fail and that would get in the way of their goal of looking as smart as they can.
So, how do we help people with these beliefs?
Peter Johnston answers this question throughout his book, but the three main points of influence include:
What we choose to say when children are successful or unsuccessful at something - when we give them feedback or praise.
If we say, "Good job" to a job well done, we are giving the message that they are good at what they do. If we say, "You worked hard on this. How do you feel?" we build a different frame in their mind.
The way we frame activities.
Saying, "Let's see who is the best or the quickest at doing this activity," is very different than, "Let's see which of these problems is the most interesting." The latter teaches different understandings about learning and what they are doing, as well as turning their energies toward a different goal.
What we explicitly teach children about how people's brains and minds work.
Children need to know that each time they learn something new, their brains literally grow new cells. Teaching about brain growth and function to our students empowers them to engage in challenging tasks and activities.
This book is mind shifting and I wish Peter Johnston had written it back in 1987 when I started teaching. I'm sure someone else wrote about it and perhaps I even read it and my mind wasn't ready for it.
I'm ready for it now.
I ponder. . . maybe I really am not that bad at running the DVD player. . .