Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

September 16: "Try Harder"

Welcome to a new school year! I trust you had a wonderful summer and are invigorated and energized for an outstanding school year. As educators well know, a classroom of students can quickly consume vast amounts of energy, and require endless patience, endurance, and fortitude - all I trust have been replenished over the last few months.

Upon meeting a person for the first-time, we intuitively develop a first impression of the person and this impression is important and lasting. Whether positive or negative, social scientists tell us that this process of developing a first impression takes an average of seven seconds.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” was the tagline for a Head & Shoulders shampoo ad campaign in the 1980s. “The first five minutes” of an interview are what really matter, describing how interviewers make initial assessments and spend the rest of the interview working to confirm those assessments. If they like you, they look for reasons to like you more. If they don’t like your handshake or the awkward introduction, then the interview is essentially over because they spend the rest of the meeting looking for reasons to reject you. These small moments of observation that are then used to make bigger decisions are called “thin slices.”

At the start of a new school year, it is important for teachers to be mindful of the words of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist in the early 1900s, who said, “Children grow into the intellectual environment that they are in.” Just as in a personal one-on-one meeting, students quickly develop their initial impressions upon meeting their teacher for the first time. A teacher’s first few days with a new class are critical for a teacher since students are developing their first impression of the teacher and goes a long way to establishing the classroom environment for the coming year. Setting an environment that is affirmative, tolerant, and energetic in the first week of school will go a long way establishing a positive “intellectual environment” that Vygotsky speaks of.

Imagine how you would feel as a student if any one of the following comments below were made in reference to you. These are actual comments made on student report cards by teachers in the New York City public school system. All teachers were reprimanded but, not fired

Before we begin, let me note: I do NOT advocate the use of any of the comments below at any time or under any circumstance

1. Since my last report, your child has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.

2. I would not allow this student to breed.

3. Your child has delusions of adequacy.

4. Your son is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.

5. Your son sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them.

6. The student has a 'full six-pack' but lacks the plastic thingie to hold it all together.

7. This child has been working with glue too much.

8. When your daughter's IQ reaches 50, she should sell.

9. The gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn't coming.

10. If this student were any more stupid, he'd have to be watered twice a week.

Obviously, not exactly the nicest things to say to students at anytime regardless of the circumstance or situation.

Before I continue, a personal note on the above comments: I have no idea why the teachers who made these comments where not immediately removed from the classroom, if not terminated.

One comment often used by teachers that is much less deleterious and hurtful than those above and believed to be motivating in nature by educators can nevertheless have a negative impact on students.

Most educators at one time or another probably told a student unwittingly to “try harder” when they were confronted with a problem. It is an accepted, normal expression to use when trying to motivate students. I know I have used this expression in the past and we were all most likely told the same thing when we where students.

However, a number of leading educators are of the belief we should never ask a student to try harder.

For instance on a professional level, how would you feel if you went to your principal with a problem and he/she told you to just “try harder?” After trying what you believed to be all possible remedies to a problem or situation, you would probably be a little disillusioned with this response.

What message are we sending to our students when we tell them to “try harder?” How is a student supposed to interpret this message?

First, how do we know that the student have not already tried their hardest? Elementary students are given school report card comments like, “If Bob tried harder, he would do better.” When we tell children to try harder, how do we know that they didn’t try their hardest or already are not putting in their best effort? A student once asked me if someone has ever “invented a test to test trying?” Imagine if a person did invent a test that measured “trying harder.” They could make a million dollars selling it to schools that give effort grades.

Second, when we tell students to “try harder,” are we telling them that they would succeed if they were not so lazy and unmotivated?

When a child takes his first two steps and falls, no one says, “If he only tried harder to walk, he won’t fall.” No one would ever imply that the young child is lazy or unmotivated, or blame the child for not walking.

I never met a young child who said, “I hope when I go to school I do poorly and fail.” Moreover, they are always full of energy, creativity, optimism, and self-confidence. Failure is not an option and is the furthest thing from their minds.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 3.5 million first grade students entered our nation’s public schools this year, and I am certain their parents do not envision their children becoming dropouts and not graduating high school, or in some extreme cases, leaving school in ninth grade.

Robert White, a Harvard psychologist in the 1950s, said that a basic assumption of human behavior is that everyone wants to succeed, master their environment, and receive respect from other people. White writes that, “Too often in a psychoanalytical model, we say there are two main motivators, sex and aggression. I agree they are important. But I believe we are missing one of the major motivators in life called the “Drive for Effectiveness”, the motivation to be effective and successful. It is there at birth.”

Two psychologists, B. L. Alderman & Jim Taylor (2005), opine that, “You should never say a child is unmotivated. You know what that would mean. They’re dead. When someone says a person is unmotivated in school, what they’re really saying is that the student is not motivated to do what we want them to do.”

Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist and on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, writes that the following words should be banned from all schools because they involve a negative mindset: This student is lazy, is unmotivated, and doesn’t care. He believes that “if you use these words, it shows you have written off the child.”

Offering insights into this issue, Brooks explains “some children are motivated by ‘avoidance motivation’ as a way to protect themselves from situations that will lead to failure and humiliation. If a student is ‘unmotivated,’ the question to ask is how do we lessen avoidance motivation in a student who is using it. The question is, ‘what do people avoid and why?’ Most people will avoid situations due to the possibility of humiliation. Too many things we do in schools are prescriptions for failure. Ask the question of how do I lessen avoidance motivation instead of how do I punish.”

So how do we address this mindset and what can you do to change it when you see it in a child. Addressing these questions, Brooks offers two insights.

Children must believe that their efforts will result in learning, just as successful learners already believe if they put in effort, they can improve and learn. Conversely, the children who are not successful learners will start to believe and question why should they put in the effort if it is not going to end up anywhere. Many times, it is not an issue of effort but an issue in the student believing that their efforts will lead somewhere.

A second solution to this issue is helping students develop an understanding of the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the fear of making mistakes.

The fear of making a mistake is one of the greatest impediments to motivation and learning. If you feel that you cannot succeed, you are not going to be motivated to learn. Student must understand and believe that mistakes are part of the learning process, are expected, and are valuable. Far too often students develop a negative mindset toward learning due to the fear and humiliation associated with making a mistake. They believe their peers will view them as stupid and dumb, and many times, begin to actually believe they are dumb and stupid. They believe that no matter how much effort they exert, they will never learn. On the other end of the spectrum are the resilient children who understand they will benefit and learn from their mistakes.

What can we do to minimize the fear of making mistakes and help students comprehend that mistakes are expected and accepted? One method is for the teacher to have an open, frank class discussion early in the school year discussing the advantages of mistakes, and in fact, give examples of how they learned from their mistakes. During class, I always encouraged students to identify my mistakes and awarded students who identified them.

On of the main elements of an effective learner is that they understand their unique strengths and learning styles as well as their mindsets. “Different minds learn differently," writes Dr. Mel Levine, one of the best-known learning experts and pediatricians in America today. In his #1 New York Times bestseller A Mind at a Time, Levine explains that some students are strong in certain areas and some are strong in others, but no one is equally capable in all. Yet, most schools still cling to a one-size-fits-all education philosophy. As a result, many children struggle because their learning patterns don't fit the way they are being taught. Levine shows parents and educators how to identify these individual learning patterns, explaining how they can strengthen a child's abilities and either bypass or help overcome the child's weaknesses, producing positive results instead of repeated frustration and failure.

Consistent progress can result when we understand that not every child can do equally well in every type of learning and begin to pay more attention to individual learning patterns -- and individual minds -- so that we can maximize children's success and gratification in life.

Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success. Dweck’s seminal Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Theory has proven to have an enormous positive impact on students’ learning. A fixed mindset is students believing they have a fixed (innate) amount of traits and abilities and it can lead children to lose their zest for learning. Children with a growth mindset understand that intellectual skills can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and by utilizing input from others. They know they can develop their abilities

It has often been said that, “It is much easier to destroy than to build.” Teachers must keep in mind that young people are fragile works-in-progress both emotionally as well as academically and the emotional climate of the classroom is a major factor in the development of the children. It is extremely advantageous for teachers to set a positive and constructive classroom environment early in the school year. Educators must remember that a rash or unfeeling word can undo so much of the trust and growth that we strive for in developing an intellectually inspiring classroom environment.

Quoting Haim Ginott, an Israeli educator, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.” On the first day of school, let us remember these words and be a “decisive element” as we begin to lay the foundation for a positive “intellectual environment” for all learners.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.