While watching the Indy 500, I began wondering how the amazing drivers got their start. I imagine my two daughters each tucked inside the cockpit of the car revving the engines in anticipation of the start. Over the roar of the engines, I shout my instructions: “OK, girls, here’s what you gotta do. Just step on the gas, hold onto the steering wheel, and stay between the two walls. You got this.” And with a strong slap on the back and push out of the pit, Anna Mae and Lizzie accelerate to 220 MPH, begin zig-zagging around all the other cars – instantly proving they have what it takes to be a IndyCar champion.The formula seems simple really: a little courage + a little luck = champion.
In reality, I know that the incredible skills and courage of the drivers are built instead by hours and hours of practice, lots of failures, and incremental success. They aren’t reckless maniacs or freaks of nature with unnatural ability and nerves of steel. They are dedicated and driven competitors that push themselves to be the best. They weren’t born destined to be IndyCar champions. They have become the world’s best not because they haven’t crashed, but because they recognize that crashing is just a part of learning.
In Mindset, Carol Dweck makes the powerful case of embracing and teaching a growth mindset, the notion that abilities are continuously developed through dedication and hard work, rather than adopting and reinforcing a fixed mindset, the notion that intelligence or talent are fixed traits. She cites experiments and studies that have powerful impacts for all learners. For example, students in one study that were praised for their intelligence on a test actually dropped in their performance on a follow-up test by 20%; whereas students that were praised for their effort increased their performance by 30%. The subtle difference in how the teacher praised the students had a remarkable 50% swing on the results.
I’m a math enthusiast and technology enthusiast. When helping others in both of these areas, I’m always struck by how people often quickly label themselves as good or bad with technology or good or bad in math. In reality, the label is never quite accurate. Becoming good at math and technology – and probably just about anything in life – isn’t just some event that occurs on a mysterious day or an attribute that is selectively bestowed on some people. The person confident in math likely excels because he or she has found a way to chip away at the difficult problem even when stuck. A person becomes skilled with technology because he or she chases curiosities and finds a path that works by first exploring what doesn’t work. A roadblock doesn’t become a dead end; it simply becomes a moment of redirection – of seeking and finding a new path to take.
Teaching mindset is not just about asking your kids to work hard. It’s about helping students see and believe in the power of working hard. Help them recognize that obstacles are temporary. We must reinforce that aiming and missing is far better than not aiming at all. The point isn’t about false praises or artificial rewards. I don’t want every kid on the soccer field to get a trophy for trying. Instead, I want every kid to know that getting better is the reward for trying and that losing is most often the best teacher of how to win. My one daughter’s kindergarten teacher encapsulated this idea perhaps best by telling students to put a smiley face next to every problem they missed because it’s an opportunity to learn something new.
Finally, we must accept that our actions generally speak louder than our words. We not only must encourage our students to have growth mindsets, but we must also demonstrate that we are always learning and growing and believe that we can overcome our weaknesses. We don’t just teach students during our great lessons and model good leadership in teacher in-services that go exactly as planned. When lessons and in-services don’t go well, we have the opportunity to acknowledge, embrace, and teach that we are all constantly learning, growing…. and, yes, failing. Much like the IndyCar drivers, we will never see the checkered flag unless we are willing to get back in the driver’s seat for the next race.