Monthly Archives: August 2012

“How’s the boy?” “Oh, he’s dead.”

Let me tell you a story. It’s all about assumptions and communicating with clarity and precision. Maybe it has a little to do with listening with empathy too.

I had a friend.  She had a dog, and a small boy. She didn’t like the dog much. It had been left behind by a previous boyfriend, was bumptious and far too big for her small inner city home. Every day she took the dog for a walk in the park. Of course, her son came too. Anyone who has been a regular dog walker knows that relationships are built with the other pooch people in the park.

A couple of years after the dog’s death I was shopping with my friend when a shop assistant recognized her and exclaimed “Hello! So good to see you. How’s the boy?”

Remembering her from the park, my friend announced, “Oh, he’s dead.”

I watched the interaction unfold. The woman’s face fell and she stumbled over her words as she tried to express her sympathy for what seemed such a tragic event conveyed so bluntly. “That’s terrible” she said. “What happened?”

“It was some sort of leukemia, I think” replied my friend. “We were a bit upset at the time, but really, we decided it was probably all for the best in the end. The house just wasn’t big enough for us all and he was eating so much – a fortune to keep.”

The shop assistant was lost for words as my friend turned away with “Well, we must continue on. Things to be done” and swept off towards the china department.

As I followed, I explained that the woman had been asking about her son, not the dog. “Stupid woman”, said my friend, “Why didn’t she say so?”.

I have often wondered what that poor woman told her husband when she got home that night. I know I have dined out on the story for years. Amusing? Yes, but also sad because it demonstrates so clearly the misunderstandings that can occur when we fail to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, when we blithely launch forth without attempting to examine our own or other people’s assumptions.

Our continued growth and learning as human beings depends on our ability to question assumptions, to listen with empathy and understanding and to communicate with clarity and precision. Failure to do so can create some amusing situations,

but it can also lead to unproductive and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings.

I would love to hear some of your examples, both amusing and serious, when the failure to exercise these Habits of Mind led to miscommunications and unexpected consequences.

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Wow! Congratulations for Being Human

I have written about this before. It’s time to go a bit deeper. We have become hooked on a weird interpretation of praise. Afraid that our children might grow up with a less than optimal sense of self-esteem, we lavish them with praise for the oddest things. Little Mary comes home with 10/10 for spelling – yet again – and we tell her what a clever girl she is. Johnny wins the grade three running race and we frame his medal. But what has Mary really got to be proud of if she just happened to be born with the kind of memory that easily remembers and recalls visual spelling patterns? Why should Johnny feel a sense of achievement because he was born with longer legs and the kind of musculature that makes it easy for him to run fast? They really didn’t have to do much more than turn up in order to do well.

If we want our children to become people who strive to improve, who are prepared to put in the hard work it will take to solve the serious problems we face as a society, let’s start praising our children for something more than simply existing. Let’s praise them for the efforts they make.

We have far too many bright children in chains because we told them how clever they were for nothing more than being who they were. They are the ‘gifted under achievers’ whose sense of worth got all confused and mixed up with the innate gifts they were told they had, rather than the use they made of those gifts. These kids face the risk of losing who they think they are every time they face a challenge they may not be able to lick easily. Who wouldn’t back away when the odds are so high?

So what do they do instead? They deliberately fail by not turning up at tests, by failing to hand in work, they feel sick when there is an exam or they decide that they have a lousy teacher, a disruptive work group or too many personal problems. Their school reports are filled with comments about how they have “not reached their potential”. If my sense of self is tied to someone’s idea about my potential, it becomes a very risky business to try and reach it. What if it isn’t actually as high as everyone thought it was? What if I fail along the way? That will mean I am a failure.

Meanwhile the kids who knew that they had to earn praise by actually doing something are working hard to improve, seeing mistakes as pointers to the next things they need to learn. For them failure isn’t any threat to their self-esteem because they understand that their sense of achievement comes from getting better at things that are really hard in the first place. When these kids fail at something, they only become ‘failures’ if they give up. Carol Dweck describes this as having a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Check out her book “Mindsets’, it is well worth the effort.

It’s hard, but not impossible to help these kids remove the chains that hold them back, but it is far better not to forge them in the first place. Part of the secret is to praise effort rather than ability. Ability is more or less what we were born with. Why would we expect praise for something that had nothing to do with us? Being lucky enough to come from a particular gene pool, be born in a particular social stratum in a prosperous country may be cause for gratitude, but not for pride. So keep the praise for what our children DO rather than who they are.

The very act of providing praise can restrict growth and learning. Carol Dweck explains how it is that students who are praised for being clever can actually perform more poorly on tests, including IQ tests, when compared with those who are praised for putting in effort. Dr. Arthur Costa, in his teachings on Habits of Mind advises us to hold back on judgmental responses when a student answers a question in class. Praise for an answer is praise for an end product rather than a process. Keep the praise for evidence of thinking going on, not for answers. I have seen thinking simply shut down in the room when I have responded to a student with something like, “That’s great Mary, good answer.” Everyone thinks “why bother? Mary’s hit the nail on the head. No more work needed”.

We certainly need to acknowledge the responses of students in class, but save the praise until the thinking work has been concluded. And even then, direct it towards effort not just cleverness.


Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

Why Don’t We Just Standardize the Kids?

Why Don’t We Just Standardize the Kids?.

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking

Why Don’t We Just Standardize the Kids?

You are watching the hurdle races and notice something odd. Some of the competitors are so tall that they can just step over the hurdles while others are so short they just keep getting smacked in the face. But the hurdles are all the same height and the hurdlers are all the same age, so what’s the problem? It’s a standardized test after all. Every hurdler faces the same set of hurdles, on the same day, they all start at the same time and their achievements are all measured using identical instruments and time scales.

Now let’s compare two gold mines. Charlie’s Hope takes ore from a rich seam, crushes it, separates the ore from the surrounding rock, and after this purification the ore is melted and formed into high quality ingots that sell, on today’s market, for around $USD1,617 an ounce. Freddie’s Dream, on the other hand, is working in less accessible terrain, the gold is there but it’s much harder to extract. For every ounce of gold the Charlie’s Hope produces, the cost of production is significantly lower than for the same amount at Freddie’s Dream. We have a fair, standardized way of measuring value added. We simply deduct the cost of production from the value of the product.  If we are looking for value added, Charlie’s Hope wins hands down.

Let’s get back to the kids. In my last school I had around 60 first graders. Some came into grade one able and eager to read. A few were lucky enough to have homes where bed time stories were read each night, where both parents spent recreation time reading and a newspaper was spread around the living room floor over the weekend.  They had been taken to the art gallery, the zoo and the science museum. They were encouraged to watch documentaries as well as cartoons and they ate dinner together around the table, talking about the day and the world. They didn’t look too different, but in their ability to clear the hurdles of grade one, they were giants compared to some of the others.

I also had kids who hardly saw their Mum and never saw Dad. Mum was always tired, trying her best to hold down two minimum pay jobs so she could pay the rent and feed her brood. There were no books in the house and the TV was a boon because it kept the kids out of her hair when she was trying to throw some food together. If she had a day free at the weekend the TV helped there too. It wasn’t safe to let the kids play in the street, so the TV kept them occupied while she tried to catch up on some rest. With no car, little money and even less energy, weekend trips to the zoo or the science museum were out of the question.

For these kids the hurdles of grade one were just too high. But hey! It’s a standardized test based on age and grade, so they all sit the same one.

For some kids – the Freddies – there is an enormous amount of work to be done to get through the environment that hides the seams of gold within. Poverty, stress, language deficits, distracting environments, lack of positive role models, limited experiences … the list goes on and on. With others – the Charlies – it’s easy. They arrive at school in the morning eager to learn, rested, well fed, and lap up everything we offer them. But we have to be fair and administer the same, standardized measures of value added to all the kids, right?

So here’s the solution to the problem – the kids need to be standardized.

Can someone tell me how we do that?


Filed under Thinking

If You Can’t Beat Them … Make Them Useful

When our ancestors sat around the campfire at night what did they do? They told stories. With the help of dance, drawing, trance and drama, humans have shared their histories, invented myths and explanations, scared each other silly and comforted themselves with stories.

Yesterday evening as I settled in front of the TV with a bowl of gnocchi and a great line up on the ABC, I wondered if I was wasting several hours when I could have been writing, painting or cleaning out the cupboards.

Why do we spend so much of our time watching television? Because we still love stories and the big flat screen in the living room is our version of the camp fire.

I watched a documentary about the amazing life of Rolf Harris and responded with wonderment and awe to his energy and creativity, still going strong at eighty. I found plenty of humour in it too as he described his attempts to manage his impulsivity, sometimes letting it have free rein when, for example, he swept his future wife off her feet and ran the length of the Royal Academy with her in his arms. I also watched him keep it in check as he placed one studied paint stroke after another onto his canvas while painting the Queen’s portrait. I saw his face change as he listened with understanding and empathy to the more searching questions of his interviewer and heard him choose his words carefully and thoughtfully as he sought to respond with clarity and precision.

Later in the evening I watched an episode of New Tricks and followed the gradual building of a solution to an old crime as the investigators took in data with all their senses and thought flexibly, moving beyond the obvious answers that had not well served previous attempts to solve the crime. As they incorporated more and more information, they built a summary on a white board, posed questions and sought answers. Using each other’s strengths and idiosyncrasies they thought interdependently, bringing past knowledge to bearon their attempts to solve an old murder.

And now, here I am thinking hard about all the thinking I was observing on my TV last night – I’m thinking metacognitively!

We are the only species that loves stories. Dogs don’t sit around swapping yarns and neither do the apes. They have no plot lines, no comedies of errors, no character development, no gradual revelations of clues and tidy denouements. With the help of television we can submerge ourselves in stories and in those fascinating real and imagined landscapes. We give ourselves the opportunity to witness and participate in all the Habits of Mind that support good thinking.


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