Tame your Inner Boa: Reclaim your Learning Mindset
Oh, I'm being eaten by a boa constrictor, A boa constrictor, a boa constrictor, I'm being eaten by a boa constrictor, and I don't like it--one bit. Well, what do you know? It's nibblin' my toe. Oh, gee, It's up to my knee. Oh my, It's up to my thigh. Oh, fiddle, It's up to my middle. Oh, heck, It's up to my neck. Oh, dread, It's upmmmmmmmmmmffffffffff . . .
Shel Silverstein’s poem makes us smile, perhaps because we recognize the feeling of being swallowed whole by the busyness and pressures of life. I regularly see this emotion in the teachers and administrators I work with, particularly at this time of year. Believing in the importance of our work as educators, we give it our all. Testing season is nearly upon us, followed immediately by end-of-school madness. Pretty spring weather entices us to “go out and play” but stacks of papers, mountains of emails, the avalanche of events on our calendars bind us to our work and constrict our healthy instincts.
The “boa” of stress strangles our resourcefulness, inhibits our flexibility, and crushes our sense of humor. It limits our focus, causing us to forget the big picture. It nibbles away at our goals and guiding values. Consumed by the issues surrounding us, we frequently don’t recognize the cost to our problem-solving abilities and our personal efficacy. This boa also swallows our learning mindsets. It causes our brains to switch into survival mode, to become resistant to new ideas and creative thinking just when we need these abilities most.
Our internal mindset drives our thoughts, feelings, and actions. When we operate from a learning mindset, we are at our most capable. We are best positioned to live in congruence with our values, achieve our goals, and to make a positive difference in the world. It is vitally important, therefore, that we grow our abilities to self-monitor and self-manage our learning mindsets.
Here are three steps we can use to tame our inner boa and reclaim our learner mindset:
1) Claim your boa.
The first step in choosing and maintaining a learning mindset is to build our metacognitive power for observing and monitoring our mindset. Marilee Adams, author of Teaching that Changes Lives: 12 Mindset Tools for Igniting the Love of Learning and Change your Questions – Change you Life, talks about the importance of growing “a strong observer self,” the capacity to notice your mood, thoughts, and emotions without judgement. Dr. Adams says that we can all develop this inner capacity and that the key to doing so lies in cultivating the habit of slowing down during stressful times and intentionally examining our assumptions and our mindset.
We become more adept at monitoring our mindset when we maintain a sense of curiosity towards our own learning. Benjamin Zander, co-author of The Art of Possibility and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra trains his musicians when they make a mistake to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say “How fascinating!” Mistakes and problems offer us the chance to learn about and develop our inner resources. When we approach a challenging circumstance with a sense of curiosity, we step into a stance of interest, possibility, and even amusement towards the situation.
2) Wrestle with your boa.
Once we can clearly see our boa, we already have the upper hand. We can then mentally wrestle with the boa, seizing control and bravely setting out on a new desired path.
Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl is known for his study of how human beings find meaning in challenging circumstances. Frankl says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Even when life is overwhelming, we can, by intention, choose to operate from a learning mindset; and that choice makes all the difference in our resulting actions and the dominoes which come into play as a consequence of these actions.
We each possess the power to choose the perspective from which we will view ourselves, others, and the world. By actively and repeatedly practicing mindset choice, we build our cognitive and emotional muscles for harnessing and using our mindset. Some people call this ability grit or resilience.
3) Show off your boa.
When we visibly model our self-awareness and self-regulation of a learning mindset, we begin to grow this capacity in the individuals and organizations we serve. We can use our own experiences monitoring and managing our mindset to help teachers and students learn how to recognize and choose their own mindsets. The abilities to cope with negative emotions, to be resilient in the face of setbacks, to persevere with challenging tasks are important skills for learning and life.
In her article Overcoming the Run Response, mathematics education professor Patricia Swanson describes a case study in which she explicitly taught both preservice teachers and middle school students how to combat math anxiety and persevere when solving complex mathematics problems. She recognized that the teachers’ own fear of math was impacting their effectiveness as facilitators of student learning. She also understood that once the teachers learned to examine and regulate their mathematical mindsets, they could use their personal experiences to help students learn these same skills. Dr. Swanson suggests a three-step process for teaching teachers and students how to persevere in learning mathematics:
Become aware of feelings of anxiety.
Cope with the feelings and re-engage with the problem.
Persist in solving the problem by making sense of it and piecing together what you already know.
4) What do you think?
How do the ideas above connect to your experiences and contexts? How might we use these ideas to grow a learning-mindset culture in our schools and organizations? Please share your thoughts and experiences with our community of learners.
Adams, M. (2013). Teaching that changes lives: 12 mindset tools for igniting the love of learning.
Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Silverstein, S. (2014) Where the sidewalk ends. New York: HarperCollins.
Swanson, P. (2013). Overcoming the run response: Strategies that foster self-awareness, help regulate
emotions, and encourage problem-solving perseverance can turn mathematical fight or flight into re-engagement. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 19(2), 94-99.
Zander, R. S., & Zander, B. (2000). The art of possibility: Transforming professional and personal life.
New York: Penguin.