"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”-
As always, I am a little behind in setting my thoughts to computer screen, and thus what should have been my culminating post for the week becomes the second of what will now be a four part reflection on a growth mindset and grit. The first piece in the series focused on Pursuing a Growth Mindset, and was more a response to an article by Alfie Kohn from the New York Times on May 24, 2014 entitled Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easily. This time I am reflecting on David Brooks New York Times piece from June 16, 2014 entitled Learning Is No Easy Task and is based on a blog post by Scott H Young in a on growth.
In his article, Brooks describes a series of growth paradigms. He begins by noting that growth is not linear, as we often think it is, but rather comes in a variety of forms that rately proceed from point A to B in a structured consistent manner. One of the challenges in education, for eternity, has been balancing this non-linear growth with the linear outline of courses...Today we are going to study the Civil War, next week will be Westward Expansion, and in two weeks we will be looking at the Second Industrial Period in US History...even if Johnny and Suzie are still stuck with why the North couldn't just let the South leave and avoid all the blood shed after the unit ends. Our linear path, does not often leave us with a model that embraces the different structures that Brooks describes in his article.
The first structure that Brooks describes is that of logarithmic learning, and this is the type that I want to focus on the most. This is the learning that takes place when we take up a new sport or activity, like running. Brooks, citing Young, notes that in the initial stages you make a lot of progress quickly, but then as you grow in the activity, your growth slows down and the breakthroughs become fewer and further between each other. Those initial runs, while hard, lead very quickly to improvements in endurance and technique and to large drops in time when you race.
This spring when I began running again, my first 5K I was only able to run 2 miles of it, and that by running the first mile, walking the second mile, and then running to the finish where there were spectators again (yes vanity is a motivating factor), and it took over 45 minutes. My next run, less than a month later and after I had only been running for 10 days and had yet to go over 1.5 miles at a time, I was able to run 2.5 miles of the race by running the first 1.5 miles, then walking .5, and running the final mile again. My time also dropped to just below 40 minutes. That is very strong growth in a short period of time. As I progress, and keep adding distance each week, I feel myself getting stronger, but my ability to drop time is likely to be a lot less pronounced and eventually I will plateau somewhere around a 27-30 minute 5K. Still, great growth from where I started, but in order to drop further below, I will need to change my training more, vary my run distances and focus on technique much more than I do now, and then to only get small amounts of growth.
Much like when I coached swimming and our new swimmers would drop time nearly every meet, and drop a lot of it, while our experienced swimmers would need to focus for weeks on end on very tiny adjustments to drop a few tenths of a second, the discipline to keep at it when the task becomes harder requires a different mind set from those first weeks when results come easier.
Brooks then goes on to describe exponential growth, where you need to put in Malcoom Gladwell's 10,000 hours before you can truly master the skill. Learning paths that resemble a staircase where you grow a little and then have a period of stagnation followed by another period of growth. Learning that acts like waves lapping at the beach, they come in and leave a little residue of knowledge, then recede, then return, to leave more and solidify what came before. Finally, he describes the valley shaped learning curve, where you have to go down before you can rise up. He likens this to the immigrant experience in America, but for many of our students, immigrant or not, this is the path that they often take when coming to school, and it is in the depths of those valleys, when support is not offered that we often lose them for good.
Brooks concludes by noting that "Thinking about growth structures reminds you that really successful people often have the ability to completely flip their mental dispositions" and that "the crucial thing is not what traits you intrinsically possess. The crucial questions are: What is the structure of your domain? Where are you now on the progress curve? How are you interacting with the structures of the field?"
In describing these differing growth structures and asking these final questions, Brooks speaks of the nature of having a growth mindset, of being able to recognize that in our students growth occurs in different ways, at different times, and along different paths. As educators, we need to not only recognize that this occurs in our learners not merely from the start of their school lives, but within each year and within each course. We also need to plan for the varying types of growth and shape the path of learning to best support our learners where ever they may be on that path. For logarithmic growth we need to make sure that they have the discipline to continue to work hard in those initial euphoric stages when the learning comes easy, and then the growth mindset to continue to persevere when the learning becomes slower as the skills needed to improve become harder to master. In many ways, it is through this shaping of the path that we might best help our students. By giving them confidence in their ability to learn early in the process we will be able to give them encouragement to continue on. By creating a growth mindset in them, and supporting their efforts, when the tasks become daunting we can supply them with the fortitude to master deeper levels of learning and make those minor adjustments in their learning process to find significant breakthroughs. The ability of us as educators to cultivate in our students the type of grit and mindset that allows for not 10,000 failures, but rather 10,000 insights into what might work, may be the most important innovation we can make as a profession.