“You can do hard things,” author Barbara Kingsolver regularly told her Montessori-educated children as they were growing up. The independence that the Montessori method fosters in the youngest of children manifests later as the perseverance to work through difficult math problems, learn another language, and make deadlines in upper grades. And there’s that word again—perseverance. It has peppered this blog ever since author Paul Tough spoke at the Patterson Park Public Charter School during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 about his latest book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power to Succeed. Since then, grit and perseverance (they’re never solo anymore, always hand in hand, the Brangelina of the education world) have become superstars, rising meteorically to the top of the class. So pervasive has perseverance become that it even gets billed as one of the skills your preschooler will learn by watching “Peter Rabbit” on Nick, Jr.! (Peter is always getting into scrapes and must think on his furry feet, take chances, and make a few mistakes before ultimately avoiding the hungry Mr. Fox’s stewpot or the broadside of angry Mr. MacGregor’s garden spade by the end of the show.)
The New Century School, although strictly Montessori only in the primary program, embodies the principles of independent learning, self-guided discovery, and the curiosity to delve deeply into a topic of inquiry throughout its curricula, from primary all the way up through elementary. Independence, curiosity, the wherewithal to see something through . . . what does it all add up to? Self-esteem, which, in turn, cultivates better learning. In an interview with The Sun, Kingsolver explained, “There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail. If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s not even a human life. Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks. It’s as simple as that.”
Authors Kingsolver and Tough aren’t just waxing poetic, either. “Grit” in the education context (as in the persistence, determination and resilience needed to succeed at learning) was coined by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, who won a MacArthur Genius grant for her pioneering research. Thanks to work like hers, we now recognize that academic mastery requires an enormous outlay of time and effort as well as being able to start over if at first we don’t succeed (something that artists of every stripe have always intuited). The next logical step must be to figure out how to systematically inculcate grit, perseverance, and the self-esteem they engender in students. Can grit be taught?
According to Janna Peskett, Curriculum and Professional Learning Specialist at Mindset Works®, yes it can! Profiled recently on NPR’s Morning Edition, Mindset Works’ flagship product is the Brainology curriculum, which is designed to cultivate a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. “Growth mindset,” the brainchild of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, means believing that success comes from effort, not inborn intelligence or talent. Dr. Dweck is a cofounder of Mindset Works, and, like the gritty Dr. Duckworth, hopes to help students believe that not only are frustration and mistakes part of learning, but that intelligence is not static—it can be developed; it can grow.
Mrs. Peskett says, “Cultivating a growth mindset is connected to the grit and perseverance movement, but goes a step further into developing student agency.” Students who have a fixed mindset tell themselves things like, “This just isn’t my thing” or “It’s [so and so’s] fault that I can’t do this” in response to failure. Eventually, avoiding the risk of failure becomes habit, and scholastic progress comes to a screeching halt. With a growth mindset, by contrast, students faced with failure ask themselves, “What can I learn from this?” and “What different strategy can I approach this with next time?”. “Whereas fear of making mistakes holds students back, struggling and taking risks facilitates learning,” explains Mrs. Peskett.
Underwritten by a grant from the Raikes Foundation (“Empowering young people to change their lives”), Brainology is currently being implemented in eight Washington, D.C. middle schools. The D.C. school system is undertaking this pilot year as a research study to determine whether the curriculum’s concrete strategies will improve education outcomes in its underserved communities. For example, in one lesson, students are taught about how negative emotions can interfere with learning and are given four specific strategies for circumventing those negative emotions:
- Square breathing: Inhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, exhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts. This allows time for emotion to drain out from the frontal lobe and let the rational brain take over.
- Positive self-talk: Reframe negative thoughts in a positive way. “I don’t understand this word” becomes “I don’t understand it yet, but if I ask for help or practice a different strategy, over time, I will get it.” (Recall that Dr. Bonnie Zucker named similar strategies in her recent TNCS presentation.)
- Visualization: Visualize a desired outcome; see yourself doing it. “I want to read this book from start to finish.”
- Avoiding “fight or flight”: Recognize that the brain is sensing a threat when, for example, the palms start to sweat. “Recognize it, name it, and then let it go,” says Mrs. Peskett.
Brainology is a blended curriculum (some takes place in class and some online) and is appropriate for 4th through 10th graders. Says. Mrs. Peskett, “it all boils down to helping students believe that their brains are malleable.” She sums up this concept of neuroplasticity by telling kids, “You can change your intelligence through effort.” Because fixed mindsets can affect students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and prevent them from realizing their potential, Brainology potentially has quite a broad appeal. Even at TNCS, where cultivating growth mindsets is inherently part of the everyday curriculum, students naturally experience frustration, negative thinking, and anxiety. Helping them learn how to respond to failure can subvert such barriers to learning. Of course, exercise, sleep, and nutrition also play important roles and are integral to Brainology. Certain foods (e.g., those containing omega-3 fatty acids, leafy greens, etc.) increase neuronal communication; exercise also gets those synapses firing. Sleep optimizes waking brain function. But all of this relates back to those conjoined concepts, grit and perseverance. “Everything you learn from is going to require you to take a risk and possibly fail,” says Mrs. Peskett.
We can help our kids recognize that they can do hard things.
What’s your mindset? Find out here.
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Read about the perils of overpraising your kids here.