Khan Academy sent an email out this week with a tremendous video message that every student heading back to school this fall should embrace: you can learn anything. It sounds simple, but it couldn't be more profound. As they head back to school, we outfit our kids with new clothes, shoes and school supplies. What we really need to arm them with is an open mindset: "you are going to face some obstacles this year, but just hang in there because you really can learn anything."
I've written before about Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, which emphasizes that the human brain is like a muscle that is capable of learning anything?especially through brain connections formed in the course of making and correcting mistakes. Research shows that we aren't born with a finite set of mental capabilities; the possibilities are limitless but require grit and perseverance through the stumbling blocks. It is therefore critical to develop a family or classroom culture of an open (i.e. "anyone can learn calculus?it just takes perseverance!") vs. closed ("you are either born with a good 'math mind' or not") mindset.
For some students, class work (or learning) comes easily. For others, not so much. While it might be hard for those kids for whom things don't come easily now to see it, learning how to work through hard stuff is a true gift. Eventually everyone hits a wall, and having honed the ability to apply grit and perseverance in order to get through it is what will make all the difference. My littlest guy, who had his very first day of Kindergarten today, seems to have picked up a great habit. When he faces something he finds really, really hard (like riding his two wheeler up any grade over 1%), he says out loud over and over to himself, "just hang in there". It's become a running source of joy in our house. My husband can be breaking up rock hard clay in the yard (sweating profusely and making no progress) and my youngest will walk by and say, "you just hang in there dad!". He's got the right mindset at 5!
This summer, my daughter received a major gift. She swims competitively, and despite her dedication in swimming upwards of 3 hours a day, kept missing time standard goals by a hair (and by "hair", I am talking about by tenths and hundredths of a second). She saw her teammates obtaining their goals and was happy for them, but was deeply frustrated for herself. "All I can do," she said, "is to get back in the water tomorrow and work as hard as I can." During the last two meets of the season, she didn't just hit her time standard goals, she smashed through them.
It didn't come easy. It took longer than she ever thought it would, and at times, it seemed every bit of bad luck seemed to come her way. But she never thought for a second about quitting and kept at it until she earned a crushing victory. That is a life lesson she's armed herself with. That's a life lesson she is taking into the classroom.
A t-shirt given to my daughter at Junior Olympics this summer expresses her journey perfectly. To see the Khan Academy video, go to: www.khanacademy.org/youcanlearnanything