You know you’re a teacher if the following sentence makes you cringe: “I’m not a math person.”
(If that didn’t make you cringe, go ahead and replace math for art, language, humanities, creativity, etc. Okay. Now go back to cringing for a moment.)
The language here is important because there’s a big difference between “Keeping up in math class is hard” and “I’m not a math person.”
The problem with saying “I’m not a math person” isn’t just the sense of defeat in it. As Seymour Papert puts it, the deeper problem is that phrasing like this turns deficiency into identity. With this language, the mindset has officially changed. Growth is no longer a goal. Surrender is part of you. It’s utterly corrosive.
But here’s the surprising part: I’m wondering if the inverse is corrosive too.
Here’s my mistake
The way I invite students to make and to STEAM needs to change. When addressing middle school students in the fall, I announced that make club needed DJs and scientists and painters and programmers and people with all sorts of different talents to come to the same place at the same time — and we will make something special happen by working together. The effect is great for getting students in the room. They feel that their talent, whether it’s fashion design or mechanical design or anything in between, is recognized and valued. And the results of what these groups produce is great too. What emerges from a collaborative environment of creative, talented people is like making dinner in a slow cooker: somehow it always tastes good.
Although this pitch is great for getting students in the room and helping them collaborate, it is immediately limiting. I am now wondering if allowing proficiency to become identity might also be damaging to learning.
Conditions for growth
Positive self-identity is healthy and necessary, but right now I am seeing it clash with the fundamental vulnerability that is part of learning. If I admit that I want to learn something, I am admitting that I don’t know it yet. And that’s a vulnerable place to be — especially if we define ourselves by proficiencies.
Consider a few ways that proficiency-as-identity can get in the way of the vulnerability that’s required to learn something:
Let’s say we’re working on a project together, and I come to the group as “the programmer” of the group and you as “the artist.” Doesn’t that mean that I have to do all of the programming work and you do all of the artistic work? But am I not already comfortable with programming and you with art? It’s a great chance to learn to collaborate, but what other room does that leave us to grow?
What happens when our project needs some serious programming work and I don’t have the skill set to handle it? Or when the group demands something that the painter can’t paint or the writer can’t write? When we have students enter the group as self-identified specialists, we can expect them either to have superpowers or to give in to the natural tendency to play it safe and avoid potential embarrassment.
Sometimes when I feel out of my league with distinguished classics teachers, I feel particularly like a computer science teacher, and vice versa. I see in myself an instinct to retreat to another identity when that vulnerable learning moment kicks in. The instinct is useful, but it’s a crutch that allows me to learn more about X because for a moment I can say that I really am a Y.
Verbs are better than nouns. As soon as we move away from verbs (“I love dancing!”) to nouns (“I am a dancer”), we are boxed in by expectations. For all of the years I spent on track to become a professional dancer, I could only perform on a stage and was never comfortable dancing at parties with friends. It wasn’t just a different challenge to dance without choreography; I could never climb out of the expectations I assumed others had built around me.
A beginner’s mindset
How can we help students establish a positive identity that is self-assured enough to allow room for the vulnerability of learning?
I’m still working on that. But for as long as I struggle to articulate an answer, I am going to keep trying to live it and model it as best I can.