Learned Helplessness

Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ is on my mind again.

How do we develop a sense of self worth in our children?

If we praise children predominantly for who they are, rather than what they do, what do they learn?

If we tell a child, “You are so clever,” when she comes home with an A on a test, or shows us a beautifully executed drawing of the street where she lives, what does she learn? She is coming to believe that she is worthy simply because she is told so.

If instead we say, “I know you studied very hard for that test, well done”, or “I see you used what you learned about perspective in that drawing. It’s great”, what is she learning that is different? She is learning that effort is of great worth.

If we praise children simply for being, they come to believe that their self worth lies in the opinions of others. 

This can be disturbingly disempowering.

Let’s follow the possible repercussions of believing that I am a valuable, worthwhile person because other people (my parents) tell me that I am, regardless of what I do.

My goal as I grow up and go into the world will be to ensure that I mix with people who think well of me, regardless of what I do because my sense of self worth rests in the opinions of others.

This may mean that I will prefer to associate with people who think even less of themselves than they do of me, so that I can always seem more worthy by comparison.

It is much easier to look like a high flyer when you travel with a low flying flock.

This is a recipe for disaster.

If we want our children to challenge themselves, to seek out the best the world has to offer then we need to ensure that we praise them for what they do.

Then they will come to believe that their worth lies in their own hands, in what they choose to do with their lives.

Unconditional love is not the same thing as unconditional praise.

We love our children unconditionally, but we praise them for what they do.

Love me for who I am.

Praise me for what I do.


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The Power of ‘Yet’

I can’t do that.

I’ve never been any good at that.

Nah, its not something I’m any good at.

Too hard. Always has been.

How many times have you said that?

How many times have you heard that?

It’s a cop out!

Carol Dweck, the author of ‘Mindsets’ has described the word YET as powerful.

Every time you allow one of those ‘can’t’ comments to pass unremarked and unchallenged, you contribute another brick to the wall that surrounds and limits human achievement. In yourself, your children, your students.

Every time you add the word ‘yet’ to the statement “I can’t do that”, you remove a brick, you begin to create a doorway, an opening in the walls that hold us all back from achieving above and beyond what our limited expectations tell us is possible.

Make ‘yet’ a powerful word in your vocabulary.


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Let’s Hold Each Other and Dance

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches I would like to tell a story that has only an oblique relevance to education but says much about the strengths of humanity.

I went to live in the USA in January of 2001, leaving my grown up daughter behind in Australia. I missed her desperately. I was rocked by the events of 9/11 nine months later. As an assistant principal in my first American school, a school located deep in the middle of a highly militarized part of the country, I found myself being asked to deal with advice to parents and to teachers. I will never lose the image of walking the hallways and discovering a TV set on in every classroom, the teacher’s eyes glued to the screens and the children at their desks and tables, confused and fearful. As hard as it was, my first step was to have all those TV sets turned off. Teachers were in shock and the children did not need to see those images unmediated by a loving parent to hold them close.

As the day progressed more and more parents came to collect their children and take them home. They knew something profound had just happened, that might change their lives forever. They had no idea what might come next.

My daughter’s birthday was at the end of the month and I wanted to buy her something in time to mail it back to Australia. A couple of days after the tragedy of the towers I was in a book store in our local shopping mall. Browsing through the books I came across one with a CD attached. It contained a poem entitled “I Hope You Dance”.

My daughter has dance in her blood. Her father was, among other things, a ballet dancer. I find it impossible to keep my feet still if the photo copier starts to kick out a decent rhythm in the school office. It was inevitable that I would be drawn to this title.

I asked the shop assistant if I might listen to the CD and she put it on the store’s player. As we listened, we both began to weep. I was crying because I was missing my beautiful girl so much. She explained the reasons for her tears. She had just received a phone call from her brother, telling her that he was safe. He worked in the World Trade Building in New York.

As the song played we stood hugging each other in the middle of that store, tears rolling down our faces. Two women who had never met, but had been brought together by circumstances and were giving each other comfort. I don’t know what the other shoppers made of this. Perhaps not too much. All emotions were so high in those days that a couple of weeping women might not have looked much out of place.

I bought the CD and sent it to my girl.

Here are the word to that song, written by Mark Daniel Sanders and Tia Sillers and sung by Lee Ann Womack

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder;
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger;Image
May you never take one single breath for granted;
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance
I hope you dance

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance;
Never settle for the path of least resistance.
Living might mean taking chances, but they’re worth taking,
Loving might be a mistake, but it’s worth making.
Don’t let some Hellbent heart leave you bitter;
When you come close to selling out, reconsider;
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,

I hope you dance,
I hope you dance.

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance;
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,



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Let’s hear it for the tiger mothers!

tiger-cub_1714112iIf you ask any young mother who is the most important child in the world to her, she will reply, “mine”. We would expect nothing different. This feeling doesn’t change when the child turns five and goes to school. Every loved and wanted child is the centre of his or her parent’s world. Pity the child who isn’t.

And so it seems odd when a teacher complains, “She thinks her child is the most important child in my classroom”.

Of course she does, and the sooner you acknowledge this, the sooner you will be able to set up a productive relationship between teacher and parent.

No parent sees a class full of children from the same point of view as the teacher. Good teachers strive to ensure that each child is treated as one among equals.

But no parents view their son or daughter as simply ‘one among equals’.

As a principal I have dealt with many an irate parent in my office. Sometimes their sense of outrage has seemed totally unreasonable from my viewpoint, where their child is simply ‘one among equals’. But it’s this sense of my child being the centre of the universe that leads parents to cry ‘unfair’ and demand to know, “what are you doing to punish the other kid?”

It’s easier to deal with the Tiger Mothers who look as if they might leap across your desk and tear your throat out at any minute, if we understand why they feel like that. They are protecting their young, the centre of their universe, the most precious thing in their lives, at a time when they feel their cub might be under threat.

Give me a Tiger Mother any day rather than the disinterested, unengaged parents who never walk through the school door or pick up the phone and dial the school’s number.

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Babies and Bath Water

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. I strongly recommend it. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the differences between ‘deep reading’ and the kind of interconnected, hyperlink driven reading that we engage with when we read on the internet.

Deep reading is the thoughtful, internalized reading we engage on when we read a book from cover to cover, when we engage with it at a deep level and contemplate the characters or the ideas contained within it. It is essentially linear – we start at the beginning and go on to the end.

Internet based reading is a different animal. It is filled with distractions and opportunities to be sidetracked that take up working memory as we decide whether to ignore them or follow their seductive paths. Carr is afraid that this kind of reading – and it is fast becoming the predominate form of reading – will lead to superficial thinking.

In a recent conversation with a university professor friend I heard her bemoaning the kind of ‘gist thinking’ that she felt was becoming far too commonplace among her students. “They think they understand, but they are satisfied with just the gist of the idea”. This, I think, is exactly what Carr is writing about.

But when something new comes along we are naive to think it will simply replace what has gone on before. Every new medium does not mark the previous media for obsolescence. People feared that TV would bankrupt cinemas. It has done no such thing and multiplexes thrive and continue to grow. We thought TV might destroy live theatre, but it has not. Certainly the CD led to the demise of the cassette tape, but that was because the CD did exactly the same thing as the cassette tape – only better.

Internet reading, with its interconnected, networked nature involves a very different kind of thinking from the deep, linear thinking that a good book offers. They both have us thinking in different ways, and both ways are powerful.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to teach our kids how to navigate the rich, interconnected world of the internet. We need to encourage them to make connections, to link old knowledge with new discoveries, to create networks in their understandings than are essentially horizontal, broad and integrating. But we also need to make sure they see the value of deep reading, of mining at depth a rich seam of knowledge. There is a place for ‘gist’ thinking, but it doesn’t replace deep thinking.





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On Books, Ipads and Kids

l was sitting recently in a doctor’s waiting room. Next to me was a young boy of eight or nine completely absorbed in a shoot-em-up game on his Ipad. His back was bent over and his eyes were glued to the screen in total, absorbed focus. People came and went, the ladies behind the reception desk asked questions, offered advice and gave people forms to fill in. The doctors came out from time to time to usher their patients into their consulting rooms.

The boy saw none of this. He was totally occupied killing aliens.

How do we learn about the world and how it operates? We learn much by observing – by watching and listening to the people around us and by trying to make sense of what we see and hear. But what is this lad seeing and hearing? What world is he striving to make sense of? A world full of aliens, where his job is to shoot them.

Would I have minded so much if he had sat there absorbed in a book? Might I not have been pleased to see him engaged in such a traditional and respected activity? Perhaps, but there is a significant difference between the involvement we achieve when reading a book and when we are shooting aliens on an Ipad,

When I read, I set the pace.

When I play a shoot-em-up on my Ipad, the game sets the pace.

I know that if I lift my eyes from the page of my novel, when I look down it will still be exactly as I left it, I can re-enter its world exactly where I was before I looked up. Not so with my Ipad game. A momentary lapse of concentration might see me dead or missing magic charms, extra powers can popup out of nowhere or I could be suddenly, unknowingly ambushed by a whole new set of aliens.

l am the player, but l am not in control. The level of engagement in these games is of a very different order from the level of engagement in the most engrossing book. To stay in the game the player needs to remain totally disengaged from the environment and everything going on around.

We see children involved like this with tablet games in restaurants, on public transport, in cars, anywhere that adults want a bit of peace and quiet. It is so easy to keep a child occupied with a tablet. But what are they missing out on? The world is going on around them and they are not a part of it and so they are not learning about it.

We have a lot of work to do. Our children are living in a different world and we adults need to understand that world so that we can help our children make sense of it. If we don’t, they will make their own sense, but their decisions will lack the wisdom, experience and advice that parents have always handed their children as their road maps. To fail to do this is to abdicate our responsibility for helping our children grow up.

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July 10, 2013 · 1:42 pm

The Second Time Around

The upheaval in our politics over the last couple of days, together with an invitation to act as a mentor, have got me thinking. Can it really be “more wonderful, the second time around”?

In the small number of years since I left my role as an elementary (primary) school principal I have frequently thought, “I would be a much better principal now, if I had the chance again.” Why am I thinking this way?

I am an artists as well as an educator. I have an easel in the house and there is usually a painting on the go. I find myself irritated when people stand with their noses up against the canvas, perusing every brush stroke. I like to do that with my work and with the work of others because I am interested in the techniques. But I want people to stand back from a painting and take it in as a whole. As a practitioner I need to understand the bits and pieces that go to make the finished product. I need to understand how colors are laid on the canvas, which ways the brush strokes go, how one area is blended into another. But to really understand the painting, I need to stand back.

So it was with being a principal. To really understand the profession, I needed to stand back. While I was in my school, walking the hallways, sitting in my office, talking with teachers, watching lessons, I was almost entirely preoccupied with the technique. Every day was so full of technical decision making and procedural, managerial necessities – the brushes, the paint, the mixing and the application. Teaching too. I now have the time to read, to explore the reasons for teaching the way we do, time to examine the details of approaches that seem to work better than the ways we have traditionally done things.

We don’t often get a chance to do things a second time around, but mentoring can be a surrogate. I enjoy my work with schools as a consultant because, among other things, it gives me the opportunity to communicate a point of view that isn’t enmeshed in the close up detail of practice. My contribution to a school is firmly rooted in years of experience as a teacher and a principal, but just as importantly it has the added element of having been able to stand back and take in the whole picture. I may not get a chance to do things ‘a second time around’ but I hope this opportunity to stand back and see a bigger picture can be useful.

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