Recently, I had a mom email to say, “My son will not be re-enrolling in your course next year. Thank you very much.” Now, this was a terse and shocking email to receive from a parent that I had just spoken with a couple of days before. This mom couldn’t say enough nice things about the writing her child was doing in my class. After investigating, I discovered that during a peer review session the son had received both positive and negative comments about his fiction writing.
“My child was just so discouraged by the comments he received,” she explained. “I hope you will understand that he cannot continue in your class.”
I did not understand and this was not consistent with what I saw in the classroom that day. I poured carefully through all the comment papers, looking specifically at the ones directed to this student. I was expecting to find hate speech toward this child’s work. Instead, the comments he received looked something like, “you might try adding a comma in the 3rd line” or “this is really good, but could be better with more descriptive adjectives.”
So, here we go…a discrepancy between what actually happened and what the parent perceived as a threat to her child’s ability. This was a parent that wanted to protect her child from the pain of negative criticism. To me, this situation is demonstrative of a larger problem I see happening in our culture: People have it all figured out. They’ve got paper writing, parenting, relationships, God, their life…. all figured out. They don’t need any help. “I’m good,” they will say. Or, “My child is a fine writer or test taker or history student.” Suggesting otherwise is an insult to the parent and the family. “What do you mean my child made a 67 on her paper? She followed every check point on the rubric.” My response: “If you would have looked at your child’s paper, you would have seen 5 misspelled words, 3 grammatical errors, 4 punctuation errors, two formatting errors and one content error. This child has room for growth!”
What happened to the idea of everyone having “room for improvement”? Or, what about the idea that mistakes are “opportunities to learn”? As I was telling my youngest this week, “Did you think you could just roll out of the crib and write an algebraic expression without any consultation?” As humanity, most of us were not born with talent chips in our heads. We must struggle and practice and perfect, even if imperfectly. How can we grow if we are not willing to admit that we need help? How can we become more like Christ if we have no hardships to test our character?
The first step, it would seem, is to admit that we don’t have it all figured out.
I struggle with how to gently combat these attitudes around me. I’ve been reading about growth mindset and how it affects our approach to learning and receiving criticism from others. The idea of a growth mindset was developed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck has been researching the concepts of fixed vs. growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their talents or intelligence is a fixed trait and that talent alone creates success, without effort. In contrast, “in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point.” (edglossary.org) The outcome of a growth mindset is a love of learning and a resilience, to accept and use constructive criticism.
As a parent, I must resist the urge to butt in, “My kid needs to make an A on this assignment.” Rather, I need to promote the notion that “You need to know this material,” and “it will help you to learn this concept.” Making an A on an assignment is vastly different today than knowing the material. Really knowing something, internalizing a concept means that you’ve spent time with it; you’ve chewed on it, like the end of a pencil and made it yours. That kind of knowledge comes with risk taking and set backs.
As a teacher, I must find a way to show students that criticism is just the beginning. Criticism and feedback force us to grapple with our choices. Knowing that our work will be challenged, forces us to examine our choices along the way.
When I was in college, I gathered up enough courage to show a piece of writing to one of my professors. “What do you think about this poem,” I asked?
“It isn’t very good,” he said.
A lump formed in my throat. This was not easy news to hear and at that point, I had to make a decision: Am I going to throw my hands up in the air and say, “That’s it! I’m a writing idiot. I quit.” Or am I going to use this as a motivation to work harder? Thankfully, I chose the latter. I’m telling my kids the same thing: Be thankful when you get negative feedback. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Take the opportunity and grow with it.
Romans 5: 3 – 4
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope;