26 October 2017

Throwaway lines

For one student, it was, “Keep it simple. Science is hard enough as it is.”

For another student, it was, “It’s a skill, like anything else. You can learn it and get better at it.”

There were both things I said to students in part of bigger conversations about something else. I thought were throwaway lines. But these students told me that those comments were important to them.

One student kept going back and thinking, “Simplify.” And had success when he did so.

The other student had a “fixed mindset”: that there was a certain amount of skill you had, and when you reached that point in a subject, you were done. Your intellectual ladder was only so tall, it only let you climb over so many walls. My throwaway line helped her switch to a “growth mindset”: practice. Work at it. You can improve.

Sometimes, as an educator, you put a lot of work into the content of courses. You have to write learning objectives, figure out how to explain some tricky concept, work on grading rubrics... and sometimes, the course content is absolutely not the thing sticks with the students.

Sometimes, it’s the random, tangential comments that students tell you later were the things that mattered to them. And I think are highly undervalued in education. You can’t predict or plan for those. But they can happen in the little unscripted moments, particularly when you have a good working relationship and dialogue with students.

For me, it was, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It was reading an article or letter in a journal someplace, but that became a mantra for me when I was working on manuscripts. I realized I was waiting too much to make things just so when they were never going to get that way. It was a throwaway line that dramatically changed my productivity.

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