As an urban educator, I often find myself repeating the same motivational speech to my students “Don’t give up on yourself! You can do this! You have what it takes to succeed but you have to want it! Put forth your best effort!” No matter which way you say it, your message is the same “I believe in you, you have to believe in yourself.” It all comes down to providing students with the encouragement to feel success. But how much encouragement is too much?
At some point does chanting “believe” turn into badgering and children begin to resent you? The new craze with The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has fascinated me. I wonder how we can find a delicate balance between Tiger Mother’s thinking and the western way of thinking. When Tiger Mother appeared as the cover story of the January 20th TIME Magazine I quickly picked it up. Amy Chua states “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.” There is definitely truth in this considering had it not been for rote repetition I might never have learned my math facts. I am grateful for this each time I am out with friends and it is time to determine the tip when settling the bill. I am one of the few that can figure it out without relying on the tip calculator on my cell phone.
Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia supports Chua’s comments. He states, “It’s virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extensive practice…if you repeat the same task again and again, it will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.” The article continues to provide the rationale for how this enables the brain to make room for higher order thinking. ”The parts of the brain associated with motor skills become less active, allowing brain activity to shift to the areas associated with higher-level thinking and reflection.” However, I grapple with this. We know all children require multiple exposures before anything is truly owned knowledge. The number of exposures multiplies depending on the emotional and academic needs of a child. Students who do not practice, or complete their homework, or lack the motivation to put forth effort are that much farther from “believing” they are able to do it! Chua states, “It might sound harsh, but kids really shouldn’t be able to take the easy way out. If a child has the experience, even once, of successfully doing something she didn’t think she could do, that lesson will stick with her for the rest of her life.” This is what we as educators must provide. The opportunity for children to feel success at something. It’s almost as if taking a bit of a forbidden fruit, once you have a small little bite, from that point on you are just going to continue to seek it out. That’s the ticket to helping students ”believe in themselves.”
Jeff Howard, the founder of the Efficacy Institute believes that there is no such thing as a kid that doesn’t want to succeed. I truly believe that we all as educators believe this. This is why we went into teaching. This is what motivates us to be their biggest fan on the sidelines or right there on the field waving our pompoms and chanting “I believe in you!” What limits them from believing in themselves is that strong character quality of confidence. Giving a child the opportunity, the hope, and belief that they can succeed just that once is all it will take for them to want it more and ultimately seek it out on their own.
In today’s educational climate, we discuss the idea of embracing digital tools to engage our students, and yet barriers remain to accepting this techno-constructivist theory. It is time we reassess our philosophy not just about how we teach, but how children learn. I am not talking about learning in the digital age, but more so about the way in which we view children and their ability to learn. A recent article in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of The Education Week Teacher PD Sourcebook “Changing Mindsets” Debra Viadero discusses this same point. She discusses the theories around academic achievement; innate ability (entity theory) vs. that of the effort based ability (incremental theory).
The Innate Ability Theory focuses on the bell curve and the uneven distribution of intellectual ability in human beings. The core belief in this theory is that intellectual ability comes with birth; therefore, your IQ is fixed and determines your productivity and output. In the Innate Ability Theory intellect is stable throughout one’s lifetime, and experiences, actions, and incidence have little to no impact on altering level of intellect.
The Effort Based Ability Theory is based on the assumptions that achievement is heavily dependent upon access, opportunity, effort, and confidence.
Teaching in an urban educational environment presents a major challenge, to teach students that the Effort Based Ability Theory stands true. Students who find success, even the smallest amount of success, discover doors open to continued success despite environmental factors that create barriers.
Which of these theories do you believe in? As an educator, our beliefs about academic achievement are transparent to our students. The cheerleader teacher certainly believes in the latter, and therefore, your students will, through osmosis (or so we hope) begin to view achievement as an effort based ability. Viadero states, “The problem, though, is that many kids decide early in life that more effort isn’t, well, worth the effort.” Is this really true? She asks how we motivate kids that believe that effort isn’t worth it?
There is no silver bullet for convincing students about the role effort has in their success. However, thanks to Stanford University psychologists Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and Lids Sorich Blackwell, Ph.D., we have some tools that may help. These psychologists have created “Brainology.” Brainology uses brain science to persuade middle school students that intelligence is malleable rather than a fixed trait. This program teaches children how the brain works, and how it stores knowledge. It provides strategies for coping and relaxing in stressful situations to help the brain absorb and store new knowledge…all through a cartoon based program. Perhaps Brainology can begin the Movement towards Motivation.