When I attended one of the first annual brain days in Kita-Kyushu I met a really interesting man named Tim Murphey. This was the first time I had met Tim and my attention was caught by his juggling balls. In fact, I liked his story so much that, on returning home, I ordered a set of balls straight away.
A few days later, as I was unboxing the balls, the person I was living with, Yuki, asked, “What did you buy?” So, I said to her, “Juggling balls.” To which she replied in a rather irritated tone, “What did you buy those for?” Oh dear, she doesn’t approve of my use of money, I thought, as I said in a subdued voice, “I’m going to teach myself how to juggle. Pretty cool, right.” – “You’re a bit soft in the head aren’t you,” she retorted. “You just wasted your money. You won’t be able to juggle. How are you going to even learn?” As I began to reply, “By watching YouTube videos,” I already knew what was coming next. “You really are stupid aren’t you. Juggling takes ability and you don’t have any of that.”
Undeterred, but ego a little bruised, I took time to practice, along with some YouTube videos I found. I carefully practiced out of sight so as not to draw any more scathing remarks. Tim had said that, even if you drop the balls, you just pick them up and try again–that’s part of the fun. I was having fun. After a day, I got the hang of two balls; so, off I went to show Yuki. The response wasn’t what I expected, “Is that all? See, what a waste of time” she said mockingly as she laughed at my mediocre attempts.
By the end of the third day. I had cracked it. I could juggle three balls for a few seconds. Back I went, ready to show my fiercest critic that I had succeeded. “Hey, watch this…” I said, as the balls went up into the air and then crashed onto the floor. “Hah, what’s that? That’s all you can do after three days?” she laughed. “No, wait. I was nervous. Let me try again.” Tim had also said that it was very difficult to juggle when you are nervous, so I tried to put all my negativity away and to focus. I kept the balls going for about 30 seconds this time. “See, I did it. Isn’t that cool?” I smiled. “Huh, that’s not interesting” she replied.
Well, I thought it was interesting. So, interesting that I use this story in class with students at the beginning of each year. I explain that Yuki is not a mean, nor evil person, because it would be easy to get that impression from my story. The more important thing was that Yuki had a fixed belief about my abilities. She believed that naturally I am not a person who can do well at physical things, including juggling. I, on the other hand, hold the belief that my abilities can change and that, even if I can’t make it to become a master juggler, I could experience some success and have fun along the way.
Carol Dweck (2000), in her research on Mindsets explains this as the difference between a fixed mindset, where ability and intelligence are seen as static, and a growth mindset, where ability and intelligence are seen as changeable. How many times have you heard people say, “Well either you got it, or you don’t”? This is a good example of fixed thinking. Carol’s research mostly focuses on why some people give up, while others embrace challenge, in the areas of intelligence and ability. I learned from Carol and Tim, and a whole host of discussions in the BRAIN SIG that our brains, intelligence, and abilities are a lot more flexible than we might believe.
What does this have to do with learning English? Well, surprisingly, a lot in fact. You see, Yuki’s way of thinking was also manifest in my English learners. Some of them also really believe they are stuck in a band of English, be that B1, A2 (CEFR) or a TOEIC score like 550 and that they will never improve past that point. They have become defined by a test and decided to stay at that point. What I am really interested in right now is how to help students break that deadlock in thinking. How can I develop students’ study and problem solving skills as a way to direct attention away from “I can’t do that” thinking toward “I can’t do that yet.”
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Hove, U.K.: Psychology Press.
Murphey, T. (2006). Language hungry: An introduction to language learning fun and self-esteem. London, U.K.: Helbling Languages.
Glenn Magee is a lecturer at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University. He is researching metacognition and student beliefs about their learning, with a specific focus on reading comprehension and study skills.