Preschool program at The Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

"Our life is what our thoughts make of it" - Marcus Aurelius

Mahatma Gandhi, in his manuscript The Story of My Experiments with Truth, reminisced that, “Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning.” Gandhi was not the first to recognize this truth. There are innumerable variations on theme, repackaged and repurposed through time and space, and attributable to all types of human endeavor. While cliché, there is a fair amount of solid research to support this astute observation. Thus is the power of the human mind. In an instant, our thoughts can either tether us to self-doubt and disbelief, immobilizing and derailing our goals and aspirations, or they can act as buoyant and motive force, leading us to self-realization and self-actualization. 

In the context of education, one’s belief about his or her own abilities has a determinate and outsize role in shaping learner outcomes. Ability, preparation, and effort, and a constellation of social and structural factors, certainly influence student performance; so too one’s mindset and internal narratives on past performance, future potential, and the costs and benefits of each. While we learn most thru trial and error, our majority is committed to the notion that failure is the enemy; that it’s safer to never try, especially if we assume an inevitable, even preordained, negative outcome. 

Adults can, and often do, foster self-defeating attitudes in the children they so love, and in whom they invest the full share of their hopes and dreams. While unintended, it can have real effect in the lives of learners. For example, it’s common to hear parents and educators commiserate openly in front of children about their own poor performance or negative experiences in mathematics. In these moments, we are expressing our fears and insecurities about the subject of their study, our sense of personal ability relative to the same, and our child’s prospects as potentially derivative. “My child just isn’t any good at math. His father and I were terrible too.” These attitudes are not limited to mathematics. We hear similar statements concerning writing, language acquisition, art, and standardized tests. This unintentional reinforcement of low expectations, especially if tied to a child’s own beliefs about their abilities, or inabilities as it were, inexorably leads to underachievement. If we hear something enough, we will begin to believe it, whether true or not, and it likely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I’ve struggled for years to make sense of why otherwise high performing students underachieve in certain coursework (my purpose at Columbia this January). I’ve considered pursuing this as a dissertation topic in the near future. As I process my own personal and professional experiences, consider those of my colleagues and students over the last two decades, and make my way through volumes of research, I return to one ineluctable, gnawing truth—that children are often far more capable than we assume. 

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