Empathy, Education and a True Growth Mindset

by Rick on January 19, 2016

Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice and to explain our own position of feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.  – Marshall Rosenberg

Bobby’s music class in the Montessori school was going very well. The lower elementary class was dancing to a clavé rhythm and enthusiastically singing, “Shave. Hair cut. Shampoo” in time. It seemed that all the students were engaged, but on closer inspection one boy was not. Marco wasn’t doing anything.

Since the other students were doing fine on their own, Bobby went over to Marco and asked, “What’s going on?”

“I don’t learn as fast as the others,” he replied.

Bobby felt like helping him out with his problem, but his scientific instincts and Montessori training told him not to react. Marco’s theory was a mere hypothesis, and it might be counter-productive to turn it into a firm diagnosis. He simply said, “Oh,” and went back to the front of the class.

Ten minutes later Bobby introduced a different rhythm and the kids caught on right away. Bobby looked at Marco and noticed that this time he was just as engaged as all the others.

What’s the take-away here?

It’s natural for children to label themselves—“I’m a slow learner,” “I’m not one of those creative types,” “I’m bad at math,” “I always strike out,” etc. It’s also natural for the adults to pile on—“He’s not very musical,” “She’s a right-brain kid,” “She’s a verbal learner,” “He’s not athletic,” etc,—thus reinforcing these attributions. The human brain was designed to generalize. Turning infinitely complex reality into a useful simplicity has had great survival value for our species. But this great strength is also an equally great disability. These generalizations are always distortions of reality, and in education, especially, they are often worse than useless.

learning to ride a bike - Google SearchWhen we try to help other people, especially when parents and teachers try to help children, there is a natural pattern: see a challenge, try to help, label it a problem, diagnose the problem, and intervene to fix it. This pattern is just as likely to turn a challenge into a pathology as it is to fix a disability.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues have become famous for showing the negative impact of a “fixed mindset.” Many educators and parents now know that saying “You’re so smart,” can undercut success, and yet many still keep trying to build a “growth mindset” in children by saying things like “You’re a hard worker.” This kind of change misses the point. The take-away of mindset research is this: in order to break the cycle of:

challenge help problem diagnoses fix it avoid challenge.docx

we have to break our habit of labeling, altogether.

One of the few situations where children and adults do not engage in this pattern is when a child learns to ride a bike—and children almost always learn to ride bikes. Why?

  1. No one turns the challenge into a problem.
  2. No one could label it, anyway.
  3. No measuring up because there are no “metrics.” You either stay up on the bike, or you don’t.
  4. There is no diagnosis in the DSM IV for “vehicularly challenged.”And most importantly,
  5. Children continue to own the challenge and therefore keep at it until the skill is mastered—despite skinned knees and bumped heads.

So good educators don’t ape the medical profession. There is a better way:

  1. Let go of our mindsets
  2. Respect the other’s challenges
  3. Be with them as they struggle, and
  4. Have confidence in their ability to learn from struggle.

These are the disciplines of an educator. Central to these disciplines is empathy, i.e. a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. For best results educators empty their minds and open them to others, as Marshall Rosenberg so nicely articulates. That’s what Bobby did right.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy Kirkham January 19, 2016 at 3:22 pm

My high school senior daughter, Greer, is one of the many, many children whom (during your years as a school head) you would not allow to be pathologized. Despite still being unable to read at the start of 3rd Grade, Rick encouraged us to trust Greer. He told us to resist implementing any of the recommendations of the learning specialist who had diagnosed her with severe dyslexia that were contrary to her desires. She could be the poster child for this approach. She attends a competitive independent high school in San Francisco and has been tutor- and accommodation-free since the start of her sophmore year. She has a very well-developed ability to assess her own strengths and weaknesses, which gives her the very best kind of self-confidence — the kind that comes from knowing herself. Her first semester Senior unweighted GPA was 3.98, taking two honors science courses, plus math, history, English and advanced painting. She’s been accepted at both of the universities that have processed her applications so far. So, to all of those parents out there whose kids are being diagnosed and categorized and pathologized, I say: Fight it with all you have. Everybody’s bike looks different, but we all learn to ride.

Marty Dutcher January 19, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Beautiful. I can think of so many examples of adults who gave up on learning to master things they really wanted to learn or do because they thought they couldn’t, and they thought that because some one told them directly or it was implied by the environment. A well-known Maryland songwriter was told he was tone-deaf because he couldn’t sing like the other kids in second grade, but always loved the guitar and wanted to learn play. When he was in his late twenties I showed him that he wasn’t tone deaf, and gave him a few tips, and he became known as The Bard of the Chesapeake Bay, sharing the beauty and value of the bay to both school children and adults for over 30 years. I like Marshall Rosenberg’s quote very much. Listening is far more valuable than talking.

Rick January 20, 2016 at 6:10 am

Gary Gruber comments:

I have two comments, both of which I have honored (and practiced) for many years. Without going into too much detail here, the points are:

1. There is much written about the negative effects of labeling and I first learned about that in graduate school in the early 70’s in a book called Trick or Treatment, How and When Psychotherapy Fails, authored by Richard Stuart.
2. Similarly from a lot of early research in psychotherapy, it became clear to me that regardless of your “school” whether Freudian, Adlerian, Sullivanian, Rogerian or reality therapy from Albert Ellis onward the three critical variables that made the difference in outcomes were empathy, genuineness and warmth. You can throw out a lot of the other stuff if you have those in place and you don’t have to be a “professional” to exhibit those three wonderfully human responses.

Peter Ackerly January 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm

Dad and I lock horns about this quite a bit. I like that doctors play the role of offering diagnoses. A growth mindset is very good, but if one of my legs is shorter than the other, I want to know. A growth mindset is good, but if I have arthritis in my knee, I want to know not so that I can condemn myself to failure, but so that I can use the information to make better decisions. A doctor’s visit that does not end with the doctor proffering a diagnosis — stepping up and taking that professional risk — is one where I feel that I have wasted my time. It’s up to me to decide what to do with the diagnosis. If a child acquires a label, it is not the fault of a developmental specialist or a doctor. It’s the fault of those of us that have decided to translate that diagnosis into a label, decided not to seek other perspectives, or worse decided to translate the diagnosis into a prediction about the future. I wish that every day were a diagnosis. I wish we were experts in articulating our subjective assessments “this is how the patient looks to me today,” knowing he or she will look different tomorrow, but not shying away from honestly noting how the patient strikes me. And if a professional knows something about childhood development, I am right to be eager for that person’s diagnosis, eager for other things as well, but eager for that. I don’t want him or her to let go of his mindset — that’s my job.

Rick January 31, 2016 at 8:27 am

It is interesting that my son and I can sound like we are disagreeing violently when we actually agree: To be an educator one has to “let go of his mindset.” That’s my job.
One way I agree with Peter’s defense of diagnoses is this: Yes, in-so-far as they point to action. If a diagnosis leads to “things we should try” then we are taking the diagnosis as a hypothesis and the steps we are taking are not “cures” but tests of a hypothesis.
If a diagnosis assists in the action-research project of self-discovery, then I am all for it. As long as we continue to engage in a trial-and-error approach with the student as the chief researcher into his/her own complexity, as long as the child acts as if “The way I am manifesting myself today will be different tomorrow,” as long as everyone understands that a diagnosis does not define but assists in the dynamic process of continuous self-definition, then I am okay with people making diagnoses.

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