Guest Post: What I Learned at Book Club

What I Learned at Book Club, by Rebecca March (INFS Faculty)

Last semester, I facilitated the C.T.L. book club for Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.  Grit, in this case, refers to certain personality traits often tied to success:  perseverance, internal motivation, conscientiousness, self-control, and the ability to delay gratification.  Discussions about grit’s place in education often focus on whether or not these “gritty” personality traits are fixed or flexible.  Tough takes his cues from positive psychologists, arguing that these traits, as well as intelligence, can be developed and improved with diligence and attention.

“How Children Succeed” had been on my “to read” list for some time before I joined the book club.  I’d read articles and blog posts about grit for years, and I wanted to know more.  Before reading Tough’s book I was set, uncomfortably,in the “fixed” intelligence camp.  I wanted to believe things like persistence and internal motivation could be taught and improved.  I wanted this to be true for my students, for my own children and for myself.  But I was skeptical.

Reading this book convinced me I’d been wrong about the futility of trying to teach my kids and students to be more engaged, motivated and excited learners.   If Tough and the positive psychologists are right, the way we think about our own intelligence and character traits have a lot to do with how well we do at school and work.  Evidence suggests that kids protected from failure and risk and raised to believe they are innately brilliant lack the same grit and perseverance as kids raised in stressful, neglectful households.  Both sets of kids receive messages that intelligence, character, and life situations are set in stone, and this idea of fixed traits can hurt both sets of children.  People that believe they can improve their intelligence and learn to be conscientious tend to do so.  They look at obstacles as challenges instead of threats, they’re more prone to work through difficult and lengthy problems, and they’re motivated by “mastery” not “goals.”

It turns out that my doubt in the plasticity of personality had been causing me to do a few things wrong.  I’m guilty as a parent of praising intelligence and outcome instead of effort. I’ve worked hard to keep my kids away from obstacles and potential failures.  I’m guilty as a teacher of not demanding enough accountability from my students.  I protect them from failure just like I protect my own kids.  Since I’ve had an idea of grit being fixed, I’ve allowed my students to remain at a certain level of helplessness, subliminally believing they wouldn’t be able to properly rise to the occasion, turn things in on time and work harder than they were used to.  I thought that if I helped them enough, and gave them enough slack, they would succeed.  I believed this would eventually lead to the love of learning I wanted my students to have.  I wasn’t considering that they might not see themselves as the “smart” type or even as the “student” type.   I hadn’t checked in with students regarding their beliefs about their own abilities. In my Information Literacy and Research Skills classes, I challenged students to change their minds about research, but not about themselves as researchers.

Luckily, our book group was about much more than just reading.  We had an engaged, proactive, thoughtful team that contributed anecdotes, links to interesting resources, and great ideas about how to make real changes.  I learned as much from my colleagues as I did from Tough’s book.  We were fortunate to include among our ranks an instructor from the MCTC math department working with the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway method, designed to incorporate “grit” skills into math education.   Statway strives to cultivate a “productive persistence” mindset in developmental math students.  Statway instructors assess student beliefs about math (which tend to be fixed in an “I’m not good at math” mode), and then address their concerns and work to change these fixed negative mindsets as part of instruction. Students in the Statway classes last semester showed marked improvement in interest, understanding, grades and attendance.  Without my book club colleague, I might never had the chance to hear about a real-world, right-next-door example of the ideas in Tough’s book.  I’ll be incorporating some of the Statway ideas into my own classes this spring.

The “How Children Succeed” book club provided so much more than I anticipated.  I knew I’d enjoy reading the book.  I didn’t foresee the implications of the material.  I’ve changed my mind about the fixed nature of intelligence and personality, and that has changed how I want to teach, how I want to parent, and how I approach tasks myself.  It’s daunting and exciting.  Recently, my daughter and I were working on a craft project that involved reading directions and trying to place rubber bands in a complicated pattern on a loom.  I’ve been consciously working on praising hard work and determination rather than results.  We were on our fourth try with the same pattern, taking rubber bands off the loom and starting again.  My daughter looked up at me and said “Mom, I think we’re actually learning more by not getting it right than if we got it the first time.”  She wanted to try again.  Now, let’s see if I can get my students to feel the same way.

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