“I don’t have a musical bone in my body”, “I’m not sporty, no one in my house is”, “I was never good at maths”.
I am sure that at some point in our lives, we have all encountered someone saying one or more of these statements.
Or perhaps, “Art was always easy for me”, “I’m a good reader. I was born that way”, “My friend got an A, but that’s because she’s a genius”.
All of the above statements are examples of a fixed mind-set. A belief that talent, intelligence and ability are fixed. Static. A belief that success is an indicator that an individual was born smart, born with a talent. It is a mind-set many of us either have, or fall into from time to time. It is a very easy crutch to hold when faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable. It is an effective way to bat away failures to a point where you don’t need to fail anymore. You don’t even need to try. It’s the one I use anytime someone suggests I start singing.
On the other side is the growth mind-set. A mind-set whereby one believes that talent, intelligence and ability can grow and develop. A growth mind-set believes that success indicates effort. That an individual had to study, train and practice to get to that point of success. We all, I think, try to maintain a growth mind-set.
But why is it so easy to slip? Why do we go for the crutch when challenges or failure loom? Nowadays, the word “gifted” gets thrown about without a thought to how a “non-gifted” person feels. Indeed, how does it make the “gifted” individual feel? Many children and adults whom I have heard described as “gifted” have put their success down to effort, collaboration with coaches and teachers and also persistence in the face of setbacks. Not a “gift”. Some I am sure would find it insulting.
I believe we are conditioned to believe in talent being innate. The story of the overnight success with “God given talent” is sadly far more fascinating than the individual who developed their talent over many years, honed their practice and learned from each failure. For any John Legend fans out there, check out what he was doing between 1998 and 2004. What on the surface may appear as immediate success is in fact, the result of many years of effort, resilience and learning from failures.
We do it all the time. We see a child who has an amazing voice. “Wow! That child is gifted!” And maybe they are. Maybe they are indeed that supremely talented child. But that child is an exception. Saying that they are gifted is the easy option. As it is to say our friend Mr. Legend is. But it does not do the individual a service, or indeed a great deal of benefit in the long term. They develop a deterministic view of their abilities, and why wouldn’t they? No one ever praised or recognised the time spent practicing and growing their skill. Just the talent itself. Those who have a fixed mind-set impressed upon them often plateau at an early age. Why? Many of us have encountered that individual who was amazing as a youth, but never quite realised their potential. Often there is valid reason. But sometimes we could dig a little deeper, and ask, why did they quit?
That easy option of praise also harms the onlooker. The child who witnessed such awesome ability, but then heard that the holder of the voice was in fact “gifted”. “Phew,” says the onlooker. “I don’t even need to try now. That kid is gifted. I just don’t have their talent.”
Now imagine the difference if you give everyone in that scenario a growth mind-set. “Wow! What a voice! You must have practiced?” The “gifted” child now has to reflect upon their path to success. Maybe they will say “No, not really…” and maybe that is so. But we all know that if that continues, then it won’t be long before people stop saying “Wow!” Reflection will do them good, and in time, they will see the true path to their success. “Yes, I did practice, I do scales every day, and my music teacher is getting me to really focus on my breathing.” The onlooker sits there, a tangible path to success laying in their lap, while finding inspiration in the success of another. “I can do that!” Both children, now with a growth mind-set see effort as the path to mastery and as a result, reach ever-higher levels of achievement.
Obviously, one’s mind-set changes from time to time, situation to situation and can often depend upon our mood. What is important is that we recognise these two distinct mind-sets and reflect upon the language we use when speaking to children. At this stage of cognitive plasticity, the mind-set we impress upon children can shape the thinkers and indeed the people they become.
The language I speak of can be relatively simple. In part two, I will speak about the importance of a simple three letter word.
In 2005, having previously not been a sportsperson, my mother decided that she would take up golf. She was a complete novice, and earned a rather mean nickname in our house due to her lack of ability. Looking back now, I do remember one word standing out as she learned the game. It was said again and again. The word was “yet”. “I haven’t hit the ball straight yet.” “I can’t get the ball out of a bunker, yet.” “I haven’t got a par yet” “I haven’t had a good score, yet.” “I haven’t got my handicap down, yet.” If you remove the word “yet” from those sentences, it completely changes them. Read them one after another without it and it sounds like the reasoning one would give right as they quit.
The word “yet” in itself embodies the growth mind-set. By recognising the things you cannot do, while also acknowledging that someday, you can achieve them, you leave yourself open to so much learning and growth. My mother’s mind-set would extend to music. In 2007 she decided to join the brass band. “I can’t play any notes.” “I haven’t figured out the buttons.” “I can’t read the sheet music.” “I haven’t played in a concert.” Those statements seem quite negative, don’t they? Now put the word “yet” after each one. She did.
Whatever changed in my mother at that time was not a realisation that she was actually a talented golfer and musician (she wasn’t). In the years since, she has proven to be the best golfer in our house and has represented her club many times, winning enough competitions to furnish five houses with stemware. She learned to play the tenor horn and plays regularly in concerts, even competitions, with the Brass Band. She is still learning, still improving, still using the word “yet”.
This article is not a tribute to my mother. It is about the effect that the word “yet” had on our household. Such a simple little word. I’m not going to lie and say that all of a sudden it made us believe that anything and everything was possible. It did not. What it did do was it brought challenges to light and kept the door open on them being achieved. By being open and acknowledging the things she could not do, it made everybody else more comfortable about the things that they could not do. Pass a driving test? Sit an interview? Learn a new skill?
Every household, every classroom, has challenges to confront. Things that right now we cannot do, and things we do not know. By using the word “yet” we open ourselves to new learning, new skills. By using it visibly as adults, we show children that it is alright not to know. It is alright not to be able to do something. After that, dialogue can begin and we can discuss these challenges. We can collaborate to come up with strategies to achieve our aims and overcome our challenges.
Surrounding our children in a culture of yet shows them that we do not fear the things we cannot do, or the things we do not know. We can model the process by which we overcome each challenge and use the word “yet” to keep the door open for the next one. I understand that admitting the things you don’t know can be difficult. My take is that as an adult, we can fake it. We can manufacture the situation and model the process. The concept is more important than the detail.
Often as a teacher we hear children say “I can’t do it!” and “I don’t know!” How different those phrases are when followed with that three letter word. There are many ways that we as teachers help and encourage a growth mind-set in the children at school. We are constantly learning and improving ourselves. The more we model this to the children, and the more visible it is for them, the more likely they are to adopt their own culture of yet.
This article is written by
Peter White, Teacher at Hartland International School.