Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Solving a Great Mystery

As a teenager in high school, Amanda Gefter was relatively disengaged from classes and studying. It was not that she wasn’t smart, was not interested in the world around her, or did not want to learn, but that teachers and her school did not manage to grab her attention and excite her with the subjects they taught. In her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter explains the interest she took in physics and science outside the classroom, and discusses how interesting science is, yet how little of the mystery of our world was actually conveyed in her classes.

 

She writes, “Einstein said, ‘This huge world stands before us like a great eternal riddle.’ Why couldn’t any of my teachers have told me that? ‘Listen,’ they could have said, ‘no one has any idea what the hell is going on. We wake up in this world and we don’t know why we’re here or how anything works. I mean, look around. Look how bizarre it all is! What the hell is all this stuff? Reality is a huge mystery, and you have a choice to make. You can run from it, you can placate yourself with fairy tales, you can just pretend everything’s normal, or  you can stare that mystery in the eye and try to solve it. If you are one of the brave ones to choose the latter, welcome to science.”

 

We present science in school in a way that allows us to test student knowledge. The knowledge we test is usually just basic facts and information that can be evaluated with multiple choice questions. Science in the real world, however, is not multiple choice. We don’t actually know all the answers and the quest to find them involves creative thinking to design experiments, evaluate the world, observe complex phenomena, and crowdsource knowledge to establish accepted theories of what is taking place. When we reduce this complex web that we call science to basic multiple choice questions, we create an illusion that science is well understood and that we have all the answers figured out. Students become disengaged because we lose the mystery and fail to connect the challenging science to the important developments of the world.

 

To inspire kids with science we need to first obliterate the idea that math is hard. Math is not hard, it is just a different frame for understanding the interactions of the universe. If we tell our kids that math is a secrete code to the universe that they have the power to understand, then they can approach the subject with less apprehension and more intrigue, and they can be more successful. From there we must explain the mysteries of the universe that we are working to better understand, and we must demonstrate to kids the interesting work and knowledge being undertaken and discovered every day. We must create new ways of transmitting knowledge and testing knowledge that don’t involve multiple choice questions and textbooks that present information without connections to real world applications.

The Vague and Distant Goals of School

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats addresses the struggles that young black men growing up in impoverished neighborhoods face in the street, and also in the classroom. Growing up, Coats dealt with fear and insecurity which created an atmosphere of anxiety and stress that was not alleviated at school or in the classroom. Part of his struggle had to do with the challenges of seeing the benefits of school and how the learning strategies and control of the classroom failed to inspire him.
We like to imagine that our schools operate in a way that inspires ever child and encourages every child to grow, expand, and become a better version of who they can be, but not every child has this experience. It is foolish for us to think that every child will have the same experience and that every child will succeed in any given school environment. The human mind is incredibly varied and with different backgrounds, skills, an abilities, we react differently to different environments. We have too many children in schools to be able to customize an individual education for each child, so any system we implement will necessarily not resonate with some kids. Unfortunately for Coats and many other black students, our education system did not connect with him, and racial discrimination creeped into his school experience. The system that Coats found himself within as a school child failed to inspire him and instaed reiterated the idea that being poor and a minority in our country was a bad thing.
Not having the right cultural understanding when entering school can put a child far behind and cause teachers and other adults to look down on the child and his or her family. When students are not culturally aligned and adults avoid them because they are different, we isolate those children and find a way to tell them that their education is not really important. We also set up a system where a lack of parental involvement leads to a failure of children to fully participate and engage in their schooling, which can frustrate children and teachers. Beyond this frustration, we evaluate our teachers in a standard model that does not seem to fit well with low income students and families, driving the cycle of disappointed teachers and the doubling down on the negative imagery of the poor minority child.
In his book Coats writes, “the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?” His cultural experiences did not align with the education he was being provided and the distant future he was told to work toward was never clear and never something he could see. Without role models, without inclusive visions of success, we shut young people out and tell them to strive toward something that they are never meant to reach. When education does not align with the way our children think and the actual skills needed to grow and develop in our world today, we are telling them to run toward success, but we are not giving them a map and we are not giving them the things they need to run quickly and smoothly.