Hidden influences on student learning

Sometimes as teachers we scratch our head wondering why some students perform to their potential and why others simply don’t. Yes we know that personal temperament, parental influence, developmental delays and prior learning and experience all contribute but what else can be playing out below the surface?

Maybe the mindset that a student has developed has a big influence?

By three and a half most children have developed mindsets that greatly influence their future lives. Psychologist and researcher Dr Carol Dweck explored what influences our potential success and found that rather than it being about ability, it was more about what people believed about why they had failed. If we believe we fail because we are dumb, we limit our future attempts at growing in ability. If we think, “I failed because I didn’t understand the question or the task or I never worked hard enough” then that means we can fix that. Dr Dweck says we create flexible (growth-oriented) or fixed mindsets — the more flexible, the better our chances of success in school and life.

“Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them each task is a challenge to their self image — and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue activities at which they are sure they will shine — and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish. Students with learning goals on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake is a chance to learn = achievement goal theory.” — Dr Carol Dweck

Mastery oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something  and learning goals inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviours than performance goals.

Dweck has found that children develop mindsets about goodness. Many kids believe they are either good or bad, others think they can get better at being good. Preschoolers with the second mindset (the growth one) feel ok about themselves after they have messed up and are less judgemental of others. They are also more likely to set things right, and to learn from their mistakes.

Dweck believes many of the things we do to kids makes them non-learners. Infallible pressures make THEM become non-learners.

An example of a fixed mindset that can cause students problems is the perfection-driven mindset.

Tal Ben Shahar in his book, Being Happy: You don’t have to be perfect to lead a richer, happier life, writes:

“The desire for success is part of our nature. And many of us are driven to greater and greater heights which can lead personal success and societal progress. However to lead a life that is both successful and fulfilling our standards of success must be realistic at we must be able to enjoy our achievements. We need to ground our dreams in reality and appreciate our accomplishments.”

A fixed perfection mindset can cause problems for students because if what they do is not perfect they struggle. They will tend to do one of the three things:

  1. Reject the failure
  2. Reject the painful emotions that are aroused
  3. Reject the success — still not enough — strive for a higher goal.

With the increased pressure with national testing, the perfection driven students in our school could be struggling as much as the students who are less academically able.

We now see intense fear from schoolchildren who do not venture out of the box, who stop experimenting and thus diminish their capacity to learn and grow — then later they become chronic procrastinators, afraid to begin a project unless they are certain of a perfect outcome. We see it in the workplace where innovation is sacrificed on the altar of the tried and true, the safe and the mediocre! This pattern starts early in life and maybe as educators we need to be mindful of helping students with this pattern to learn that growth and new learning is more valuable than being perfect.

There are two forms of perfectionism. Negative perfectionism is seen clinically as perfectionism and positive perfectionism is known as optimalism.

The perfectionist expects her path toward any goal to be direct, smooth and free of obstacles. When inevitably it isn’t — and she fails or when things don’t turn out the way she expected — she can be extremely frustrated and have difficulties coping. This is why it’s important that students have been exposed to opportunities when they lose, they fail and they are disappointed, and learn that you recover. This is what play is for — lots and lots of play builds the emotional competence to manage the bumps and bruises of life. School is full of moments of learning and growth, success and failure — and that is healthy.

While the perfectionist rejects failure, the optimalist accepts it as a normal part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.

The perfectionist is never satisfied, she sets goals and standards that are impossible to meet thereby from the outset rejecting the possibility of success and never taking any pleasure from her accomplishments. No matter what she has it simply is never good enough.

Perfectionists reject reality and replace it with a fantasy world. This rejection of failure leads to anxiety, because the possibility that they may fail is always there. Their rejection of painful emotions often leads to an intensification of the very emotion they are trying to suppress, ultimately leading to even more pain. Their rejection of real-world limits and constraints leads them to set unreasonable and unattainable standards for success and because they can never meet these standards, they are constantly plagued by feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

In essence perfectionists reject everything that deviates from their flawless, faultless ideal vision and as a result they suffer whenever they do not meet their own unrealistic standards. Optimalists accept and make the best of everything that life has to offer.

Having flexible thinking cues like the following can help the perfectionist become more like an optimalist:

  • Never mind, there’s always tomorrow.
  • This too shall pass.
  • Now that’s an interesting result.
  • Things don’t necessarily happen for the best but some people are able to make the best of things that happen.
  • When mistakes are learning opportunities, growth occurs!
  • If you want to increase your success rate double your failure rate. 

— — Thomas Watson

This essentially means that how we parent, care for and teach children can either help or hinder the mindsets that our children form. If we can encourage children that learning and growing is the main goal of all human experience, rather than the performance itself, they will have a better chance of success.