New Rule: Teach Kids They Are Smart

Henry Ford was quoted as saying, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.” Sometimes students start believing they are not smart enough to be successful in a class or in school. We know most people have preferences and knacks for certain subjects or practical applications. For example, I was always good at math and science. I don’t know why. I always struggled with English and social studies. I don’t know why. I finally had to decide to go with my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses.

There are students in the school who are very talented in fixing lawnmowers, construction trades, etc. I can’t do that. I could take seventeen classes on the subject of auto repair and not be as skilled as some of my students. I am thankful for talented individuals, no matter what their skills, because I lack many skills. I need them for my survival and well-being.

I also like the adage, ‘when the student is ready, a teacher appears.’ Parents and teachers can light it up for students or put barriers in front of kids. I really hate it when I hear a parent say, “oh, I was never good at math and that is why my son isn’t either.” Yikes. We all can get better. And, more importantly, we can encourage and support our kids in pursuing their dreams. Whatever they choose, it will require continued learning for a world of the future.

In one school, where I was principal, a business teacher brought a student to me. The teacher said, “I can’t seem to explain to this student why he needs to know the difference between fractions and percentages.” I asked the student what he was interested in, he replied music. I said, “imagine I have a music store and I am offering one-third off or twenty-five percent off.” Which are you going to choose? The student said, “I don’t know.” I said, “you are going to pay more than you should if you don’t know.” Now that it means some money in his pocket, I had his attention.

Jon Saphier’s book on ‘High Expectations Teaching’ presents fifty ways to help kids know they are smart. I recommend this book for the specific actions to take to support students believing they are smart. These are practical applications that can be integrated into any classroom. As I said recently in a Twitter post, my favorite quote is an African Proverb: “Not learning is bad, not wanting to learn is worse.” Most professional educators have strategies for a student who is not learning. Not many have strategies for those students who don’t want to learn. Jon provides several possibilities for the students who just don’t feel they are smart enough to learn.

One of Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind is ‘Remaining Open to Continuous Learning.’ I think one of the best goals we can have for students is to leave school wanting to learn more in whatever area they are attracted to and feel positive about. Everyone will have to continue to learn as the world changes. To quote Marshall Goldsmith’s book, ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.’

Part of our responsibility as educators is to help students want to learn and help them find pathways to continue learning. We do not want to promote Neil Postman’s quote: “Children enter school as a question marks and leave as periods.” Let’s have students leave as question marks ready to positively contribute to the world.