A rigorous environment holds students' attention and has the best chance of equipping them to be actual scientists and engineers through developing STEM skills and engaging the practices. Now let's turn our attention to what's actually needed to create that rigorous environment.
Carol Dweck's 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success paints a picture of motivation that is very different from the traditional praise model.
That's where Carol Dweck's landmark study came in, for which she is justifiably famous. She took 400 random students and gave them all an easy non-verbal IQ test. She praised all of those 400 students in one of two ways. In one group, students were praised by being told, "You must be smart at this." It was their intelligence that was praised. She praised the remaining half of students on their effort. They were told, "You must have worked hard at this."
She then gave all the options for a second test. She told all the students, "Look, you can take a harder test and it's going to be a great opportunity to learn and grow, or you can take an easy test that you will surely do well on." Here is the interesting outcome: Only 33 percent of the students who were praised for their intelligence chose the harder test, while a whopping 92 percent of students who were praised for their effort chose the harder option.
The traditional science class: Demonstrations in an "I do" model
"I thought that human qualities were carved in stone. You were smart or you weren't and failure meant you weren't … If you could arrange successes and avoid failures (at all costs), you could stay smart. Struggles, mistakes, perseverance were just not part of the picture.” ~ Carol Dweck
The way that the students were praised and what Dweck communicated to the students about the value of intelligence versus effort weighed heavily into the amount of work they were willing to put into a future challenge, and indeed, their ability to choose to engage in one at all. One of the key elements of Dweck's work is shifting away from an educational approach—in which students are merely praised for the smartness of what they do—to one in which effort is the highest good. In this mindset, which you can see the seeds of in the quote above, mistakes now become an opportunity, because through them students learn and meet new challenges.
When you look at Dweck's research, you can see how it challenges the assumption that our IQ—our innate human qualities—are fixed. That's simply not the entire picture. Other researchers have provided an updated look at how the environment and other factors weigh into IQ and performance, and more and more factors are showing that rather than simply being nature or nurture, it's a combination of factors determining performance and success.
This is where Carol Dweck talks about the "power of yet." It's not a question of "if I'll achieve," but rather "when I'll achieve." It's just a matter of time. That's a growth mindset, which is in serious contrast to the fixed mindset where one is either good enough to engage in a certain subject or activity… or not good enough. When you match this new idea up to the definition of what constitutes effective science instruction, you can see that what engages students in the practice of science and engineering is challenging them to work harder and showing belief in their ability to continue to work toward a successful outcome. This also ties into Angela Duckworth's idea of rigor, in which challenge must exceed skill so that students are constantly building on what they know.
The result is an effective science classroom where students are engaged in developing skills in an environment that actually pushes them to develop those skills. If we as educators can do that, students are going to be well served—as will teachers—by focusing on the power of yet. We must think differently about students and their abilities. We need to help to champion this vision in which students' abilities are not carved in stone, but malleable. They are not fixed due to socio-economics, intellect, the class that they were in last year, or the kind of student that they were last year. Instead, it's all about a student's willingness to work hard and then the act of praising the effort they put in.
The Tortoise and the Hare
The tortoise and the hare actually teaches lessons that are counterintuitive to the growth mindset and the philosophy of the next generation classroom: Some students are inherently skilled, and some are not.
Let's take a moment to think about the famous parable of the tortoise and the hare, which Carol Dweck gives as an example of how we inadvertently teach our children that innate skill is everything. The hare is fast, zipping along at every leg of the course. Sure, he's lazy and routinely falls asleep, but he's still much faster than the tortoise. The tortoise, on the other hand, plods on and on, catching the hare unawares and crossing the finish line first. The hare wakes up and realizes it's too late; he's lost.
This is not a purely destructive message: Hard work can pay off. However, it also communicates to listeners that both the tortoise and the hare have abilities set in stone. For all his determination, the tortoise can never get faster. For all his failure to achieve, the hare will always be speedier. It sends the message that the only way in which a "tortoise" can beat a "hare" is to wait for the hare to mess up or become apathetic—forfeiting his natural edge.
Unfortunately, educators and parents make these kinds of statements all the time—you're good at math, popular, smart—with the best of intentions. Telling students they are "good" at something does not send the right message, however, because it does not value challenge. Instead, we're telling students that their qualities are fixed. It focuses students on their natural ability, not their opportunity to improve.
The "tyranny of now" mindset creates students who choose the easiest path and take on fewer and fewer challenges because they are so afraid of losing their status as "smart" or "good at something." The "power of yet" encourages a growth mindset through the idea that students will grow to get there.
Dweck explains that praising ability rather than effort creates "the tyranny of now." Children who are told that they're smart, that they're good at something, that they have fixed qualities… those are the folks who run from failure and choose not to do something harder. Through her research over and over, what Dweck sees is that these students choose to do easier and easier things because they fear a loss of that No. 1 status. They just can't get through the day without some kind of praise or award.
This causes them to avoid failure and try to maintain their elite status by not trying something harder. Why? Failing at something harder is a negative that challenges their status as a smart winner.
On the other hand, by praising process, challenge, and hard work, children actually worked harder, delighted in the challenge, and invested themselves in tasks more deeply. People who have a growth mindset see the world as "not yet," and by praising their effort we can help them invest more deeply in pursuit of a goal. This is the difference between "I am" and "I can be."
Another example of this is the puzzle test. Students were given easy puzzles and told either "you're smart" or "you're a hard worker." They were then given a more challenging puzzle and told the same thing. Then they were asked if they'd like to try a harder puzzle. By now, you can probably guess the outcome: The group in which students were labeled smart passed on the challenge, while the "hard worker" group dove right in. The group that was given a growth mindset had confidence that their hard work would give them the outcome they wanted in the end.
Unfortunately, the idea of everybody getting an award and receiving praise was becoming de rigeur in the 80s and continued into the 90s. It wasn't just in science, but across education as a whole, and this has really affected the millennial generation. It's interesting that people talk about millennials in the workplace, and without using the term, speak of many of the characteristics included in the "tyranny of now."
Using the Power of Yet
If we want to prevent our students from growing into adults that crave validation and special status and that avoid challenges because it might challenge that status, we need to reframe how we teach science. You can see this mindset even in AP classes, in which students simply desire to know answers to questions. If we want to encourage a growth mindset, though, we need to move away from that fixed thinking toward a mindset in which students believe, "I have the necessary ability to be able to do this. I will accomplish this challenge, and you will recognize me for my hard work toward that goal. That's how I will feel valued."
If we can truly instill the growth mindset, we can also leverage the power of yet to reframe mistakes. Processing error is valuable because we can learn from it, correct it, collect more data, and grow. Mistakes and failure, in this philosophy, are very different things. Failure is shutting down and giving up. Mistakes are something we can learn from. It's only by refusing the challenge that we fail. This is how true scientists and engineers think—they keep going in the face of challenge, in the face of experiments that don't confirm hypotheses or answer questions, in the face of prototypes that fall flat and don't solve problems.
Success becomes about persistence and direction, about grit, as Angela Duckworth would refer to it as. It's about maintaining direction and determination. Destiny is then what you choose.
This comes into play in how we design education. In elementary school, both teachers and administrators will often refer to some teachers as generalists, explaining that they don't have enough prep time to teach this kind of science or that they work in urban districts and therefore don't have the resources. Content specialists don't appear until middle school and high school.
The problem with this is that it really does create a culture of failure. If teachers and administrators don't believe they can create environments in which success can happen, what hope do students or schools have? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the power of yet is given no chance to take effect. Adults view themselves just as students do—as not being good enough or not having enough to teach the subject—and the fear of failure springs up, giving them even less motivation to try. They begin to view themselves and students as fixed and as only capable of a particular outcome based on these labels.
If we want to avoid this, we need to truly embrace the growth mindset, as well as understand what constitutes effective STEM instruction.