Wednesday, February 24, 2010


After writing about my struggles with my son, who responds to many learning opportunities with doubt that he will be able to get it ("I Can't, It's Too Hard"), one of my readers recommended that I read the book "Mindset" by Dr. Carol Dweck. I am so glad I did! The book talks about the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset and lays out what how both act and respond in business, athletics, music, and education.

Those with the Fixed Mindset believe that you cannot significantly change a person's talents or intelligence and they are constantly trying to preserve their self-image. They tend not to take risks because it would expose holes in their innate abilities and that is insufferable. When they make a mistake, they take it very personally, as if it is a character flaw exposed. They are constantly worried about being judged and coming up short - that would be failure.

Those with the Growth Mindset think that you certainly can improve talents and intelligence through hard work and they are willing to do the work to make those improvements. When they make a mistake, they do not dwell on them, nor do they attribute them to character flaws. They often make a plan of action to improve by looking at what might have gone wrong and how they can learn from those mistakes to better the outcome next time around. They believe failure is not learning or growing.

The author talks about ways to foster the Growth Mindset in anyone. This is done through talking about scenarios where someone has suffered some sort of set back and then shows how the two mindsets handle the situation. She also talks about how to praise children so that they develop the Growth Mindset. In one intriguing passage, she lays out a scenario of a young girl who has her first gymnastics meet and is confident of doing well. But, she does not win any ribbons and is very disappointed. She then offers five different ways her parents could respond to her and how that affects mindset. I will paraphrase them below:

1. Tell her you though she was the best
2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers
3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important
4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time
5. Tell her she didn't deserve to win

Here are the ways those responses can affect mindset:

1. This response is insincere and offers no help for improvement.

2. Places blame on others for her performance and encourages a life time of blaming others for her own deficiencies.

3. Teaches her to devalue something if she doesn't do well in it right away, which does nothing to cultivate tenacity and perseverance.

4. Ability doesn't automatically take you where you want to go. Effort and will should be encouraged, rather than discounted. This response is the most dangerous in the author's opinion and is the most likely to encourage a Fixed Mindset.

5. While you wouldn't say it quite like that, it is the best response to foster a Growth Mindset. She gives a longer, more gentle version of this response that seemed like the best way to support the child: "I know how you feel. It's so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best then not win. But you know, you haven't really earned it yet. There are many girls there who've been in gymnastics longer than you and who've worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it is something you'll really have to work for. If you want to do gymnastics just for fun, that's OK, but if you want to win in competitions, more is required."

The author makes it clear in this response and in a study she set up, that praising kids for effort, rather than ability is the way to create a Growth Mindset. This means skipping "good job" or "you did really well" for something more helpful, like "you really tried hard" or "that must feel so good to have learned that". Her study concluded that praising effort made kids willing to try harder and do more work. Praising ability, speed, or outcome made kids very resistant to learning more and even encouraged a LOT of lying to preserve self-image.

The book is a great read for parents, managers, teachers, and coaches. It also is helpful to know where your own mindset is and how that affects your own success and self-image, not to mention how it affects others in your life.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Self-Serve Education

I have long admired the student-centered approach to education, but in my own practice, I didn't do it all that much because I wasn't sure how. Sure, I was giving Ronan a choice about what we studied in social studies or science, and I allowed him to pick what he wanted to do and when. But this latitude did not result in the happiness or willingness I expected. So, each time I would examine what I was doing wrong and try to fix it as well as fix my attitude of disappointment or frustration. Recently I decided to give up. I don't mean I have given up on my son, but I have given up on finding the perfect assignment/approach/methodology that will "work".

I created a self-serve education where I would act as the consultant if needed. I wrote out all of the rest of the second grade math concepts he would have to know in his math notebook. I told him he could choose whatever page he wanted to work on any time. I didn't stop there. I created a list of responsibilities upon waking (brushing teeth, getting dressed), chores, and schoolwork that are to be done daily. Under each heading of math, reading, and writing I included some activities he could choose that would satisfy his daily requirement for that subject, plus other subjects that he willingly does. For example, he can read a book to me or play a game of Quiddler (a word game) to satisfy his requirement of reading for the day. For math, he can choose one of the math pages I wrote out or listen to his multiplication rap CD. At the bottom of the sheet I included consequences. For example, you can eat breakfast when the "Wake Up Jobs" are done. If he finishes all of his work for the day he is entitled to sweets, Farmville time on the computer, and play dates with friends. He would lose privileges in that order for not doing his work.

I got to this point out of frustration, but it was met with alacrity on Ronan's part! He liked knowing exactly what he had to do and what it would take to earn the things he loves to do. He jumped right in and did all of his schoolwork immediately, even asking if he could be the one to check them off as he went. I am a to-do lister - I can relate.

I wish I had given up a long time ago, but I am persistent and determined if nothing else! Those are great qualities but not at the expense of autonomy. I have tried all sorts of different approaches over the last several months but nothing seemed to improve homeschooling. On many days I would hear whining, crying and protesting no matter what I proposed we do. I was at my wits end and that's when it occurred to me, if I pull myself out of the way, I do not have to be subjected to the whining and protesting. But Ronan can choose what he wants and when he wants to do it, giving him much more say in his day, which eliminated the whining and protesting all together. Plus I know he is getting in all of the second grade skills so that he will not be behind if he goes to public school next year. Instead of hours spent trying to get him to do an assignment, he finishes them all in a short time and has much more time for playing, his earned privileges and happiness. I have more time for reading, spending more time with my other son, and general happiness as well. What a difference this has made - for both of us!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Getting Into Alignment

I had headaches nearly every day for about two months, starting in December. It wasn't a debilitating migraine, but more of an annoying, low-grade pain that got to worry me. Over the course of those two months, I went to an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, a chiropractor/kinesiologist, a dentist, an endodontist, a masseuse, a regular MD, a hypnotist, and even got a CT Scan to try to get to the cause of the pain. The cause of the pain remained elusive and mysterious, so I was given many different medicines to help me ignore it and feel it less. This is not normally the way I like to treat a problem - to make it go away temporarily without actually confronting it and dealing with it, but it turns out I really like to sleep and my headaches were interfering with that, so I occasionally took those medicines that didn't make me too cloudy.

I tried to think of what happened in December that might have made my head hurt and I could come up with only two: I started a regular yoga practice and December was a really low point for homeschooling.

It could have been that some of the medicine, like penicillin and a natural aspirin for inflammation kicked in and resolved a physical problem, but I don't think so. In December I bought a yoga mat made of polyurethane. My kids seem to have problems with products made of this material, but it never occurred to me that I might have a problem with it. Not only did I do yoga on this smelly mat, I stored it in my bedroom, which may explain why my headaches started during the night. When I thought about the connection, after a bad headache one evening following yoga, I stowed it in my garage and have not had a headache since! However, this does not explain several trips over the last two months that took me far away from the mat yet still had headaches.

The other more intriguing possibility has to do with homeschooling. I think I have been out of alignment, and I don't just mean chiropractically speaking. I think and talk a lot about education models that are more student-centered, that are more experiential, with plenty of depth and choice by the student of what is studied. I talk and think a lot about education that is marked by curiosity, freedom, strengths, and creativity, instead of one marked by pressure and fear. I really do believe in all that I say and think in this regard, but my actions do not always mirror these beliefs. It is sometimes as if my head is separate from my body and this misalignment caused me (and Ronan) plenty of problems by the end of the year, even physical pain. The worse things were going, the more I grasped for control and led with fear and pressure. The more I did this, the worse it got. By December I was going into my room to have myself a little cry out of sheer frustration several times a week. Things were not going well because I was not practicing what I preached, and Ronan, my teacher was letting me know it.

Eventually I started accept what was going on without fighting it. I decided to apply my Buddhist practice and Love and Logic approach to parenting to my teaching practice. In mid-January I wrote about this in my blog( but it sometimes takes longer for behavior to follow intention and to make it a habit. Every day after that article, I got more skillful and mindful as a teacher. I became more compassionate and equanimous and homeschooling started dramatically improving. The last few weeks have been fun and our relationship is much more loving.

Interestingly, I met with a visiting Guru this summer, before homeschooling was even a thought. Among other things, he said that Ronan did not have dyslexia or any other problem and that in six months, he would be fine. This was one of the many things that turned out to be true, but I think he meant that once I got myself in alignment things would be "fine" for both of us.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Data Collecting at the Grocery Store and at School

I went grocery shopping recently and paused for a moment at the checkout when I swiped my King Soopers card that entitles me to some discounts in exchange for sharing information about my buying habits. I wondered what my card might say about me to someone who doesn't know me. Clearly it can show that I prefer to buy organic and local, and I don't buy a lot of junk food. I am sure it helps them to know that a person like me, who will buy organic blueberries will likely also buy a certain kind of cereal or a certain kind of soap and they will find a way to entice me to buy it. If it encourages the grocer to provide more of what I want, and I have access to more choices that I like, I am fine with this exchange.

I wonder what it is not able to understand though. Does it show that I went shopping while I was hungry or if I was in a hurry? Does it know that I shopped with little helpers who made requests at every aisle? Can it tell that I am a list maker and that I plan out the recipes I will be using for the week? Can it tell what mood I was in or how am feeling about my weight or health? How does it explain my occasional absences, when I go somewhere else that is further away and more expensive because their are healthier choices or when I frequent farm stands in the summer? I am sure it makes plenty of educated guess about who I am, what I need, and what I will choose based on the information that I have given them and from others who shop like I do. I believe that it is limited in what it can know about me.

It made me think of the way we handle public schools. In exchange for a free or very inexpensive education, we give information about our students. Like my King Soopers Card, the information is quite limited, and is nominally beneficial for each student. If I choose not to share the information via my grocery card, I still get what I want but I pay more for it. In education, if you allow the constant testing in the form of quizzes, tests, State assessments, etc. you can get a free education. If you choose not to be tested, you must pay more for your education...elsewhere. Even if you were allowed to opt out of all testing, the curriculum and lesson plans are designed around the testing system anyway, resulting in an often inferior education.

Sometimes the tests really are used to assess the level of understanding of each student, allowing the teacher to make necessary changes to the lessons and spend more time on areas identified as deficits before moving on. Sometimes the tests are used as an institutional report card, showing how the teacher is doing, how the principal is doing, and if the school should be closed down. Just like the grocery card, the test scores leave more out than they reveal. They do no tell of a teacher's rapport with each student and how engaged they are in the learning. They do not explain what circumstances a student comes from that day or that year, like poverty or abuse. Because of the test-driven nature of the curriculum, it doesn't even show the talent of the teacher, because they are not allowed to use their talents in that environment. The tests don't even differentiate between a willing and an able student. Just as not all students are able to read in First Grade, or understand trigonometry, not all students are willing to learn in that environment and they protest through disengagement. A disengaged student is not going to be the high scorer.

What are the options for the student who is unwilling to constantly be tapped for statistics? Private school and homeschool if those are financially possible. Dropping out is another costly option. That person's earning potential is likely to be rather low and that increases the chances that he or she will rely on other government assistance, in the form of welfare or medicare for example. If we have to pay anyway, why not pay less, early on with a quality, engaging education that is designed to bring out the strengths and curiosity in every student?

The exchange at my grocery store seems far more beneficial for both parties than in public schools. If I elect not to participate in this exchange at the store, it is easy for me to do so, and my extra spending is often fairly negligible. This is in sharp contrast to the scenario for a student. The choice is difficult and the cost is huge. If testing were truly for the benefit of the students and education was more choice driven, the system would be in a lot better shape. We could learn something by examining the choices we make in daily life. If we wouldn't accept an unbalanced, unfair exchange, we ought to ensure the same standards for our children.