A college student looked at me, disappointed. She wanted to study international relations, and had just realized it would require that she show mastery in at least two languages. “I love traveling, and I think it would be an amazing major, but I need to pick something more practical,” she said to me. “I can’t learn a foreign language. I’ve never been any good at it.”
The conversation took place last summer, as I was working as a faculty adviser at my university, helping incoming freshmen choose a major and embark on their academic journey.
I asked the student some follow-up questions. She explained that as a ninth-grader, she had enrolled in a high school French class and had struggled all semester. She dropped out of the course and hadn’t taken a foreign language since.
Her story reminded me of myself. At one time, I wanted to specialize in international law, but I convinced myself that I would never be able to learn a foreign language. I, like the girl in front of me, had a fixed mindset about my foreign-language abilities, and that was that.
Or so I thought.
Brian Dassler, who served as the deputy chancellor of Florida’s Department of Education, made it his life’s work to help students succeed. As an educator, he inspired children through his optimism, creativity and passion. As a leader, he inspired educators around the country to do the same.
In his TEDx talk, “Why We Persist at Some Things but Quit at Others,” Brian answered the question that seemed to permeate so many aspects of my own life.
I was heartbroken to learn that Brian suddenly passed away this week, and though I had watched his talk before, I sat down to watch it again after learning the news.
As I watched, I was reminded of the student who was shying away from an international relations degree, I thought of my son who didn’t want to focus on learning to play the guitar even though he loved the idea of being in a band. But most of all, I reflected on my own struggles. If I could help my students and my children avoid a fixed mindset, believing that they weren’t smart enough, I knew I would give them a great gift.
Brian’s talk, and his life work, has taught me many things. I hope to share them for the rest of my life as well.
Brian proposed that our mindset, or the story we tell ourselves, is the key to pushing through adversity. Drawing from the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, who concluded that “[w]hen students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger,” Brian encouraged educators to challenge the discourse surrounding success in both our students and ourselves. Instead of saying a student “can’t” do something, he instructed us to think that the student simply “can’t yet.”
When we believe that our abilities can improve with effort, we have a growth mindset. By exploring the stories we tell ourselves, Brian explained that we can shift our internal dialog from believing that our abilities are fixed, to trusting that our abilities are malleable. In his TEDx talk, Brian shared that a teacher once told him that her school had a scheduling mix-up where children who were not believed to be capable of honors-level science work were accidentally placed in the honors science class. The students did well. The teacher told Brian, “Maybe ‘honors’ is a mindset all children can have.”
Brian reminds us that “struggle is normal and something we all experience.” In his talk, Brian discussed a Texas study in which eighth-graders were assigned mentors. One group was mentored about the dangers of using drugs. The other group’s mentors focused on helping their students have a growth mindset. Those students were told that “the brain, like any other muscle, can grow with effort.” At the end of the year, the students mentored about the value of a growth mindset performed better than those mentored about the dangers of drugs.
As I rewatched his TEDx talk this week, I was reminded of the student I had met the summer before. I will return as a faculty adviser next summer and work with hundreds of other students struggling with their own fixed mindsets. Could I, too, mentor the students to shift their internal dialogues and to develop growth mindsets? Could I shift my own mindset and that of my children?
Brian has left an indelible mark on public education, and he has inspired the next generation of teachers and students alike. But as we mourn the loss of our friend, we know his lessons will live on through those lives touched by his work and his kindness. The teachers he inspired will encourage their students to do so as well. “Smart is not who we are; it is what we do,” Brian said.
Brian was a visionary and a leader, but first and perhaps most importantly, he was an educator. “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’ll be right,” he said, paraphrasing Henry Ford. To help our children and students push on when they want to quit, we must change our own mindset and we must encourage our children to do so as well.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Prior to teaching, she worked as a prosecutor and child welfare attorney. She is also a writer and photographer. Connect with Stacey on Twitter @sgsteinberg and on Facebook.
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