Take Sisyphus to School: Embracing a Growth Mindset
October 9, 2020
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you know the ancients were big fans of karmic punishment. The myth of Sisyphus, for example, recounts how one doomed soul is forced to push a boulder uphill without rest. Each time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down, and he would have to start again. For ancient listeners, this punishment was meant to symbolize the futility of human pride. Why torture yourself with pointless endeavors or repeated failure?
In some ways though, I feel the myth of Sisyphus has also become emblematic of modern education. Both students and teachers are often presented with difficult tasks they are expected to just DO. Failing the objective is seen as a punishment. Succeeding provides no benefits or catharsis. Ultimately, the whole process feels like an exercise in misery.
This is not how you go about embracing a growth mindset.
No Herculean Task
What if, instead treating failure as a punishment, we taught students to embrace it as part of the learning process? What if we allowed students to stop, reflect, and learn from their mistakes without penalizing them? Writing for Edutopia, Kimberly Hellerich recounts how she was able to foster a growth mindset in her students by encouraging retakes and providing constructive feedback. In her own words,
“For the past two years, I’ve offered multiple opportunities for my ninth-grade students to develop a growth mindset through retakes and the option to reworking assignments. After returning any assignment, I give students the chance to rework errors and earn additional credit within a two-week window.”
“…I also provide opportunities for students to submit specific assignments for feedback, so that they can revise prior to the due date. For instance, when we transitioned to distance learning in March 2020, I encouraged students to submit any portion of their summative assessments early for feedback. I believe an approach that offers continuous opportunities to rework is just as possible in distance learning as when teaching students in the physical classroom.”
Mistakes are a natural part of life and learning. When we treat them as punishments, we don’t encourage students to learn, we condition them to avoid failure. A better path is to show them that real growth doesn’t happen in a straight line.
A Few Divine Strategies
Help your students embrace a growth mindset using one of these strategies:
- Model Positive Mistakes: Take time to share a mistake you made and how you learned from it. This not only makes you relatable, it helps destigmatize errors in education. You can also try sharing the best mistakes ever made in history. Did you know penicillin was only discovered because of an improperly stored mold sample?
- Encourage Self-reflection: Rather than simply marking an answer wrong or chiding a student over a late project, have them reflect on their results. Why was the project late? What could I do differently in the future to avoid this? What resources could I use to improve my knowledge of this subject?
- Build Growth Groups: Get together in a way that you’ll look forward to. Keep the focus on GROWTH. Hold the group accountable to have one goal and one question that comes from each meeting.
- Offer Retakes and Feedback: As Hellerich demonstrated, offering students the chance to correct their mistakes for half-credit can have a marked effect on their learning. It encourages an attitude of improvement and incentivizes them to do their best. As for feedback, it gives them a chance to practice their collaborative and critical thinking skills!
- Get Graded: Allow students to give you frequent feedback on how you’re doing! This helps them understand that you value their input, it allows them to view grades as feedback to improve learning, and it gives you great ideas for ways to improve!
A Mythical Mindset
Embracing a growth mindset shouldn’t be a punishment. Show your students that their education is more flexible than they realize and emphasize that failure isn’t the same as losing. When students realize this, they’re finally free to embrace their curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.