Some students have more advantages than others; all the more reason to empower everyone with self-belief and an understanding that part of learning is failure.
At a recent education conference, one speaker remarked that no student who has fond memories of school harks back to the joy of standardized testing.
I immediately thought of Jennifer.
Jennifer came into my 8th grade class having never passed one of the dozens of standardized state tests Texas had required of her. She fully believed she was incapable of reaching the “Acceptable” achievement benchmark.
I disagreed. So did her math teacher, who worked in the classroom next to me. We both could see that Jennifer had the capacity not just to learn and regurgitate facts, but to think critically.
This is a crucial difference, because on a standardized test like the Texas 8th Grade Language Arts version circulating circa 2010, critical thinking is written into the test itself. There are few “factual” questions. Most all sections ask students to read an entirely new text – some informational, others fictional – and answer a series of questions pulled from this material.
You cannot ask students to simply memorize a list of dates, or sets of vocabulary definitions. You have to teach them how to read a question and think about what it means, what is it really asking.
You have to help them practice and learn how to think critically.
Jennifer could do it, I was sure. My challenge was to convince her of her own ability.
So I told her, along with my other students, to think of the test like a puzzle, a game, an obstacle course. The answers were there, in the passages themselves. If you give your brain a chance, it can do this. Your brain is extraordinary. Your brain is like nothing the world has ever seen. Your brain is more powerful than your smartphone.
Your brain can do this.
And for the first time in her school experience, Jennifer did pass her state tests, both Math and English. Based on her joyous reaction, I’d say it is probably a memory she’ll keep.
Over the past ten years, there has been an increasing push in Education to help students develop what is termed a “growth mindset.” Grit, in the brevity version. Essentially, educators want to help their students accept failure as part of learning, and do the metaphorical pickup after a fall.
You missed it this time? Try again.
Your brain can do this.
But there is – as always, with any idea – pushback. In an article published today by The Atlantic, Aisha Sultan questions whether a growth mindset works for students with real hardship at home and trauma in their history.
This is a fair question. One of my friends worked with Teach for America in Detroit, and the home lives of many of her 1st graders were heartbreaking. To imagine that kids with parents who are gone working, or absent for other and much more troubling reasons, come to class with a ready mindset to learn would be the height of delusion.
And yet, helping these students empower themselves seems like the right approach to me.
Because here’s the thing: I could have told Jennifer that she was at a real disadvantage psychologically, given that she’d never passed a test before. I could have told her that her pace of learning was much slower than most other students because of her learning disability. I could have told Jennifer that tests are silly and stupid, a waste of time, and she shouldn’t try to pass at all.
There’s some truth in all of those statements. But none of those facts give Jennifer any power over her own learning. And that’s what I want to do, because that’s where the better truth is, for all students.
You can learn. Your brain is incredible. Your life is worthwhile.
You matter, so what you do matters.
I was happy to see that the final paragraphs of Sultan’s Atlantic piece do offer valid suggestions for supporting students with difficult home lives and traumatic pasts. Schools can teach these children coping mechanisms, and provide counseling and other mental-health services.
But I would not advocate abandoning a growth mindset. Because for anyone to accomplish anything worthwhile, failure must be expected and dealt with. And especially for students who have many odds already stacked against them, we would be committing educational malpractice not to help them see setbacks as learning moments. We should provide these young people ample opportunities to practice grit, to set into reality the truth of their extraordinary potential.
Photo: Flickr/US Department of Education