Sian Beilock is the president of Barnard College in New York City as well as a cognitive scientist. During the coronavirus crisis, she is at home, working and home-schooling her 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, who seems to be less than impressed with some of her mom’s coaching techniques.
Before becoming Barnard president, she spent 12 years at the University of Chicago as a professor of psychology, focusing on how children and adults learn and perform at their best, especially under stress. Her research focuses on how well women and girls perform in math and science, and how performance anxiety can be affected by teachers, parents and peers.
Beilock has published more than 100 papers and has received funding from the National Science Foundation (including a CAREER award), the U.S. Education Department and several foundations. While at the University of Chicago, she also served as the vice provost for academic initiatives, as well as the university’s executive vice provost.
One of her goals as president of Barnard, which is known for its arts and humanities studies, is to raise the college’s profile in math, science and technology.
By Sian Beilock
With a growing number of states closing schools for the remainder of the academic year, millions of parents across the country are taking on the daunting new role of educator. As the president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist whose work deals with how people learn, you’d think I would be well equipped to deal with this unusual situation we’ve all been living through.
But not according to my 9-year-old daughter, Sarah.
The other day while trying to help her through a math assignment, I reminded her of the importance of applying effort to reach success.
Research conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck has found that kids who have a “growth mind-set”: that is, they believe their success comes from hard work and applying more effort during challenges, ultimately end up learning more, as opposed to kids who have a “fixed mind-set,” believing instead that good grades come from innate talent.
My daughter snapped back that she was “tired of getting the effort lecture.”
Needless to say, I quickly found my expertise in education and psychology backfiring under the pressure of being cooped up at home.
But I think the reminder that effort can lead to success is a helpful one for me as well as anyone struggling to balance the role of both parent and teacher during this pandemic.
This is especially important as we look to help our kids learn school subjects that have traditionally fallen on the education system to teach, like math and science. Many of us are perfectly comfortable sharing our favorite story books with our children, but less so bonding over math problems. Relatively recent changes in the way schools approach the teaching of math only adds to this feeling of discomfort, as parents may struggle to guide their children through questions that simply don’t make sense to those of us who learned math using different methods back when we were growing up.
The good news is that we can apply this “growth mind-set” to our own approach to teaching our kids at home. The most important thing we can be modeling both as parents and teachers during this time is a positive attitude. When parents believe in the importance of math and science for their children, their kids perform better in school.
For parents who feel anxious when faced with a child’s math homework, this reminder that effort — and even some struggle — is important for learning, matters. Rather than trying to just get the math homework over with, try working through the process of learning the formula together. A little confusion is okay, as long as parents don’t portray that confusion as something bad.
In fact, my own research has found that children of “math anxious” parents perform better on math assignments when their parents encourage them to try to learn, as opposed to, say, helping them finding the correct answer as quickly as possible in an attempt to avoid failure.
It goes without saying that this crisis is throwing stress our way from all sides. I feel this stress too. But by understanding that our attitudes as parents matter, we will not only be better teachers to our kids, but also deal with the other myriad challenges we’re facing during this crisis.
By accepting that there is ultimately a payoff for persevering through challenges, we cannot only empower our kids to work through the challenges of remote learning, but gain a little comfort in knowing that we will come out of this stronger, and more capable than before.