A bit ago, I found myself reflecting on a pair of lines from the American hero Booker T. Washington in his book Up from Slavery:
- “I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.”
- “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
Here's a hunch I have: his second line is where his impatience in the first comes from.
How you or I or our students define success is perhaps the most important factor in helping or hindering their Efficacy belief. When success is defined as progress, as the overcoming of obstacles, as resilience in the face of hardship, a learner can believe that they can succeed simply by reflecting on times when they were tough, when they persisted. The language I love using in my classroom is “growth toward mastery.” This is our objective, all the time: growth toward mastery. The job today is learning. “Every day is a learning day,” as Bill Russell used to say.
On the other hand, when success is defined externalistically, perfectionistically, or comparatively — e.g., I need to be the top person in the class, I need to get an A on the test — then it is very likely that you actually cannot succeed. For example, when some of my ninth grade students set out to be valedictorians of their class, the odds are not in their favor. Only one out of the two hundred or so that they graduate with can have this title. And even if they can achieve it — what for? Everyone knew a bore in college who loved to mention their class ranking. “Top in your class” is, for nearly all life paths, a vain and fleeting goal. Every year I counsel students away from it.
It's so much better to focus on growth toward mastery. When success is conceived of this way, students of all levels of academic preparation can feel a sense of Efficacy in school.
This is why “Define Success, Early and Often” is one of the ten strategies I feature in Will to Learn, which you can preorder here. Success is subjective, and not all definitions of success are as good as Booker T. Washington's.
Teaching right beside you,
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