I think I was about 7 or 8 when I came to the realisation that I was clever, and by the time I was 10, this was the most important thing about me – being Clever was what made me stand out; it was what made me important.
In the survival-of-the-fittest climate that dominated inner-city playgrounds when I was a child, you either had to be cool, clever or strong. Growing up with no TV, a mat of messy brown curls, and an obstinate refusal to wear anything but dresses, and having lost enforced arm wrestling competitions not just with everyone in my year but also everyone in the year below – being Clever was essentially what made me worth the space I took up.
The year I finished primary school was the same year Carol Dweck was publishing her research into fixed and growth mindsets. The fixed mindset, she proposed, is based on the belief that you have inscribed in your personality a set amount of intelligence, meaning that you cannot ‘become’ Clever. You either are or you aren’t. The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees intellectual ability as made up of habits of mind that you can learn, improve on and grow in.
Fascinatingly, Dweck linked these two mindsets to the way in which different children were praised. Researchers provided 128 children with a simple maths problem, and then gave each child one line of praise. To some they stated, “You did really well, you’re so Clever”, whilst to others, “You did really well, you must have tried really hard.” The children were then given new, more challenging maths problems. The children praised for their effort showed more resilience, trying different approaches and attributing their failure only to a lack of effort that could be overcome. The children praised for being clever were more anxious, showed more fear of failure and less perseverance, and concluded that they weren’t Clever enough. Later some even lied about their capability to complete the tasks, inflating their scores to make themselves look better.*
For the children praised for ‘being Clever’, failure became a threat to their identity and their worth – if they failed, presumably they weren’t in fact Clever after all. For children praised for trying hard, failure was part of the route to success.
Given my background, you can guess which camp I was in.
A funny thing about being Clever is that at school it’s the most important thing in the world, but in the workplace all that matters is that you do the job. On entering the teaching profession I discovered that although I desperately and instinctively spread the word that I had studied at Oxford, and was secretly delighted when I got the top grammar score in a staff audit, the fact was, no-one really minded that I was Clever. It wasn’t significant.
What was much more noticeable was the fact that my classroom resembled a cross between feeding time at the zoo and a scene from the London riots of 2011. The failure that I had grown up to fear so deeply as threatening to my value in the world had come to pay me a visit.
During my NQT year I’d had the excuse of being new, so I’d managed to stave off criticism from within and without, and hold on to a reputation of being both Calm and Efficient. But 6 weeks into my second year of teaching, on the cusp of an observation as I attempted to collect one child from under the table while another had run out of the classroom behind me and what seemed like dozens of others were squabbling loudly or wandering aimlessly around the room, I knew that the truth would soon be revealed: that I was in fact, Not Good Enough for this job. I went to my supervisor’s room and freaked the hell out of her by crying continuously and hysterically, and threatening to leave.
Over the last three years, one of the most redemptive aspects of learning to teach, has in fact been learning to learn. As I teach the children to learn well, I encourage the ‘four R’s’:
Resilience – the ability to just keep trying, to try different approaches, to not give up.
Resourcefulness – What can I do/ use to help myself?
Reflectiveness – What did I do well that I could do again? What do I want to avoid in future?
Relationships/ Reciprocity – Who could I work with? Who could I ask for help? Who could I help?
In the end, it was these same skills that helped me.
It turns out that if you need help, it doesn’t actually mean that you’re Not Clever and therefore not worth the space you take up. It just means you need to find someone or something to help you.
It turns out that if something goes wrong, it doesn’t mean that you are a Failure. It means you can learn from your mistakes to do it a bit better next time.
It turns out that even if you don’t manage to do something right straight away, or even second or third time, it doesn’t mean you’re Not Good Enough. It just means you need to keep trying.
So here I am, typing away the night before I take my fifth driving test.
My fixed mindset tells me my worth is in a balance: tomorrow it will be decided whether I am Good at driving or Not good at driving; a Success or a Failure; Worth the space I take up, or Not worth the space I take up… anxiety levels this week have been running high…
But my growth minset says “Wait! Let’s look at the 4 R’s…” In the process of learning to drive, I have practised Resilience – I have been trying on and off to do this for nearly 10 years, and have continued despite running out of money, moving house and failing repeatedly; I have practised Resourcefulness and Reciprocity – I spent a week with a friend’s Dad practising my driving in return for helping him get some jobs done, and have received support and encouragement from so many people; I have practised Reflectiveness – I haven’t repeated the same mistakes and I’ve considered what to do better next time.
Essentially, through learning to drive, I have got better at learning. Surely this, if nothing else is a success in itself? Maybe I will fail again tomorrow**, but if so, maybe it will lead to me getting even better at learning, at becoming more resilient, resourceful, reflective, and relational through further practice?
There is one other thing that has helped me in this immense, identity-changing learning process, and that is the discovery of strength in weakness, which to be found in my faith.
Paul in the Bible prayed for God to sort out a serious problem for him – much like I did at various points in the year! But instead of sorting it out for him, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”. Then we see that though his situation didn’t change, his state of mind definitely did, because he went on to write:
“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12: 9-10)
If we imagine God only as a strong, powerful being, then weakness is the opposite of God and entirely outside of God’s nature.
But if God is still able to be God when dying on a cross, weak, rejected, ashamed and in immense pain, then weakness – including my weakness – is within the life and understanding of God. When I am weak or have failed, my identity and my worth need not be threatened. Instead I can find peace in remembering that this weakness and failure is something that I have in common with God, and thus a way that God’s life can be seen in me – be it in the classroom, in the car or anywhere else.
Jesus’ failure was part of the route to his success – and so was mine: by the end of the year, I could honestly say that I loved my class and thought my job was amazing – it was totally transformed from the start of the year.
But in the moment when everything is falling apart, success seems unimaginable. During those times I have started to learn to trust that as the weakness lives in me, so “the power of Christ may dwell in me”. Though the problems may stay the same, my mindset can be different because I know that God is working through my weakness.
It is this belief of strength in weakness that has enabled me to move gradually from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset over the course of the year.
Gradually it becomes less important that I’m Clever, and more important that I’m Learning.
*Grosz,S The Examined Life, p.19