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Growth, Grit and Happiness

Updated: Mar 19

At The Lang School, we are deeply invested in supporting the social-emotional and intellectual growth of our students. This involves a thoughtful exploration of the challenges and opportunities that students face both at school and at home. We are equally committed to collaborating with our families to support the positive growth and development of every Lang student. Much of this effort resonates with the work of the following researchers whose insights on achievement and social-emotional growth bear directly on our work with twice-exceptional learners. 

Carol Dweck's work on the importance of cultivating a growth mindset resonates deeply with how we view learners at Lang. Dweck comments that:

In a growth mindset, you don’t always welcome the setback, you were hoping to move forward, but you understand that it’s information on how to move forward better next time. It is a challenge that you are determined to surmount. In a fixed mindset, a setback calls your ability into question. Everything is about: “Am I smart? Am I not smart?” But if you’re always managing your image to look smart, you’re not taking on the hardest tasks, you’re not thinking about them in the most innovative ways, and you’re not sticking to things that don’t work right away.

Whether we are praising or criticizing, my work suggests that you focus on the process not on the person. So if there is a success, even a great success, you don’t say, “You’re a genius! You really have talent!” because it puts people into a fixed mindset.

If you’re always managing your image to look smart, you’re not taking on the hardest tasks. And then it makes them afraid of doing hard things or of making mistakes, which will dampen future creativity or innovation. If you are giving negative feedback, it should be about the process rather than the person. So you can praise what was good about the process, but then you can also analyze what was wrong about the process and what the person can do in order to increase the likelihood of succeeding next time.

Angela Duckworth's research focuses on the idea of "grit" as an essential characteristic that supports continued growth and learning and is crucial to the ongoing growth of Lang's twice-exceptional learners. Duckworth defines grit as:

... perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Shawn Achor's research focuses on the relationship between happiness, effort and success. Given that many of our learners come to Lang having experienced school as disconnected from happiness, the recultivation of happiness at Lang is a central component of our work. He argues that:

most schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier. That undergirds most of our parenting styles, our managing styles, the way that we motivate our behavior. And the problem is it's scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better school, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we're going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we've done is we've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that's because we think we have to be successful, then we'll be happier.

But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.

On a related note, I recently read an interview with Joi Ito who was the former director of the MIT Media Lab. In discussing the complexities associated with working through disruptive change in systems and organizations, he offered nine guiding principles. I was immediately struck by the way in which these ideas resonate closely with Dweck, Duckworth and Achor's ideas and reinforce many of the guiding principles at Lang that allow us to engage with families to support meaningful learning and the social-emotional growth of our young learners. The principles are:

  • Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.

We want our students to see challenge as an opportunity and to recognize that growth takes place over time. It is an iterative process where learning emerges as we continually assess how we are doing relative to where we want and need to be. 

  • You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.

As forces, the "pull" seems to me to be connected to having a destination and goal; it suggests a relationship that one enters into where there is an intrinsic sense of motivation. I am pulled by things that I care about. The push is something that happens to me; it is external and the destination, while perhaps clear to the force that is pushing may not be known by the person who is being pushed. We want students to be pulled towards their passion and interests and not simply pushed by the will of the other.

  • You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.

We are talking here about thoughtful risks; these are risks that challenge us just beyond our comfort zone. The focus on safety operates as a "protection from" when I think we want Lang students to be able to "engage with." We want students to be able to work through low-level risks so that when they find themselves in situations where the consequences for making poor decisions are high, they are well practiced in making good decisions that are connected to their core values. Since it is not really possible to protect students from all of the potential hazards that they will encounter, understanding risk and seeing it as an opportunity for learning is essential.

  • You want to focus on the system instead of objects.

We work to help students at Lang to see how things are interconnected and interdependent. Focusing on a single want or need, removes it from its larger context. Systems thinking orients us to the presence of the other and to the values that impact our interactions with others.

  • You want to have good compasses not maps.

To some degree, the map suggests the destination or at the very least that someone else has already done the work of defining possible destinations.  At Lang, we spend our time helping students to use the "compass" and, in doing so, we give them the ability to create their own map to guide them on their own journey towards interests and passions. While there is certainly value in exploring the maps that others have created, skilled use of the compass also allows students to assess the accuracy of these other maps. In doing their own mapping and critically exploring the maps of others, Lang students are able to discover the truth of their own "terrain."

  • You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t know why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.

Progressive pedagogy is about direct experience. It is about the doing of learning as an active and intentional act. It is not divorced from theory, but leads to it. In the Lang classroom, the student together with the teacher, questions, explores, experiments, imagines and invents in the service of discovering key ideas and concepts that lead to practical application and the development of big ideas.

  • It's disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.

The heart of learning at Lang is about asking questions, which is the fundamental act of disobedience. The question is a challenge to understand as opposed to simply submitting to the ideas of another. We are not talking about disobedience as disrespect; we are talking about the challenge that invites a deeper relationship and that leads to meaningful and lasting learning. It is this disobedience that also moves us to see ourselves, others and the world we inhabit in different and important ways.

  • It’s the crowd instead of experts.

Not so long ago, knowledge was scarce and  we were dependent on experts to tell us what we needed to know. In an age where information is abundant, we are dependent on others to help us make sense of the relevance of this information. Teachers are everywhere and we seek to cultivate Lang students who are nimble and flexible and know how to seek out the support that they need and at the same time to be teachers to others. With knowledge that is abundant and accessible, they goal is no longer what you know, but as Tony Wagner observes, "what you can do with what you know."

  • It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

Schooling is easy (though too often boring). The hard, but ultimately much more satisfying, work is about learning and how we make meaning. Learning has always been at the center of our practice at Lang and continually questioning the how and why of what we do is an essential part of the Lang experience. It is in this spirit that we continually ask how we can best design for growth, grit, and happiness.

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