Mindsets About Failure and Effort

(Originally titled “Afraid of Looking Dumb”)

In this thoughtful article in Educational Leadership, former teacher and principal Mark Jacobson describes one of his second-graders telling him she wasn’t smart at math, was afraid of being teased, and mistrusted her teacher’s reassuring words. “Do you want to change?” he asked. “Yes, but how?” she replied.

The key with students like this is changing the way they think about ability, says Jacobson. The goal of students fortunate enough to have a “growth” mindset (Carol Dweck’s term) is to get smarter. If they’re having difficulty, they work on a better strategy. But the goal of students who have the “fixed” mindset is to look smart. For them, being in a classroom is like stepping onto a stage with all eyes on them. “The teacher owns one of the most important pairs of eyes,” says Jacobson. “Fixed-belief students concern themselves with their teacher’s every glance. They see the teacher not as a facilitator and resource for their learning but as a rewarder and punisher, as a judge and critic.” These students constantly ask themselves, “Am I good enough? Am I smart? Am I right? Did I make a mistake? How will others see me? Does my teacher like me?”

“As long as students are driven by what others think of them, they’re focused on the external,” says Jacobson. “We teachers need to turn them inward, to refocus their attention on their own effort and abilities.” If a student mutters the answer to a question and the teacher says, “What?”, the student may say, “Never mind” or “I forgot.” These students may rebuff an offer of help, afraid that accepting it will make them look incompetent, or they may become dependent on the teacher and stop trying. They tend to be overly sensitive to mild criticism or body language. “I think I’ll throw this away,” said one of Jacobson’s students after classmates offered some suggestions on her story. 

“We always ask students to try,” he says, “especially when they believe something is really hard. However, for some students, ‘hard’ means ‘impossible.’” Here are his suggestions for getting students to believe that effort really can make them smarter:

Have students rate how hard they are trying. Jacobson routinely checked in with his students, asking them to self-assess on a 10-point effort scale and push themselves to try harder. 

Give better feedback. General praise like “Good job” is hollow and ineffective, says Jacobson. Feedback should be specific to the tasks or concepts being taught and reinforce incremental progress. “That was a good start, Jeffrey,” a teacher might say and encourage the student to keep going.

Ask questions that don’t have right/wrong answers. Foster deeper thinking rather than speedy responses and stress accountable talk.

Engage the disengaged. “Adrian, are you with us?” a teacher might ask in the middle of a discussion. “What are you thoughts?” The entire class can be enlisted in encouraging participation, effort, and risk-taking.

Investigate mindsets. Jacobson did some action research in his second-grade class and found that half of the students had the fixed mindset. Teachers should reflect on their own mindset and how it manifests itself in school – and outside.

“Afraid of Looking Dumb” by Mark Jacobson in Educational Leadership, September 2013 (Vol. 71, #1, p. 40-43); www.ascd.org; Jacobson is at mjacob47@yahoo.com

From the Marshall Memo #501


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