Introverts are students who are bright and capable of communicating, but class discussions feel unnatural or uncomfortable for them. Sharing via technology is more comfortable, and it can benefit all students since everyone is heard. Here are a few ideas for using tech tools to draw out these learners:
Backchannel. There are a few platforms, like TodaysMeet and Backchannel Chat that allow your classes to backchannel, or have an online discussion while watching a video or presentation in the classroom. Participation is as easy as typing and hitting “send” so it feels less threatening and unnatural to an introvert. The transcript of the chat can also be saved as collaborative class notes. Here is an example from a 9th grade class that watched a YouTube video on the Whiskey Rebellion recently.
Games and Formative Tools. I often use Socrative, a student response tool, to pose questions to my classes. With Socrative, they can submit their answers anonymously and then, as a class, vote on the best one. Often the introverts are selected as winners because they’ve put more thought and depth into their answers.
Another fun formative game app is Kahoot!. Either I create activities or students create them for each other. Kahoot gets my classroom energized with music, bright colors and a little healthy competition. Again, participation doesn’t require anyone to speak out loud, although they often do end up cheering for the winner at the end.
Digital Bulletin Board. Students can use an app like Padlet to post text, links, video clips, images, or text for crowdsourcing their ideas. Here is a great example of a bulletin board about women in the Civil War that my tenth-grade students made using a combination of quotes, images found online, and their own drawings and words. Again, introverts won’t have to speak out in front of the whole class to participate in a powerful way.
Strategies like these do more than engage all learners. They also send a message to introverts that their teacher understands they have a lot to contribute when given the right opportunity.
Kerry Gallagher is a technology integration specialist at St. Johns Preparatory School in Danvers, Mass., a one-to-one iPad school serving 1,500 students grades 6-12. She taught middle and high school history in bring-your-own-device environments for 13 years. Gallagher is well known for her paperless collaborative classroom model which thrived on project-based learning. She also helped her students create Rockets Help Desk, a far-reaching student-driven technology integration program in her previous school district. Gallgher received the 2014 Yale-Lynn Hall Teacher Action Research Prize for her submission on the use of mobile devices for a paperless public school classroom and is a 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator. Gallagher has been a conference presenter on the effective use of technology in the classroom at Harvard Law School, Yale School of Management, and Stanford University. In addition to EdSurge, she writes for Smarter Schools Project and ConnectSafely. She holds a B.A. in Politics from Saint Anselm College and J.D. from Massachusetts School of Law.
Jewelbots hopes to bring the old-school friendship bracelet into the iPhone age and teach girls to code with its smart jewelry.
The team behind the Kickstarter project — which has already raised double the $30,000 goal — has built an open-source wearable for teen and tween girls to encourage them to learn coding through basic logic.
The bracelets have four LEDs, a vibration motor and Bluetooth connectivity. They connect with each other to form a mesh network, which means a phone isn’t required to communicate with friends.
Out of the box, a Jewelbot can detect nearby friends and send secret messages, but with simple logic and a few taps it can be extended to do a lot more.
Extending the bracelet is straightforward, using a smartphone and a “if this then that” style workflow. It can be programmed, for example, to light up when a specific friend is nearby.
The bracelet can also be plugged into a computer via USB and developed on directly to create further extensions, using the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE).
The developers designed the project by working with groups of teen girls, who gave feedback on aesthetics and functionality.
The team has created two phases of prototypes already and plans a final round before testing and manufacturing begins later this year.
Jewelbots is the brainchild of CEO, Sara Chipps, and COO, Brooke Moreland, who set out to “inspire a deep curiosity and lasting love for computers and programming” using the devices.
The pair say they hope to get girls to “[open] their minds to science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] at an age when many lose interest.
I love the idea of Jewelbots. It’s a tangible way to pique girls’ interest in coding and offers a path to getting them hooked. I know from first-hand experience that there’s nothing quite like coding something that can be touched and used in the real world.
The company also hosted ‘Bring Your Daughter To Hack‘ Events in New York and San Francisco las month, where kids were able to build their own wearables.
A single Jewelbot starts at $59 with a pack of two costing $89. They won’t ship until March 2016 and reward tiers are limited, so you’ll have to get in fast if you’re interested.
JULY 13, 2015 6:00 AM July 13, 2015 6:00 am46Comments
Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it. And as discussed in last week’s column, digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.
This sad conclusion of many experts in child development has prompted them to suggest ways parents can prevent or rectify the problem before undue damage occurs.
“There’s nothing about this that can’t be fixed,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist. “And the sooner, the better.”
Excessive use of computer games among young people in China appears to be taking an alarming turn and may have particular relevance for American parents whose children spend many hours a day focused on electronic screens. The documentary “Web Junkie,” to be shown next Monday on PBS, highlights the tragic effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing for dozens of hours at a time often without breaks to eat, sleep or even use the bathroom. Many come to view the real world as fake.
Chinese doctors consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder and have established rehabilitation centers where afflicted youngsters are confined for months of sometimes draconian therapy, completely isolated from all media, the effectiveness of which remains to be demonstrated.
While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.
In its 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media,” the American Academy of Pediatrics cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but computers, tablets and cellphones are gradually taking over.
“Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media.
Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.
Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play,” the academy recommends.
Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Those who watch a lot of simulated violence, common in many popular video games, can become immune to it, more inclined to act violently themselves and less likely to behave empathetically, said Dimitri A. Christakis of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
In preparing an honors thesis at the University of Rhode Island, Kristina E. Hatch asked children about their favorite video games. A fourth-grader cited “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” because “there’s zombies in it, and you get to kill them with guns and there’s violence … I like blood and violence.”
Teenagers who spend a lot of time playing violent video games or watching violent shows on television have been found to be more aggressive and more likely to fight with their peers and argue with their teachers, according to a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
Schoolwork can suffer when media time infringes on reading and studying. And the sedentary nature of most electronic involvement — along with televised ads for high-calorie fare — can foster the unhealthy weights already epidemic among the nation’s youth.
Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.
“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”
Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.
Out in public, Dr. Steiner-Adair added, “children have to know that life is fine off the screen. It’s interesting and good to be curious about other people, to learn how to listen. It teaches them social and emotional intelligence, which is critical for success in life.”
Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important, a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed for many jobs and other endeavors later in life.
Texting looms as the next national epidemic, with half of teenagers sending 50 or more text messages a day and those aged 13 through 17 averaging 3,364 texts a month, Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center found in a 2012 study. An earlier Pew study found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts a night after they get into bed, adding to the sleep deprivation so common and harmful to them. And as Ms. Hatch pointed out, “as children have more of their communication through electronic media, and less of it face to face, they begin to feel more lonely and depressed.”
There can be physical consequences, too. Children can develop pain in their fingers and wrists, narrowed blood vessels in their eyes (the long-term consequences of which are unknown), and neck and back pain from being slumped over their phones, tablets and computers.
This is the first of two columns on electronic media use by children and adolescents. Next week: Parents’ role in children’s use of electronics.
Academically overbearing parents are doing great harm. So says Bill Deresiewicz in his groundbreaking 2014 manifesto Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. “[For students] haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure,” writes Deresiewicz, “the cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”
Those whom Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep” I call the “existentially impotent.” From 2006 to 2008, I served on Stanford University’s mental health task force, which examined the problem of student depression and proposed ways to teach faculty, staff, and students to better understand, notice, and respond to mental health issues. As dean, I saw a lack of intellectual and emotional freedom—this existential impotence—behind closed doors. The “excellent sheep” were in my office. Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives.
In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed theyhad to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano,and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, “My parents know what’s best for me.”
One kid’s father threatened to divorce her mother if the daughter didn’t major in economics. It took this student seven years to finish instead of the usual four, and along the way the father micromanaged his daughter’s every move, including requiring her to study off campus at her uncle’s every weekend. At her father’s insistence, the daughter went to see one of her econ professors during office hours one weekday. She forgot to call her father to report on how that went, and when she returned to her dorm later that evening her uncle was in the dorm lobby looking visibly uncomfortable about having to “force” her to call her dad to update him. Later this student told me, “I pretty much had a panic attack from the lack of control in my life.” But an economics major she was indeed. And the parents got divorced anyway.
In 2013 the news was filled with worrisome statistics about the mental health crisis on college campuses, particularly the number of students medicated for depression. Charlie Gofen, the retired chairman of the board at the Latin School of Chicago, a private school serving about 1,100 students, emailed the statistics off to a colleague at another school and asked, “Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” The colleague quickly replied, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale. They figure that the kid can straighten the emotional stuff out in his/her 20’s, but no one can go back and get the Yale undergrad degree.”
Here are the statistics to which Charlie Gofen was likely alluding:
In a 2013 survey of college counseling center directors, 95 percent said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus, 70 percent said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year, and they reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs.
In 2013 the American College Health Association surveyed close to 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses about their health. When asked about their experiences, at some point over the past 12 months:
84.3 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
60.5 percent felt very sad
57.0 percent felt very lonely
51.3 percent felt overwhelming anxiety
8.0 percent seriously considered suicide
The 153 schools surveyed included campuses in all 50 states, small liberal arts colleges and large research universities, religious institutions and nonreligious, from the small to medium-sized to the very the large. The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere. The increase in mental health problems among college students may reflect the lengths to which we push kids toward academic achievement, but since they are happening to kids who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier, they appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools but from some facet of American childhood itself.
As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?
You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.
In 2010, psychology professor Neil Montgomery of Keene State College in New Hampshire surveyed 300 college freshmen nationwide and found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious. “[S]tudents who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents—so-called ‘free rangers’—the effects were reversed,” Montgomery’s study found. A 2011 study by Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga looking at more than 300 students found that students with “hovering” or “helicopter” parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.
Helicopter parenting has crippled American teenagers. Here’s how to fix it.
Dan Griffin says that the key is figuring out how to get kids to tune into their own motivation, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.
A 2012 study of 438 college students reported in the Journal of Adolescence found “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood … by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.” A 2013 study of 297 college students reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ “basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.” And a 2014 study from researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder is the first to correlate a highly structured childhood with less executive function capabilities. Executive function is our ability to determine which goal-directed actions to carry out and when and is a skill set lacking in many kids with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of them when it comes to life skills yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them.
Karen Able is a staff psychologist at a large public university in the Midwest. (Her name has been changed here because of the sensitive nature of her work.) Based on her clinical experience, Able says, “Overinvolved parenting is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who can’t negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making.”
When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.
When seemingly perfectly healthy but overparented kids get to college and have trouble coping with the various new situations they might encounter—a roommate who has a different sense of “clean,” a professor who wants a revision to the paper but won’t say specifically what is “wrong,” a friend who isn’t being so friendly anymore, a choice between doing a summer seminar or service project but not both—they can have real difficulty knowing how to handle the disagreement, the uncertainty, the hurt feelings, or the decision-making process. This inability to cope—to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision—can become a problem unto itself.
Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege,says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.
Levine said that when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are. In short, it deprives them of the chance to be, well, human. Although we overinvolve ourselves to protect our kids and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news: Kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me.
As Able told me:
When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well. They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety.
Neither Karen Able nor I is suggesting that grown kids should never call their parents. The devil is in the details of the conversation. If they call with a problem or a decision to be made, do we tell them what to do? Or do we listen thoughtfully, ask some questions based on our own sense of the situation, then say, “OK. So how do you think you’re going to handle that?”
Knowing what could unfold for our kids when they’re out of our sight can make us parents feel like we’re in straitjackets. What else are we supposed to do? If we’re not there for our kids when they are away from home and bewildered, confused, frightened, or hurting, then who will be?
Here’s the point—and this is so much more important than I realized until rather recently when the data started coming in: The research shows that figuring out for themselves is a critical element to people’s mental health. Your kids have to be there for themselves. That’s a harder truth to swallow when your kid is in the midst of a problem or worse, a crisis, but taking the long view, it’s the best medicine for them.
In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.
In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different.
The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching, but one of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The rationale is that most of what students will be expected to read in college and at work will be informational, rather than literary, and that American students have not been well prepared to read those texts.
At first, many English teachers and other defenders of literature feared that schools would respond by cutting the classics. That has happened, to some extent. But most districts have managed to preserve much of the classroom canon while adding news articles, textbook passages, documentaries, maps and other material that students read or watch alongside the literature, sometimes in strained pairings.
“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”
The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent. Many educators say the shift was necessary, particularly in elementary school, where students encountered relatively little nonfiction. The change is seen as particularly helpful to boys, who lag behind girls in reading and tend to be more interested in nonfiction.
Schools generally choose their own reading materials. For nonfiction, however, the Common Core standards specify that students should read certain “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions. Many high schools have added these to American literature classes.
They have also added contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate. And along with “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, students might be assigned readings about Shakespeare’s life or a contemporary magazine article about teenage suicide.
At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.
The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.
Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher, said he found that struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.
But Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader and an avid reader, said that while she appreciated that nonfiction could provide historical context for a novel, she got tired sometimes of the short informational texts she was assigned.
“We do so much nonfiction,” Karma said. “I just want to read my book.”
Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, said her son had a similar reaction last year, when his fifth-grade class in Dix Hills, N.Y., began the year by doing a painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For those who have not been in the fifth grade recently, the declaration was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.)
On the ninth day, she said, her son got into the car after school and started to sob.
Ms. Yaris said she thought the lesson, which is part of a curriculum suggested by New York State and used widely around the country, was not a good interpretation of the Common Core. “If you look at the standards and what they say,” she said, “nowhere in there does it say, ‘Kill the love of reading.’ ”
Susan Pimentel, who led the team that wrote the language arts standards, said she thought that reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was valuable, in part because it contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students’ reading comprehension skills.
Reading the G.I. Bill along with “The Odyssey,” however, gave her pause.
“It does sound curious to me,” she said, while adding that she would want to see the unit itself. “There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.”
If some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and abstruse, other choices — like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading— seem based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in, said Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University.
Without guidance from the Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts “very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”
Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.
“There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department,” Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)
Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.
“I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn’t leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security,” she said.
Some teachers, too, said they did not mind cutting back on some canonical works of literature to replace them with contemporary nonfiction that engaged students more.
Angela Gunter, the dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, Ky., said she assigned a “Beowulf” excerpt to her 12th graders that was shorter than the one she used to assign, to make time for them to read a nonfiction book of their choosing later in the year.
She said the decision was driven partly by the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction and partly by her recognition that students just were not that interested in “Beowulf.”
“If we had to get rid of some fiction,” Ms. Gunter said, “that was one that I was willing to part with.”
ASPEN, Colo.—At whatever age smart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I’m smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think:Oh no, I’m not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
“Mistakes grow your brain,” as the professor of mathematics education at Stanford University Jo Boaler put it on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Atlantic. I wondered why, then, my brain is not so distended that it spills out of my ears and nose. I should have to stuff it back inside like a sleeping bag, and I should have to carry Q-tips around during social events as stuffing implements. Boaler notes, more eloquently, that at least a small part of the forebrain called the thalamus can appreciably grow after periods of the sort of cognitive stimulation involved in mistake-making. What matters for improving performance is that a person is challenged, which requires a mindset that is receptive to being challenged—if not actively seeking out challenge and failure. And that may be the most important thing a teacher can impart.
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. The simple and innocent praising of a smart kid feeds an insidious problem that some researchers track all the way up to gender inequality in STEM careers.
So ending the reign of the S word, as Boaler calls it, is a grand mission. “It’s imperative that we don’t praise kids by telling them they’re smart,” she argued in a Monday lecture to an audience that received her message with many knowing nods. “You can tell kids that they’ve done something fantastic, but don’t label them as smart.”
The idea of a fixed mindset, in which people are smart or not smart, stands in contrast to a growth mindset, in which people become intelligent and knowledgeable through practice. In her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck described the two: People with growth mindsets believe that the harder they work, the smarter they get. And the subtleties of the ways in which we praise kids are related to the mindsets those kids develop.
The group most damaged by fixed-mindset thinking is high-achieving girls, Boaler argues, because it’s girls who are told by society that they probably won’t be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s there are in those fields.
“When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory,” Boaler said. 100 percent is not an ideal score. When kids come home from school and announce that they got everything right on their school work, Dweck advises parents to offer some sympathy: Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to learn.
Speaking of percentages, math is a good example of the importance of avoiding the fixed mindset. 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.”
With that, she advanced her Powerpoint and to a slide bearing a rendering of the Kool-Aid Man busting through a brick wall.
“I didn’t know who this was,” she said. “One of my teammates made this slide. I’ve learned that this is Kool-Aid Man.”