I was reminded this weekend of a few important growth mindset lessons. I went along to my first all-girls skateboarding class today. The class is aimed at women eighteen years and over. After getting my elbow and knee pads, helmet and wrist guards on, I picked up my new skateboard and prepared for some new learning. Now you would be forgiven for thinking that I am sporty and co-ordinated. I'm not. In fact, I am all uncoordinated limbs that constantly suffer the impact of my limited spatial awareness. And this skating thing? I tried it for the first time about two years ago. So we are talking real beginner here. And on top of this, my lack of participation in a sport before this means I have few muscle memories to help ease the transition.
As I practiced my tic-tacs (turning by lifting the front of the board as shown in the gif below), it occurred to me that I had forgotten some of the important lessons about growth mindsets in the way that I was planning my lessons.
Lesson 1: Play
How often do we give students a chance just to play? How often do we structure, scaffold and constrain students? Particularly at secondary schools? How much science is done with instructions, rather than as explorations? Yet, we know that much learning happens through play whether you are an adult or a child. In my skateboarding class this morning, I was reminded of just how different my attitude is to play than it is to work. I tried different strategies, I practiced things so that I could feel confident about moving on to try something else. I tried stuff and failed, and tried again because there was no real risk involved. How often have we wished that our students would keep trying, or would search out new strategies? Yet how often do we give them the chance to play? Perhaps if I gave my students more time to play, they might seize the reduced risk environment to fail safely and try again.
Lesson 2: Choose your level
I watched in admiration at the other women who attended the skate session with me. One of them was teaching herself to drop in from increasing heights on the ramps available. Another one was practicing getting over the lowest ramps for the first time. I was practicing turning (I am not an ambiturner yet). If I had tried the drop in on day one, things would have ended badly. I would most likely have felt terrified and not very successful. At the same time, if the more advanced skaters had to practice how to do a basic turn like I was, they would most likely have felt frustrated and bored. Chances are, all of us would have gotten distracted and off task if the learning wasn't pitched at the right level for us. This was an important reminder that often in schools we make assumptions about someone's fixed mindset when in reality it is the learning that is not pitched at the right level for the students. The emotional roller coaster of learning a brand new skill reminded me that it is time to break out my professional readings about the zone of proximal development again.
Lesson 3: If you are not falling, you are not trying hard enough
Between tangles of limbs, high speed, and attempting to lift the front of the board off the ground while turning, and staying balanced, falling is pretty much inevitable. In fact, it almost feels like you are not trying hard enough if you turn up with knee pads that are not scuffed. Also, I have yet to meet a skater who is content and isn't working on a new trick. This too had me wondering about school. Just how much is failing encouraged in your school or classroom? It seemed to me that the contrast between learning to skate and learning at school was massive. You arrive at skating expecting to fail, accepting that you won't make progress if you don't take risks. All skateboarders can regale you with tales of their injuries and epic falls. Watch any skating contest and you can see how people fall, get up, and try again. Yet, even in the most growth mindset orientated classroom or school, there are so many systems, traditions and behaviours that actively discourage the kind of risk-taking in learning that skate culture seem to be made of. I have yet to sit around with a student and compare notes about how we both failed something at school or university.
So this week as I plan my classes, I intend to include a whole lot more focus on these three lessons. To start with, we are going to play with virtual reality. No scaffolding, no tasks, just time to play. I will plan time to share and celebrate the mistakes we make and get the chocolate fish ready as rewards! I think the stop-motion films we are making about plate tectonics is a perfect context for this. And finally, I'm going to adjust my exit slips for the week to give me feedback about whether I pitched the various parts of my lesson in that sweet spot between can and can't. I think a renewed focus on differentiation is just what the
PS: If you are in Auckland, 18+ years old, and a female, feel free to join me on Sunday mornings at 11am for OnBoard Skate's all girl skate session.