When Pupils Talk in Absolutes: Understanding Mindset though Self-Narrative

By Sarah Donarski, English Dept.

With the hype around growth mindset, it’s no wonder there is more attention being drawn to the ways that students understand their strengths, capabilities and passions. I, myself, am extremely guilty of asking a child to ‘tell me about themselves’, to which I accept vague, absolute statements such as “I am shy” or “I don’t like talking in front of people.”   Even in my adult life, a lot of discourse is reliant on an individual being able to assert these statements and they are actually praised for doing so.  Think of the plus points achieved for saying things like “you’re a hard worker” and you “feel confident” in an interview – you probably nailed it.

What we rarely bring ourselves back to is how malleable and environmentally influenced these personalities are.  In fact, there is no doubt you could take an extremely shy person and, given the right environmental factors (friends, family, relatives, passions), they could instantly become the most confident.  Similarly, the most confident could turn to dust if they are thrown into something completely out of their depth.  So actually when we assert these so adamantly, we are lying to ourselves.

Which brings me to the classroom.  We have all heard these absolute statements “But Miss, I hate reading” or “I’m so bad at mathematics” or “I’m just not arty”.  Current approaches to teaching have (rightly so!) started to address this as a ‘fixed mindset’ and the most accepted solution to attempt to coerce the student away from this thinking is Growth Mindset (see: http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/).

Many of us by now have been trained in Growth Mindset as an effective pedagogy to encourage students to believe in their ability. However, I am worried that too many training sessions do not successfully communicate the underlying philosophies related to a child’s (or adult’s) cognition but instead, simplify it by pinning its effectiveness to the word ‘yet’ – which I believe is just as damaging.

While I do not condone the use of the word ‘yet’ in the Growth Mindset phenomenon, I do wonder its effectiveness in motivating the pupil who hears the word ‘yet’ in every lesson.  Let’s imagine, as a child, hearing your teacher assert the statement “You just can’t do it yet!” in your fifth lesson that day.  No matter how cheerful, or enthusiastically that is expressed, it is bound to be disheartening.  For me, hearing it for the 5th time would only reiterate three things: 1) I can’t do it 2) I can’t do anything and 3) It’s going to be a long, hard struggle to be able to do something.  Not only this, I also believe there will certainly be a point to which that person will become ‘numb’ to the idea of the word ‘yet’ as a self-motivating philosophy; certainly we, as adults, can see straight through it.  What we need is to properly understand is the underlying philosophies – the way we construct our self-narrative – to assist young people in their cognitive dissonance and to train their self-narration into adult life.
Mindset_Master_System

So what is the underlying theory? It is simply understanding our self-narrative (note: narrative is the key word here – for all English teachers).

To put it simply, it is the theory that we, as people, have a constructed image of ourselves.  This self-fabrication is the assumptions we make of ‘who we are’ and is generally based from previous experience, however, sometimes it can be constructed from nothing at all.  To make matters worse, however, we also construct the narrative that what we think about ourselves is accurate. In doing so, we constantly set ourselves up to be our strongest deceivers.

Teaching pupils to understand that self-narration – or absolute statements about themselves – is a fallacy is essential for building their confidence both academically, socially and physically.  We have to teach them that their self-narrative is not only incorrect, but a fictional, malleable construction influenced constantly by a plethora of factors.  I do not want to be trained in persistently telling students “You don’t like English.. YET!” as though I am some teacher-guru-magician that will enable them, at some point, to reach a liking in English (a final destination in some journey they undertake by being in my classroom).  Because that is not the case.  The truth is, they have simply formed a narrative bias that makes them think they do not enjoy English based on previous and current environmental factors.  And there could be many: perhaps their previous teacher had no longer been inspired by the asceticism of Wilde? Perhaps they had never tried to actually read a book? Perhaps cognitive factors? Either way, it is not that they do not like English, or Science, or Maths.  It is that they currently do not have the right environment that enables them to delve into that passion and enjoy it.

So what could be a useful tool in ensuring students are aware of this?

  1. Challenge any student back when they say “I hate _____” or “I’m bad at______”.  Simply ask them: when have you loved English? What book do you love? What famous quote? Coach them into searching for a time where they may have loved that subject or achieved something creative and inspirational in that subject.  Allow them to delve into a memory of that subject that really captured their imaginations and watch the way they light up talking about it.  There is bound to be one.
  2. Consider that child in your planning for a lesson.  You don’t have to go overboard, but delve into their passions and interests.  Enable them to lead.  Most importantly, in order to address the self-narrative, you must talk to the student after.  Ask them whether they enjoyed your lesson and, if so, make them aware of their own fallacy: their ‘absolute statement’ of “I don’t like English” – encourage them to consider why this statement is no longer valid.

Growth mindset is a wonderful way to enable us to see the ways we can change, stretch and grow.  But it does not build a child’s confidence in challenging their own self-deception because it still relies on a lot of telling. If you can get a student to discover their own narrative, it acts as a counter to the story they have constructed.  It provides another preposition that makes their original statement a fallacy.  They can, in fact, love all subjects.  They just need to change their mindset and potentially one or two factors to achieve this more consistently.  Of course, this is not new to us as educators. It’s simply another way to look at it. ​

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