Tag Archives: motivation

Learn Like a Toddler

28 Apr

Two weeks ago, I watched a toddler climb to the top of my stairs, and immediately begin to climb back down.  She was quick and full of enthusiasm to conquer the stair mountain.

But the steps were a little too large for her tiny legs, and she tripped on one and fell headfirst.  Luckily, her mom was right beneath to catch her.

What did she do next?  She ran right back up the stairs to climb down again.  In fact, she climbed up and down those stairs more than ten additional times.

Adults are programmed to avoid failure, but we don’t start out that way.  My wonderful school psychologist used to tell the staff, “think about how many times children fall while learning to walk.  Have we ever seen a child who gave up and decided walking just wasn’t for him?”  No, of course not (children may give up momentarily, but not permanently).  Walking is an incredibly difficult task for someone whose leg muscles are still developing and whose head is disproportionately large (compared to adults), but children try, try, and try again until they get it right.

How do they get that resilience?  Children are very motivated, and they do usually have a lot of support, but small children are also buffeted by failure on a daily basis.  For a 2 year old, failure is a part of life–not something shameful or hurtful.  They are protected from the negative psychological aspects of failure by its sheer frequency, and are free to reap the ultimate rewards of failing at something repeatedly–learning and succeeding.

There are a lot of examples of famous individuals failing their way to success nowadays, from Michael Jordan, to Oprah, to Einstein.

J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard was on the importance of failure.

But all failure is not created equal.  There are some important differences between people who fail well, and those who just…fail.

1. Those who fail well…try again.

Sir James Dyson had 5,126 failed versions of his vacuum cleaner before he found success on the 5,127th try.  Randy Nelson, of Pixar University, talks about how the core of innovation is not failure-avoidance, it’s error recovery.  

There’s little benefit to failing if you then give up.  The benefit comes from getting up and trying again.

2.  Those who fail well…redefine failure as information-gathering or a challenge.  

When asked how he endured such a string of failures without giving up, Dyson said, “We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.”  

There’s no such thing as failure in the scientific process–instead you “disprove a hypothesis” which provides you with more information so you can move forward.

3. Those who fail well…reflect and iterate.

Failing well doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over until you succeed.  That toddler I mentioned in the beginning?  The second time she tried to go down the stairs, she asked her mother to hold one hand for balance.  She practiced with this new support multiple times before she attempted (and succeeded!) at descending solo again.

Iteration is a core principal of design thinking, an increasingly popular approach to solving problems and fostering creativity.



The language of design thinking, “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test,” imply that a solution is almost never “perfect” or “complete.”  Everything is a work in progress–a much different way of framing a task than the binary “failure” or “success.”

What happens that takes away children’s resilience to failure, they’re innate tendency to see a roadblock as something temporary on their road to success?  Maybe it’s the adults.  When we start putting an emphasis on the “final score,” or “grade,” children receive the message that failure is bad.  Rather than spurring creativity, or being part of the learning process, failure becomes a signal that they are intellectually, physically, or sometimes even morally deficit.

Failure is inevitable in a lifetime.  Repeated failure.  The question becomes, how are we going to react to it?  When that two-year-old fell down the stairs, the adults’ reaction was encouragement and support.  It was more impressive that she had failed and tried again than if she’d effortlessly run down the first time.  No one really cared if she got down these stairs this time–it was her enthusiasm and the process that mattered.

So in the future, I’ll try to keep her in mind.  I’ll try to learn like a toddler.  


School’s Starting…Come on and Get Happy :)

14 Aug

Kids come in 5 days, but we officially started professional development today in my district, and most teachers I know have been in their classroom yesterday or last week (or never left.)  That’s not to count the scores of “had the worst back-to-school-nightmare-yet!” popping up on facebook from all of my teacher friends.

The beginning of the year brings equal parts hopeful anticipation and doom and gloom.  We’re so excited to see our kids and reconnect with colleagues…and we’re so bummed to have to be setting the alarm and thinking about our homework policies.

What’s a teacher to do?  We could stand around and do the B-word all day (bemoan, according to a 5th grade teaching colleague.  They’re always using such great vocabulary words in 5th grade).  Or we could try to proactively add a little positivity into our lives.

This article, titled 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Back by Science popped up on my facebook feed today.  I recognize many of the suggestions from other happiness research (exercise, sleep more, etc) one of them stood out to me.

Number 4 is about spending more time with friends and family.  It goes on to say that the basis of what makes people happy is all about relationships, so if you think taking vacations makes you happy, what you might really mean is that spending time with friends and family or meeting new people makes you happy.  Or if a promotion makes you happy (in the long run) it’s probably because you like the people you work with.


Relationships have been getting a lot of press recently, from the importance in the student-teacher relationship, to their importance in spreading ideas, even to their role in staving off dementia.  If we want to work on strengthening one thing in our lives, our interactions with other people would be a good one to pick.


Teachers work on relationships with their students all the time, but relationships with each other can be just as important.  And not just for collaboration and improving our practice.  Good relationships with colleagues blunts some of the isolation inherent in teaching–it can actually make you happier.  And while I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, a happier teacher must be a better teacher.

So go ahead and cluster in the hallway or pop by a friends room for a few minutes.  Those extra moments do lengthen our day, but small chats help change the school from just a job to a community.  And really, who else is going to appreciate your 150th story of what Timmy pulled off today quite like your teammates?

Tech and Engagement

14 Jul

I think I have a little bit of a nerd crush on Rushton Hurley and Jim Sills, two of the presenters at the Google Apps for Education summit.  Actually, I should probably add Richard deVaul in there too (he’s like the Q of Google) and, what the heck,  let’s throw some women in there too, like Lisa Highfill, tech trainer extraordinaire.

A lot of the GAFE summit was about how technology can enhance what we do in the classroom and our students’ lives, but I was struck by how the technology was limited or enhanced by the presenter.  By the end of his keynote, I’m pretty sure Jim Sills could have talked about the glory of vegemite on toast and we would have all run out to eat it for dinner.  How were these folks so good, and how can I learn from their mojo?

There’s three things that stood out: passion, humor, expertise.  I put expertise last for a reason–the first two really go a long way towards “fake it ’till you make it” but ultimately you really do have to have some meat to back up your session.







(I get a kick out of making these photos sports related, since I’m about the least sporty person there is.)

When my brother went to college, my family advised him to pay less attention to what he thought would interest him, and more attention to whether the professor teaching the class had a reputation as an engaging teacher.  It turns out that pretty much any subject can be made interesting–or deadly–depending on who presents it.  There were no deadly presenters at GAFE, but the great ones certainly brought their subjects alive.  I know this idea is a little dissonant with one of the thrusts of GAFE–student centered, inquiry based–but the truth is that the teacher matters.  It matters if you’re passionate, engaging, excited, knowledgeable.  Do you have to be the be-all end-all?  Of course not.  Can students learn with someone who is dull, dull, dull?  They better, because those teachers exist.  But wouldn’t we all rather have a Jaime Escalante or Robin Williams, or Lisa Highfill?

I’m excited to dive into some of the tech tools that can help to foster the engagement and excitement in my class next year.  We’ll continue to move ahead with the Google Drive accounts–docs, presentations, spreadsheet, and forms, and hopefully add in some more work with youtube, class blogs, and a host of mini-projects with real-world audiences.  Here are some of the links to presenter’s sites that have a host of resources you can look through at your leisure.  There’s oodles of good stuff here, it’ll take a while to go through.  Happy Hunting!

Jim Sills – youtube and film creation


Lisa Highfill – googlizing your readers and writers workshop, youtube, and much more!

Rushton Hurley – Digital Media, creating and using videos, citing sources from creatvie commons

Just Do It, Even if You Really, Really, Don’t Want To

18 May


This article, titled The To Motivation: Giving Up, by Olive Burkman, a writer for New York’s The Guardian, resonated with me.  The basic idea is that the key to being motivated isn’t psyching yourself up to be motivated, it’s just taking action–even if in you’re head you’re saying things like, “I hate this.  This sucks.  I’d rather be anywhere but here.”  The idea is twofold: the process of taking action will lift you out of your doldrums, and that often what stops us from moving forward is the idea that we can’t do something until we feel like doing it.  Somehow, the need to feel “passionate” about what we’re doing (which was originally inspired by the idea that feeling strongly will get you through hard times) has become a barricade.

This need for emotional engagement before action connects to the American style of praise and happiness.  We’re very concerned that children feel good about themselves.  Praise=confidence=feeling good and being productive=success=happiness in the American equation of life.  But what if we reversed the formula?  What if being productive=feeling good=happiness?  How many times have we said, “I really didn’t want to do that, but I feel really good now that it’s done” ?


Some inspiration for May…

3 May

Rita Pierson says it well in this Ted Talk, Every Child Needs a Champion.

Rock the Test!

27 Apr

Testing season is upon us!  There are tons of fun pop parodies to pump your kids up for testing.  Here’s a smattering of samples:



“Poker Face”

“Thrift Shop”

“Call Me, Maybe”


Happy season of standardization!


Enjoy the Moment

6 Mar

Most of us get far more positive feedback and reinforcement than negative during the day, but somehow it’s the negative that can burrow into our brains and stay there, gleefully building a pyramid of worry and anxiety.  We get so caught up in the details (admiring the problem, I heard a colleague say yesterday) that we fail to step back and look at our situation objectively.

Students do this too, become so obsessed with one thing they want, or one thing that goes wrong, that they struggle to pull back and think, “How important is this?”  When I see children having an argument, the first thing we often discuss is, “What’s the size of this problem?” (i.e. Does it really matter if you write with the purple pen or the red pen?)  Grudgingly, they will often acceed that the problem is on the small scale rather than the master-disaster-tornado-blew-down-your-house-scale.

Wisdom comes from Spanish NBA player Ricky Rubio, consoling his teammate (who’s been having some trouble hitting his shots lately.)

I’m sure both of these guys have a lot riding on these games, but if they don’t enjoy it now, when will they?

It brings to mind the kid president video I posted earlier.  Even more amazingly, kid president (otherwise known as Robbie Novak) was born with osteogenisis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.  But instead of worrying, he prefers to dream like he’s flying.  Good advice kid president.  Good advice.


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