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From the swimming pool to the classroom: more thoughts on confidence

In my last post, I walked us through the four levels of confidence that are described by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in their book, Becoming Brilliant. They describe confidence as one of six of the most important capacities that children will need to be successful in the future economy. And I claimed that our education system isn’t wrestling enough with how to build confidence in our kids.

My five-year-old is currently learning to swim. During her actual swim lessons, she spends a lot of time struggling through what seem to be pretty complicated emotions. There’s some standard fear of drowning, the unpleasantness of water up her nose, intimidation when she is the center of the teacher’s attention, some comparison to kids who take more easily to each new skill, resistance at being told what to do by the teacher, which she seems to feel as a threat to her very selfhood, and a cycle of self-doubt that begins every time she doesn’t immediately master a new skill—which is, naturally, every time a new skill is introduced.

Yet I watch a little miracle happen every time she is in the pool after the official lesson or when we go just for fun. During the class, not ten minutes earlier, she might have been refusing to try to swim with her face in the water, possibly even coming to tears with frustration and in a battle of wills with her teacher. But when she has time to experiment, in a more loosely supervised setting—plenty of adults are very nearby, but no one is focused on her exclusively and intensely—she is able to experience her practice as play, or to practice by playing. It’s in these moments that she has breakthroughs. Suddenly her face is in the water while she’s propelling herself forward. She pops up, and you can see surprised delight cross her face. She does it one more time, and then looks at me. “Watch!” she says (I pretend I haven’t been). Sometimes she then explains to me how to do what it is that she’s been working on, briefly taking on the role of teacher.

I think a lot about the cycle of developmental experiences described by the U. Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research when watching this process in my own child. Encounter, tinker, choose, practice, and contribute are the five steps on the “action” side of this cycle, that precede the “reflection” cycle.

My daughter seems to need a low-pressure practice time, where she decides what to work on, where she is not thinking first about how the teacher is evaluating her, where she can try things over and over, and can try them in different ways, and where she is not being compared to other kids, in order really learn a new skill in the pool. For my daughter, this is integrally related to her development of confidence, which is both contextual (the context of her skills in the pool) and general (her confidence in herself to learn new skills overall).

While some of these needs might be particular to my child, I’d argue that what’s important about that practice time to her—her own control over it and freedom within it to wrestle through a challenge—is something vital to most kids in their learning in a way that builds confidence.

So, how do we build opportunities in school for kids to exercise control over, and freedom within, their learning? Here are few strategies we’ve observed, read about, or that have come up in conversations of our 6 Cs learning community:

  • Instructional practices that put the work on the kids—instead of the teacher delivering content, the teacher is guiding students to do the thinking.
  • A focus on big, difficult questions that don’t have one “right” answer. Instead of asking, “What were the Pentagon Papers and what effect did their release have?” asking, “Was Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers an ethical thing to do? Was it patriotic?”
  • Project based learning where students tackle rigorous essential questions, delve deeply into a topic over time, and have choices in how to approach their work. This allows them to develop real feelings of competence as they master the topic.
  • Experiential learning, where students are expected to make a real contribution to their community, and are allowed to struggle with challenges.
  • Teacher feedback that provides more detailed observational feedback than it does evaluative statements (“great job!”).

Each of these strategies allows intellectual tinkering, play, and occasionally, choice—and can simultaneously involve higher levels of rigor. I can also see that they require, on the part of adults, patience. It often seems easier to just give a kid the right answer.

While she’s got plenty of time before she’ll be ready to discuss the ethics of government leaks, I expect that the lessons of my daughter’s swimming progress will still be relevant for me in a few years. I’ll be asking her teachers how much she is able to direct her own learning, how much is she feeling evaluated rather than seen, and how frequently she is allowed to tinker or experiment, as she gets older. Because I can already see that without those types of experiences, she won’t develop confidence alongside her growing competence.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good. At New Solutions she focuses on urban policy, strategic planning, and education and has led the firm's work on projects with the Michigan Municipal League, Let's Save Michigan, and Michigan Future Schools.

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