How a School Ditched Awards and Assemblies to Refocus on Kids and Learning

When Paula Gosal took over as principal of the Chilliwack Middle School, she walked smack into the middle of a long-standing debate among the staff over awards. It wasn’t exactly a rumble that Gosal was tossed into so abruptly in the fall of 2016. Most of the teachers at this school for seventh- through ninth-graders in British Columbia had read the literature on awards, and were looking for feedback and support from their new principal. The majority wanted to do away with the school’s awards and awards assemblies, and needed the backing of their principal to make it happen.

“I did not have to be persuaded,” Gosal said. She called for a vote, and the staff unanimously decided to stop handing out awards.

Though data on the extent of school award-giving is scarce, the practice of delivering them is so customary that the Common Application to U.S. colleges includes spaces to report honors and other forms of recognition. Alongside their ubiquity, however, is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science—and also one of the most ignored,” wrote Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pursuit of the trinket or prize extinguishes what might have been a flicker of internal interest in a subject, suffocating the genuine sources of motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this,’ ” said Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Awards are that much worse than rewards, Kohn added, because they are simply prizes made artificially limited.

For the majority of students who don’t receive public honors, awards ceremonies spur boredom, anger or resentment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.

“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers,” Kohn said.

Understanding the intellectual rationale for doing away with awards, as Gosal and her staff did, made their decision a lot easier. But there were other reasons. Teachers at Chilliwack bad been bothered by the exclusionary nature of the awards ceremonies; they noticed the same students and families being recognized year after year. As well, Gosal had been troubled in the past by the ugly encounters she’d witnessed among teachers who had argued for or against a particular student receiving an award. “My experience of watching teachers debate over children was unsettling,” Gosal said.

She and her staff also sought to change what motivated kids to work, so that they’d learn for the sake of it rather than for a prize. And they all had begun to realize that student life outside the classroom was just as rich as it was inside, and that those endeavors were just as worthy of notice.

Instead of being selected by the school for achievements in pre-determined categories, students were able to recognize their own achievements. (Courtesy of Paula Gosal) (Courtesy of Paula Gosal)

In May of 2017, Gosal told parents in her weekly newsletter that the June awards ceremony was off. Instead, the school would be hosting a success showcase for all students. “I wanted to marry the two worlds, who you are inside of school and who you are outside,” Gosal explained. The showcase would be more than a talent show, she added. It’s “this is who I am,” she said.

About 200 parents and children walked through the school halls on the night of the showcase. Everywhere, the students displayed their unique skills and interests: some danced, played a jazz set or sang. Others dribbled and scored on the basketball court, or demonstrated knot-tying, or dueled one another at a gaming station they had set up especially for the showcase. One child with training in professional dog handling showed her prowess to the crowd, and scores of others displayed their art, poetry and other creative work in the school gallery. Plastered throughout the school were one-page statements every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of ___.”

Chris Wejr, the principal of James Hill Elementary School in British Columbia, eliminated awards and the ceremonies that go with them after talking with teachers and parents about the school’s practices and mission. He had wondered if the regular “student-of-the-month” assembly violated the everyday message of community they were attempting to build; the award seemed to be suggesting that “we’re one community—but you’re a little bit better,” he said. This approach also seemed to contradict the strengths-based model of education they sought to instill, which emphasized each student’s abilities and aptitudes.

“Every single person in school has strengths, skills and talents, and it’s our job to bring them out more,” Wejr said.

Courtesy of Paula Gosal

Together with the staff, they decided that handing out awards neither aligned with their beliefs nor brought out the best in their students—even for the sliver of kids who received awards. “Winners” got the message that product rather than process is what matters in education, Wejr said. “Learning should be the reward,” he added. And the far more plentiful “losers” heard that they weren’t good enough to be spotlighted on stage, or that their unique combination of attributes didn’t truly count.

Wejr replaced the ceremony that called out one student with a series of assemblies that highlighted chunks of fifth-graders, so that by the end of the year every graduating child was honored. Students said they learned more about their peers in the ceremony, Wejr said. And some appreciative parents approached him afterward to say that their child had never been recognized this way before. “If we believe all students can achieve, our practices have to align with that,” he said.

Neither Wejr nor Gosal heard much in the way of criticism from parents or students after they eliminated their school awards. From a population of 575 students, just two parents at Chilliwack Middle School sent emails questioning the decision, and social media channels were quiet. “The ease of the change has been surprising,” Gosal said. Though Wejr heard some grumbling outside the school about the educational system drifting toward mediocrity, he was quick to point out that marks of achievement at James Hill Elementary School have gone up since they eliminated awards.

“It’s not an award at the end of the year that drives achievement,” Wejr said. Excellence comes from a school culture that fosters collaboration and provides opportunities for students to lead, especially in those areas where children have special talents and skills, he added.

When people challenge him about the wisdom of removing school prizes, Wejr asks, “When was the last time you handed out family awards?” If school is an actual community, separating out individuals for special notice makes no sense. School leaders ought to be looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop. He added, “We hope that they continue to develop their best selves for their own benefit—not because someone tells them to or because there’s an award at the end of the year.”

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On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus

The New York Times

A Smith College initiative called “Failing Well” is one of a crop of university programs that aim to help high achievers cope with basic setbacks.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.

“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.

“I came out to my mom, and she asked, ‘Is this until graduation?’” another said.

The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.

“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”

“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”

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Arabia Simeon: “I’m coming from a low income, predominantly African American community where there just aren’t resources. So there was this added pressure of needing to do well.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

This was not a hazing ritual, but part of a formalized program at the women’s college in which participants more accustomed to high test scores and perhaps a varsity letter consent to having their worst setbacks put on wide display.

“It was almost jarring,” said Carrie Lee Lancaster, 20, a rising junior. “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.’”

The presentation is part of a new initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” With workshops on impostor syndrome, discussions on perfectionism, as well as a campaign to remind students that 64 percent of their peers will get (gasp) a B-minus or lower, the program is part of a campuswide effort to foster student “resilience,” to use a buzzword of the moment.

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”

Ms. Simmons would know. She hid her own failure (dropping out of a prestigious scholarship program in her early 20s; told by her college president that she had embarrassed her school) for close to a decade. “For years, I thought it would ruin me,” she said.

Which is why, when students enroll in her program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.

Preoccupied in the 1980s with success at any cost (think Gordon Gekko), the American business world now fetishizes failure, thanks to technology experimentalist heroes like Steve Jobs. But while the idea of “failing upward” has become a badge of honor in the start-up world — with blog posts, TED talks, even industry conferences — students are still focused on conventional metrics of achievement, campus administrators say.

Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.

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Nadia Aman: “My biggest fear was failing my family. Being the first in my family to go to college I didn’t think I was ready to leave home and push myself to a place where I wouldn’t be comfortable.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”

They soon began connecting the dots: between what they were seeing anecdotally — the lack of coping skills — and what mental health data had shown for some time, including, according to the American College Health Association, an increase in depression and anxietyoverwhelming rates of stress and more demand for counseling servicesthan campuses can keep up with.

It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.

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Haven Sandoval: “Not having the money to pay for school supplies is something that constantly worries me. I arrived at Smith with a simple HP laptop that was really only good for writing papers and searching the internet.” CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.

“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”

At the University of Texas, Austin, there is now a free iPhone app, Thrive, that helps students “manage the ups and downs of campus life” through short videos and inspirational quotes. The University of California, Los Angeles has what it calls a head of student resilience on staff. While at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavor, with no requirements that the idea be viable or work. “We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure,” the program’s news release states.

“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.”

And so, universities are engaging in a kind of remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.

“I think colleges are revamping what they believe it means to be well educated — that it’s not about your ability to write a thesis statement, but to bounce back when you’re told it doesn’t measure up,” said Ms. Simmons, the author of two books on girls’ self-esteem who is publishing a third, “Enough as She Is,” next year. “Especially now, with the current economy, students need tools to pivot between jobs, between careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. These are crucial life skills.”

If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.

Add “teaching failure” to nap pods (yes, those exist) and campus petting zoos (also common), and you’ve got to wonder, as a cover story in Psychology Today questioned last year: At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?

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Shayla Bezjak: “I wasn’t used to having to ask for help and I like to think I can do things on my own.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“Look, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying to create experiences that are calming,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Penn. “But I’d like to spend a bit more time figuring out what’s causing those stresses.”

Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.

It is fear about the economy — Is the American dream still a possibility? Will I be able to get a job after graduation? — and added pressure to succeed felt by first-generation and low-income students: of being the first in their families to go to college; of having to send money home; or simply overcoming the worry that, as one engineering student put it, “maybe I was a quota.”

“I’m coming from a low-income, predominantly African-American community where there just aren’t resources,” said Arabia Simeon, 19, a junior at Smith. “So there is this added pressure of needing to do well.”

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Zoleka Mosiah: “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept and I found the process quite intimidating. I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

And there’s the adjustment, for many high-achieving students, of no longer being “the best and brightest” on campus, said Amy Jordan, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication at Penn. Or what Smithies call “special snowflake syndrome.”

“We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that,” said Cai Sherley, 20, seated in the campus cafe. Around her, Zoleka Mosiah, Ms. Simeon and Ms. Lancaster nodded in agreement. “So you get here and of course you want to recreate that,” Ms. Sherley said. “But here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.”

Social media doesn’t help, because while students may know logically that no one goes through college or, let’s be honest, life without screw-ups, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself, by way of somebody else’s feed, “that everyone but you is a star,” said Jaycee Greeley, 19, a sophomore.

It is also a culture that has glorified being busy — or at the very least conflates those things with status. “There’s this idea that I’m not worthy if I’m not stressed and overwhelmed,” said Stacey Steinbach, a residential life coordinator at Smith. “And in some sense to not be stressed is a failing.”

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Maeve Porter Holliday: “Dewey Hall (pictured) was where I made my first big mistake in college, which was completely missing a deadline of a paper. I missed the deadline by five hours, and had to be okay with my mistake, realizing it wasn’t the end of the world, although it felt like it was.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

It’s what Ms. Simmons calls “competitive stress”: the subject of her afternoon workshop on the campus lawn, to which she was luring students with ice cream and bingo.

When students arrived, the sundaes were there. But the bingo cards were a little different — filled with things like “I have 20 pages to write tonight,” “I’m too busy to eat” and “I’m so dead.” It was called “Stress Olympics.”

“It’s basically a play on competitive suffering,” said Casey Hecox, a 20-year-old junior. “It’s when we’re like, ‘I have three tests tomorrow.’ And then someone’s like, ‘I have five tests tomorrow, and all I’ve eaten is 5-hour Energy, and my dog is sick.’”

With only a few weeks before school was to let out, the stress pinwheel over summer internships and jobs — applications, recommendations, networking — was already at a steady buzz. What if they didn’t get one? Or the right one? “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept, and I found the process quite intimidating,” said Ms. Mosiah, 21, a sophomore. “I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this. I’m not used to asking for help or being rejected this often, so I was really taken aback.”

Ms. Lancaster said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to take each and every rejection letter as a failure, but I’m trying to stay positive.”

Whatever happens, there will be plenty of time to talk about it when students return to campus in the fall.

Correction: July 2, 2017 
An article last Sunday about colleges that offer courses in embracing failure misidentified the position that Amy Jordan holds at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication, not for the entire university.

Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset

Edutopia

Use these novels to teach learning from loss and overcoming adversity to your middle schoolers and high school freshmen.

Heroes in books and movies captivate kids, many of whom could teach a master class on these characters. The fresh perspective teachers can offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, we can teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. We should show students that we also value process and progress. Heroic stories can help: They teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset.

The following books feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds and races, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce the initial lessons and keep students hungry for more. While these young adult books are typically middle school level, their resonant subject matter, complex characters, profound themes, vivid vocabulary, and historical contexts make them suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of the protagonists fool you: All of these books are worthy of serious study—and they invite multiple readings.

 

Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Ten-year-old Kenny is tormented by school bullies and his brother Byron, but when a family trip to the segregated South turns tragic, it is Byron who rescues his brother from trauma. Byron gently coaxes Kenny to reconcile with the monsters and angels that nearly destroy him. As Kenny makes peace with life’s joys and cruelties, readers realize that giving up is not an option.

Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: After the massacre of her father and many other members of their island tribe, an orphaned young girl is abandoned for 18 years when the remainder of the tribe departs for the mainland. Karana endures and even thrives by embracing enemies, both animal and human. This profound, beautiful story about the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit spurs students to summon their inner strength in the face of despair and desolation.

Brian from the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen: Brian enlists grit, guts, and the grandeur of nature to come to grips with himself, his parents’ divorce, and the harsh wilderness. Equal parts adventure and introspection, these stories promote inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.

 

Katie from Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: When a move to 1950s Georgia separates her family from their Japanese community, Katie survives the stigma of bigotry with the help of her beloved, optimistic sister, Lynn. Lynn’s untimely death leaves Katie heartbroken, but she musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Katie’s family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish hope even in the toughest of times.

Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt realizes that he is actually the clone of the evil drug lord El Patrón. Matt claims his own identity by recognizing that choices, confidence, and adapting to change create true character.

Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amid poverty and prejudice in 1930s Mississippi. Although Mama strives to shield her children from the pain of racism, Cassie grows up fast as the seeds of the civil rights movement are planted in her family farm. Students will struggle with the hard choice between standing down and standing up for yourself.

 

Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Stepsby Louis Sachar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, Stanley digs deep into a family curse that turns to fortune. This intricate, ingenious tale of friendship and fortitude will provoke debate about how much control we have over fate. Stanley and Armpit, the protagonist of Holes’ sequel, embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.

Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle: Swept into a strange, scary new dimension on a desperate search to save her father and brother, Meg summons the supremacy of love to win the day. Alternately harrowing and heartwarming, the book reminds readers that the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.

The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic can mean simply showing ourselves and others the best of what humans have to offer. We should cultivate and celebrate the hero living in each of us. Teachers can assist in this noble quest by supporting students in finding what is special about them (and each other!) and in nurturing the singular gift that only they can heroically share with the world.

Once students can identify positive, productive qualities in others—first in books and media, then in friends and family—they soon recognize and develop those same positive attributes in themselves. Teachers who attend to the whole child understand how social-emotional-soulful learning directly impacts student success and satisfaction and actively encourage their students to become role models in their own right.

If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.

Scared About the Next 4 Years? Take a Lesson From Improv Comedy

I know yesterday was a rough day for many. Popular words on my FB feed included grief, depression, shock, sadness, disbelief.

When times are tough, it might seem tempting to try to find the “eject” button and apply for Canadian citizenship. Or take advantage of California’s new legalized marijuana resolution to check out on a 4-year high.

But as many commentators have already pointed out, what is really needed is for us to step even further into the ring and do our best to all move forward together.

Which is why I wrote this post. To do my part to offer a tool to navigate your mind and spirit during a paradigm-shifting event such as this election might have been for you.

I have seen many great articles and blogs that have attempted to soothe the depressed spirit with a “it’s not as bad as you might think” message. They logically point out that Donald Trump won’t be able to make large changes in a political system such as ours… or that no matter who won, half the country would have been upset and so why does it matter if it’s your side or theirs… or that this sort of thing has happened before in US politics, and it didn’t sink us then so why would it sink us now?

These are all great arguments that bring a lot of comfort. The perspective that I want to add is how to accept what has happened so that you can build strongly upon it and make your presence in this nation count moving forward.

And we’ll do so with a lesson from Improv Comedy.

You may have noticed that Improv actors use a technique called “Yes, and,” which is the concept that you accept whatever move your partner just made, and build on it. For example, at my improv class last weekend, I was partnered with a classmate Jake, and we were told that we should improvise a scene with a car. I wanted the scene to be one of a girl getting driving lessons from her father. But before I could speak the words to frame the scene, my partner jumped in and had us be two bank robbers fleeing the scene of the crime. Not exactly what I had in mind. I was miffed.

But instead of resisting that plot line, I accepted it. I did my best imitation of a frantic car chase (which, to be clear, I am utterly terrible at. Cross that one off my list of potential careers.). And by embracing the scene I now found myself in, I was able to add the fact that I was a junior bank robber, and I was getting bank robbing lessons from the “big boss.” I ended up introducing the element of paternalistic instruction that I wanted; it was just with a gun in my hand and a sack of loot at my feet. The scene was fun and funny, and a big hit.

Contrast the “Yes, and” with the “No, but” approach. Had I responded to my partner that “we’re not bank robbers! You’re my dad and we are taking a driving test,” then the scene would have come to a screeching, awkward halt. My partner would have been offended, I would have been indignant, and I promise you that no one would have laughed.

The key to the “Yes, and” is acceptance. Acceptance means that you don’t waste your energy trying to resist something that you cannot change, and instead embrace it. Yes, embrace it. That doesn’t mean that you would have chosen it, but rather that you recognize that that is where things are now, and you commit to being fully receptive to what is. I

t’s only in that receptivity that you can really understand a situation enough to plot your “And.” This is something that we learn in the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.”

The “Yes” is the serenity of accepting what is. The “and” is the courage to make a change. And the wisdom comes in linking the two.

So, folks, what has to happen now is that we all must become skilled Improv artists. Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, and what will you build upon it? What will you add to the scene? The future of our country will be shaped by all of our “Ands.” If there is one thing I have learned from Improv Comedy, it’s that some of the best scenes come from those Ands. What will be yours?

Write me a note and share your thoughts!

In care,

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days.

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim — and possibly a larger community — there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties — victim, offender, and even community — in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right.

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think — and I’m just musing here — that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses.

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, andpoor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume “criminal” intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?