Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Building Performance Character: Part II


Last month I talked about six performance-related character values  that can help students become independent and successful adults. They are:

·         Persisting towards solutions

·         Working with precision

·         Asking questions

·         Working with others

·         Making connections

·         Monitoring progress and embracing learning
I think it’s worth taking some time to look a little more closely at the first trait on the list.

Persisting Towards Solutions

It is easy to see persistence as a moral value rather than an academic one—a sign of integrity or strength that people embody as some kind of spiritual or genetic gift.  But the willingness and ability to persist towards a goal can be taught and nourished—and it can just as easily be undermined.

Researcher Carol Dweck has written extensively about what she calls a “growth mindset” towards intelligence—a belief that a person’s intellectual ability is neither fixed nor destined, but is, instead, the result of hard work. Her studies have demonstrated that students who believe that intelligence is malleable and open to improvement do better in school than those who believe their intelligence is fixed and innate...even when those “fixed mindset” students have high IQs and have done well in school. This becomes very clear around the middle school years, when the level of challenge tends to be raised across the board. Students who had previously thought of themselves as the “smart kids” find themselves facing challenges and expectations that can be daunting, and if they can’t handle the work, they often retreat, surrender, and then turn on themselves, feeling betrayed by their native intelligence. Students with a growth mindset, however, understand that a greater challenge simply requires greater work on their part...and that “failure,” rightly understood, is just a step along the pathway to success. What is even more interesting is that students with a fixed mindset can change—and that a change in their mindset can have profound effects on their academic outcomes (research study abstract here).

This willingness to dig in and work hard in spite of obstacles or frustration is what people used to call “grit,” and it’s a quality that University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth believes may contribute much more to academic achievement than intelligence. Dr. Duckworth has even developed a “grit quiz” to help people assess how much of the quality they possess.

Author Daniel Coyle, in The Talent Code, gives us some dramatic examples of grit and persistence in what he calls “deep practice,” which others call “deliberate practice.” He describes tennis players in Russia, soccer players in Brazil, and student musicians here in the United States who approach practice in an intensely focused way, aiming straight for their areas of weakness and using their practice sessions to work and work and work each area until it improves. It is radically different from the way, say, my 9-year-old practices the saxophone, which involves playing a song one time, straight through, and then putting the instrument away. When student athletes or student musicians engage in deep practice, they make enormous improvements in a very short time. And as Malcolm Gladwell has shown us, about ten thousand hours of this kind of practice is what separates true masters from the rest of us.

Take a look at the graph here and note the difference between the violinists who, after ten years of practice, are good enough to become teachers, and those who are good enough to be professional musicians. The difference isn’t just that the professionals have put in more hours over the same period. It’s that their trend line starts to curve. The more time they put in, the more time they want to put in. Getting better makes them practice more, which makes them get even better, and so on.

That wonderful feedback loop doesn’t happen on day one, though. So why are those soccer players in Brazil willing to practice one particular move over and over again, day upon day, when my son can’t manage to get through a simple scale? Part of it has to do with focused coaching and timely, specific feedback. That’s our job, as educators. It’s human nature to avoid and ignore errors and mistakes. No one likes to focus on what they’re doing wrong—but that’s exactly what deep practice requires, and it’s exactly what a good coach pushes athletes and performers to do. The question is: are we being good coaches?

There’s another piece of the puzzle, and that’s desire. If kids don’t care—if they don’t really want to be successful at [fill in the blank], they won’t put in the hard time needed to get there. Persistence requires desire, or, as Daniel Coyle calls it, “ignition.” Something’s got to light your fire. Desire isn’t everything, of course, but you can’t get very far without it. So engaging and motivating students—getting them hooked, interested, and passionately involved in what we’re teaching—is clearly important. Simply getting them to sit still, behave, and take notes is not enough. We’ve talked for years about classroom management, but the subtext of our terminology suggests that the classroom is a problem requiring control and compliance. Perhaps if we called it and thought of as “classroom engagement,” or even “classroom ignition,” we’d all be happier and more productive.

A final aspect of persistence that’s important to note is resilience—the ability to roll with the punches, change course, and adjust to the unexpected. It doesn’t mean that students should never get frustrated. That’s a little unreasonable. But students (just like the rest of us) need to learn how to manage frustration—how to step back, take a deep breath, and try something different. Blogger and author Seth Godin writes of the importance of resilience for adults facing uncertain economic times, and it is just as important for students. If we only teach students one way to do something, and spend all of our practice time drilling that one method, are we really preparing them for the unpredictable and ambiguous world beyond the classroom? What happens when the One Way doesn’t work for a particular problem or in a particular situation? Some students will get angry at the material. Some will get angry at school in general. And some will blame themselves. How helpful are any of those responses, really?

Persistence means taking a “never say die” attitude towards a problem, but it shouldn’t have to mean bashing your head against a brick wall…especially if there’s a doorway a few feet away. Sometimes, going around can be more effective than trying to going through. But you can’t go around if you don’t take a step back, calm yourself down, and reassess both the situation and your approach to it. As the old saying reminds us, the little reed persists in the wind storm while the mighty oak cracks and falls, because the mighty oak can’t bend. Do we simply expect our students to know how to bend…and how to snap back and try again?

It again raises the interesting question about what we see as our mission. Are we teachers of math or teachers of children? Are we preparing students to be poets and mathematicians…or well-rounded adults who can enjoy poetry and fill out a tax return? If we take a whole-child approach to education, we can’t help but see these performance character values as a real and vital part of our curriculum. After all, the ultimate goal of an education isn’t simply knowing stuff. The ultimate goal is a rich and rewarding life.

Of course our students need to know their fractions. Of course they need to know how to write a good paragraph. But if they don’t know how to keep going in their learning—how to Not Give Up when challenges rise up—the fractions and paragraphs won’t matter.