You know what continues to upset me in education?
It’s not how we label kids (although that is pretty high up there on my big list).
But, it is how kids label themselves.
I’m starting to see it with my own kids. I’ve got four, but two are in school right now (4th grade and 1st grade). It’s almost natural for them to start saying things like, “I’m not that good at spelling, Dad”, or “I can’t do that math homework, but I’m good at the social studies.”
I saw it with students when I was teaching middle school, and when I was teaching high school.
They would come into class with labels for themselves. How well they could write. Whether or not they considered themselves a reader. So many believed that they were not creative. Many just thought they were not learners, not good at this game of school.
On the flip side, I also had plenty of students come through my classroom who labeled themselves as “smart” and good at the game of school.
They were often the ones who would ace a test, but be confused with how a project-based experience was going to be assessed. They too labeled themselves as a specific type of learner, and it had negative consequences in a different way.
Jo Boaler, the Stanford professor and author of Mathematical Mindsets, talks about this in a recent Atlantic article:
People are born with some innate cognitive differences, but those differences are eclipsed by early achievement, Boaler argues. When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood.
As the popularity of “Growth Mindset” has flourished over the past few years, we’ve seen many articles, books, and resources come out about how kids should be taught to have a growth mindset, over a fixed mindset.
Yet, a lot of the talk around this switch in mindset is focused on what you believe will happen, versus the actual results.
In my recent podcast conversation with Trevor Ragan (founder of TrainUgly.com) we talk about all things “growth mindset” and the important distinction that happens when we see personally that skills are built, not born.
Skills Are Built, Not Born
Early on in Trevor’s life, he had a huge goal. It was one of those big, hairy, audacious goals that most people believe are “good to have ” but probably will never happen.
Trevor believed it would happen. He wanted to play basketball for Duke University.
He worked extremely hard for this goal and got so close, making the practice squad at Duke before ultimately not making the team.
In our conversation, Trevor talked about how this is a real turning point. Many of us have goals of what we want to accomplish, but most of us aren’t sure what to do if it doesn’t happen the way we thought it would happen.
Trevor took this as an opportunity to dive deep into how he (and we) could train better, learn better, and focus on growth over a one-time goal.
His research four Train Ugly led him to realize that most everything IS a skill. Skills are what our lives and work are built upon.
Friendliness is a skill.
Public speaking is a skill.
Math is a skill.
Bowling. Leadership. Grit.
Skill. Skill. Skill.
The idea that we are in control our abilities is empowering to some and is the driving force behind every great learner.
To others, not so much.
Wrestling with the notion that our abilities (or lack thereof) are in our control can be unsettling, so many of us choose to hide behind stories.
It’s easy and safe to say:
“I am just not a math person”
“I’m not creative”
“I just can’t shoot”
“She is so gifted”
“He’s a natural”
These limiting beliefs are all stories. Stories that say skills and attitudes are born. That our shortcomings are not our fault, that great performers are the lucky ones, and that we just missed out at the talent lottery.
They are dishonest and they are a total load BS.
It’s real and it’s honest to say:
“I choose not to do the work necessary to grow my math skills”
“I haven’t put myself in enough situations to build my creativity”
“I usually choose instant gratification over doing what matters”
“I am not the best shooter, yet”
“She must have practiced a lot”
“He’s obviously worked like crazy to develop that skill”
The fact is: we ALL have the tools to grow and get really, really good at absolutely anything that we want – as long as we believe that we can and as long as we do the work.
If skills are built, and not born, then we have a serious role to play as educators and parents.
Our job is not to “prepare” students for something, but instead to help students “prepare themselves” for anything.
Part of this is putting students in authentic learning experiences and situations where they can problem-solve, critical think, adapt and create in meaningful ways.
The other piece is building up the right mindset to live as a life-long learner who believes we can become better at almost anything we set our path on (and have the work to back it up).
The Jungle Tiger Mindset vs The Zoo Tiger Mindset
The video above breaks down what it means to learn like a Jungle Tiger. In short, we have to put ourselvs in an environment that requires growth in order to grow!
As Trevor puts it: We love the comfort inside the cage. We shy away from the random and unknown in favor of the easy and the safe. We love doing things that we’re already good at and absolutely HATE the things that we’re not. We live like zoo tigers and then expect to survive in the wild. Sorry – Just ask our friend Sam, it just doesn’t work like that.
In order to grow, in order to learn, we HAVE to get out of the cage. We have to get out of our developmental comfort zones and into the wild. This means trying new things, working on your weaknesses, finding a better job, and speaking up in class.
Labeling Ourselves As Learners (Jungle Tigers) From An Early Age
When I hear my two kids, or the kids I teach, or the adults I work with say, “I’m not good at _____” – what I’m really hearing is that they have a personal limited belief about their skills in this area.
This label has either come from themselves (personal reflection and feedback), from others (outside feedback) or a combination of both.
We have a huge role as educators and parents in promoting the notion that learning may be challenging, difficult, and time-consuming. But, by putting ourselves in positions to struggle and grow, we will, in fact, get better at any skill.
This does not mean we can all become a singer on “The Voice” or an NBA Player, but we will get better. The skill of singing or basketball will improve.
Trevor’s story is one that speaks to this. He did not become that Duke University basketball player, but he was a much better basketball player and more skilled by putting in the time, work ethic, and commitment to improving that skill.
We all can become better at any skill when we break through the walls that are in our way.
Jo Boaler talks about this impact in a subject like Math (and how it functions similarly to basketball or singing):
The idea of a “math person” or a math gene is a primary reason for so much math nihilism, math failure, and “math trauma,” as Boaler called it on Monday. When kids get the idea that they “aren’t math people,” they start a downward trajectory, and their career options shrink immediately and substantially. There is also the common idea of a wall in math: People learn math until they hit a wall where they just can’t keep up. That wall may be trigonometry, and it may be advanced calculus, and it may be calculating a tip. In no other discipline but math are people so given to thinking, instead of I need to practice, just Well, I’m not good.
“Big news,” Boaler said during her lecture, “there is no wall.”
It seems the only walls are the ones that we artificially construct in our “zoo tiger” life. The life where we shy away from doing the hard things, the things that challenge us and force productive struggle.
Instead, when we opt for the Jungle Tiger life, we are not only believing that skills are built (not born), we are living it out every day and seeing the results for ourselves.
That, to me, seems like a life worth living. A life where the process of learning, the productive struggle, is just as rewarding as the goal we may or may not ever achieve.