It’s time for the mindset talk in my physics classes. I’ve been trying to prime them for a while now. Honors Physics read part of Carol Dweck’s book as part of their summer homework and two chapters of The Talent Code during the year. The “regular” physics class has been talking about myelin and how feeling confused means you’re about to learn something. On the course evaluation in January, 36% of them agreed with “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.” while 38% agreed with “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.” (it wasn’t either/or).
I’ve decided that the regular class is going to read a short part of Bounce aloud and discuss it on Monday. Honors Physics is going to read an abridged version of How Not to Talk to Your Kids (the parts about very young children are cut out) for homework and talk about it in class. We read it in Honors last year at this time, and it had a profound effect on many of my students. They start to recognize themselves as they read the article, and some start to recognize what has happened to them this year in physics. At this point in the year, almost all of them will have “hit the wall” in this class. They will have encountered something difficult enough that they couldn’t immediately understand how to do it. For the students who have always found easy success in math and science, they initially believe this means they’ve reached the end of their “potential” and are no longer as smart as they’d always known they were. Sure, they’ve earned A’s on every math test they’ve ever taken, even as they’ve watched their friends struggle, but 10th grade science is as far as they are going to get on their academic journey. This is the end of the road.
By March, though, many of those same students have been able to work through that first difficult problem. They might now believe that they are “getting away with” their performance in this class. In an unforeseen amount of luck, they have managed to hoodwink their teacher into believing that they are still smart. Secretly (or honestly, in some cases, not so secretly), they are ashamed about being a failure. I think they are about ready to meet the fixed and growth mindsets and to hear some good news: however smart they were before, they have actually gotten smarter this year. And they will keep doing so for the rest of their lives, should they continue choosing challenging experiences.
What is the point of a test?
Earlier this year, I started thinking about this question: What is the immediate goal of a student while taking a test? Answer all of the questions correctly, maybe. Show what they know (or as we like to say around here: celebrate/demonstrate mastery)?
Watching my students interact with a test, though, I started to realize that for many of them the goal seemed to be this: Hide what you don’t know. I recognized it by looking at the barrage of “clarification” questions that border on desperate pleas for answers, by the early disbelief that Standards-Based Grading truly meant that they would get another chance (and another and another), by questions like, “I don’t know how to do this one, can I just skip it?”
And as I started to consider this idea, it became clear just what an insidious demon it was. Where does it originate? Why do they think they should be hiding what they don’t know? They must be getting the message that either their teachers don’t want that information, or that it will only ever be used against them (perhaps confirmation that a grade is actually a judgement of their character and value). What is the point of letting the teacher know that you are confused about something if they have all but guaranteed that they won’t help you become less confused once you do?
So. New goal: Show me what you don’t know so we can get started fixing it. Show me what you don’t know, because this isn’t your one and only chance to succeed. Show me what you don’t know, because we still have time. I promise I won’t give up on you.
After all, if you want to be successful, failure is not optional. If you want to get better at something, then you need to practice what you can’t do. If you are practicing what you can’t do, you are going to make mistakes. So in physics class, you’re not just allowed to make mistakes. They’re required.