When students sit down to take a test, how do they think about themselves? It may seem like a silly question, but the answer probably matters more than you think.
“The Truth about Grit,” published last fall in The Boston Globe explains the significance of the way we think about ourselves and our effort. It turns out the way you see yourself can be the difference that makes one person succeed where an equally intelligent person fails. If you think of yourself as someone who is smart, you may do reasonably well. However, if you think of yourself as someone who works hard and tries to improve, youre more likely to succeed according to the studies described in the Globe article. You have what researchers call grit.
Its not just stubbornly sticking with something though. Theres more to it. People with grit believe that they have to work hard to succeed. They have an organic notion of how success is achieved. They believe it takes ongoing effort, with constant attention to thinking, changing, and evolving your abilities. As the article explains,
One of the most important elements is teaching kids that talent takes time to develop, and requires continuous effort. Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, refers to this as a “growth mindset.” She compares this view with the “fixed mindset,” the belief that achievement results from abilities we are born with. “A child with the fixed mindset is much more likely to give up when they encounter a challenging obstacle, like algebra, since they assume that they’re just not up to the task,” says Dweck.
If youre not yet sold, Dwecks research may convince you. Dweck took a group of fifth graders and gave them various IQ tests. After the first test, half of the fifth graders were told that they must be very smart while the other half were told that they worked very hard. The fifth graders who were praised for hard work (for their grit) did better on subsequent IQ tests than students praised for being intelligent.
Now consider how we currently talk about achievement tests and education. In her book Adolescent Literacy at Risk? The Impact of Standards, Rebecca Bowers Sipe describes the two predominant metaphors used to talk about education: an industrial, assembly line metaphor, and an agarian, organic metaphor.
Using the assembly line metaphor, education focuses on “breaking complicated literacy tasks down to their smallest parts, teaching and testing the parts, and eventually producing a shiny new high school graduate who would roll out of the school and into college or the workplace fully prepared for the challenges ahead” (p. 16, PDF of Chapter One).
Compare that way of thinking with the agarian metaphor:
The farmer realizes that growing quality crops is a highly recursive process, one that requires careful and reflective practice across a career. Every crop is different. Crops in different fields vary in growth patterns. The strategies that work best with one set of circumstances may be less effective in another. The job of the farmer is to pay attention to the very complex and interconnected set of circumstances in play and to bring the very best professional expertise into practice day-by-day. (p. 16, PDF of Chapter One)
Given what we have learned about the way grit and a growth mindset affect success, its obvious which metaphor will better serve students. Standardized notions of education simply dont work as well. When students take a test, their success may hinge on which educational metaphor is in play. If they have adopted the industrial metaphor, they see education as fixed, with a standard system and uniform parts and measures. The agarian model, on the other hand, is both figuratively and literally about a growth mindset—and research says that mindset is more likely to foster success.
How can we help students move more toward a growth mindset? Changing the national conversation about education may be the best solution, but we have to be realistic. How can we help the kids we have in the classroom right this minute? I prescribe Metaphor Makeovers! Ask students to think about how they fit in the educational system, reflect on the way they describe themselves, and then change their thinking in ways that will make them more successful.
Begin by establishing how students feel about themselves. No matter what they feel now, there are ways you can help them change their process and thinking to support a growth mindset. I begin with a writing activity like this, taken from Designing Writing Assignments:
Describe yourself as a test writer by using an analogy. Begin by completing this sentence: “When I write a timed essay, I am like a _______.” For example, you might complete the sentence this way: “When I write a timed essay, I am like a gardener.” After you’ve come up with your analogy, explore your choice in a journal entry. If I were comparing myself to a gardener, I’d talk about the way that I get started on a paper and the way that I start work on a garden— gathering seeds and tools is like gathering ideas and basic information about the writing prompt. Your response should do two things: show how you write a timed essay and make comparisons that clarify for your readers the way that you write.
Students can work in journals, informal writing, or essays. Whatever format you want. Be sure the students understand they will share what they write with the class later. To scaffold the activity, brainstorm a list of metaphors as a class that students can draw from. You might even work through an analogy together to model the kind of thinking you want them to do.
Once they have established their metaphors, you have the “before” snapshot for your makeover project. Have students share their metaphors with the class or in small groups. Talk honestly about what works and what doesnt. You can model the classroom discussion on whatever makeover show you and students are familiar with (e.g., Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, or The Biggest Loser).
As you move to the makeover stage, students can try switching metaphors, trying on someone elses practices, or tossing out an old practice. Make it clear students are just trying options. They can always return to the old way of doing things. Encourage trial and error. Your job is to provide feedback that encourages that growth mindset. Dont just make suggestions though. Be sure to explain why youre making them, just as someone on one of those television makeover shows explains suggestions.
At the end of the process, students can present “before” and “after” descriptions to the class, or you can have students write a short reflection piece on the process that the two of you discuss together. Just as they do on the shows, you might even return to the metaphors several weeks later to see how they are working—have they returned to the old ways, or sticking with the makeover?
Throughout the activity, remember to talk about how hard they are working. Its not how smart student are that matters after all, but whether students are willing to work hard to be smarter.