Tag Archives: Growth Mindset

Studying Van Gogh

The Artist Who Sparked His Interest :: Vincent Van Gogh

Recently, my youngest son is fascinated with art. He likes looking at paintings, talking about them and learning about the artists. He is drawing more, working through the “hard” parts and developing a growth mindset. 

In fact, after visiting the Morse Museum he returned to the hotel room, set himself up in front of the window and declared he was “doing art.” He didn’t end up drawing anything, but he did have an awesome view of the setting sun. I think that counts as observational skill-building!

I’d like to take credit for his interest, but Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings caught his eye. In November, we learned about Van Gogh; his life and paintings were fascinating and we gobbled up as many books about him as possible (Mike Venezia’s artist series is a favorite around here). However, I think the artist concept truly hit home when we started making our own impressionist art.  After learning about Van Gogh, we made oil pastel drawings of Starry Night.

a child's drawing of Van Gogh's Starry Night

C’s (age 7) recreation of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

a child's depiction of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night

R’s (age 10.5) recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

oil pastel recreation of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Liz’s recreation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (using only 12 oil pastels).

Studying Master Artists

We’ve always taken the kids to museums and read books about artists. Last year, we studied Monet; a few of his paintings were on display at our local museum. For our family, it makes the experience much more valuable if the kids know something about the topic ahead of time. This is especially true for my older, more active child. If he is truly interested, he can wander in a museum for hours. If not, we’re done in thirty minutes!

For this project, we’ve been studying the “masters” with a guided curriculum. I purchased the first set of ‘Meet the Masters‘ lessons. So far, we’ve completed three out of five artists (Van Gogh, Monet, Cassat, Picasso, Mondrian), and the kids look forward to listening and learning new techniques. It has taken our art and art appreciation to the next level with just the right combination of art history and hands-on application. And no, I do not get paid to say that. We just like the curriculum.

I’m not too worried about stifling their creativity with a formal curriculum. We don’t follow it completely, but it does teach them techniques to apply to other art work. I see the value in copying master artists; my kids pay attention to the details and start to internalize the lessons of light, value and color. Then, they get to apply those same skills to their own art. Since they are confident in their skills, they are willing to spend more time drawing and experimenting. Thankfully, that means more art time for me too.

Mistakes and First Drafts

Recently, my ten-year-old has been testing out my kid-friendly sewing projects. Although he has been sewing off and on since he was four, I’m grateful that he is so willing to test out new projects. This summer, I am teaching beginning sewing to a group of kids between the ages of 10 and 14, and he is the perfect age to see if my projects are ‘doable.’

A picture of airplane pin cushions

All made by kids, ages 10 and under

Sewing Mistakes, First Drafts

For the last two weeks I have been asking him (and my almost 7-year-old) to work on a lot of sewing projects. We’ve made cards and pins, bookmarks, wristbands and pin cushions. But, some of them didn’t go exactly as planned. For example, my older son wanted to make a bookmark – one where he sewed the right sides together and then flipped it inside out – except that it didn’t really work. He was frustrated, embarrassed and disappointed. He was also really afraid that I would take a picture of it! He shouldn’t have worried because I completely understand. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and hate for them to be paraded in front of me. I undoubtedly learn from them (quite a lot), but I quietly sweep them under the rug.

drawing of elephant

No, this is not a mistake, but my pride is about to take a beating. I feel obligated to show a picture of a “good” drawing. I can’t let the first drawing I post to this site be a terrible one. See? I’m no different than a 10-year-old!

Since he occasionally reads this blog, I devised this post as a way to parade some of my own mistakes, or first drafts, as I like to call them. Of course, these ‘mistakes’ are entirely self-selected. I’m not showing you the really ugly ones, nor am I parading all of those things that I’ve said (and shouldn’t). Nor am I writing about the times I’ve lost my temper or forgot that something was cooking on the stove. Ahem.

Just like a written paper (or blog post), I rarely create a perfect paragraph without a lot of tweaking. The same thing goes for our ‘maker’ projects. Below you will find some of my first drafts (ugly that they are…)

First Drafts

first draft of LED project

This was one of my first drafts for the LED constellation project. I was attempting to cover up the copper tape and SMD LEDs with a layer of painted tracing paper. It doesn’t look that good…

A badly drawn picture of my left hand

Ugh. This is awful. A quickly drawn sketch from a few years ago shows that I still need to work on capturing 3D images on paper.

A picture of sewing scraps

I started making this bag…over 6 years ago. Maybe even longer. I need to fix it slightly and then it will be close to finished. In the meantime, it’s definitely in ‘first draft’ mode.

A picture of a bad paper soldering joint

My soldering skills still need a lot of work and frankly, I’m not even sure how to solder conductive thread and conductive ink. It’s ugly. I gave up and just used tape for the second one.

Picture of sketches of nametag

These are some of the sketches, or first drafts, of the hand-sewn name tag I am making.

Just think – these are only the items that I could actually find in the house. Imagine all of the other things that I’ve had to redo so that it was just right, or at least good enough. As long as we are learning new things, we will have first drafts. And, second drafts. And, third ones too.

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.


It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.






Growth Mindset for the Elementary Child

As a homeschool parent and part-time technology teacher, I am firmly entrenched in the world of educational pedagogy. Recently, the topic of grit education has been at the forefront of many education discussions.

I am a strong proponent of a growth mindset, and think that it can be a life-changer with regard to attitude and one’s belief in the ability to learn. However, we need to be sure we are using it appropriately for our audience. Often, I have seen it applied solely to school work, whereas I think this is a lifestyle mantra. Elementary-aged kids need to see it in action.

Yes, we can apply it to plowing through school work (and I do a little of that at home), but rather, I want my kids to be encouraged to continue with their dreams and keep working through a problem, knowing that failure may be inevitable, but there might be a resolution out there too. Just because you aren’t good at – math, reading, river dancing – doesn’t mean it will always be that way. I don’t want them to give up on their dreams because it gets too hard. You can get better, but you have to believe that you can.

I’ve talked about it before, but we are a growth mindset family and I try to incorporate the vernacular during the classes that I teach. I only have students for a week or two at a time – not quite long enough to establish a growth mindset classroom – but long enough for students to know that making mistakes can help us learn. When we discover a mistake, we stop and reflect on why it went wrong and how we can change the product. (Sometimes we know the answer…and sometimes we don’t).  I’ve found the following ideas to be helpful when applying the concepts of helping elementary students to begin to develop a growth mindset.

Talk (briefly) about how the brain works
This can be anything from a formal presentation, complete with video examples or just an in-class demonstration and discussion. Use play dough to represent the two parts of their brains and make a new connection, or try magnets as a way to show how once you get it – the connection occurs.  I rarely do that in my camps because my time is limited. Rather, I favor incorporating the language of a “growth mindset” into my teaching. When I see my kids getting frustrated, we identify the feeling and reassure them that it’s normal – that’s just our brains growing and making new connections. It’s supposed to be hard! And, if it’s not, then you need a challenge!

However, my oldest son (the skeptic in our family) was moved by this handout and keeps one by his work space. Whenever we get down on ourselves or get too frustrated, we remind one another about the different types of mindsets. Is this a fixed way of looking at the problem? or is there another way? Parents – expect to say this often with kids. They forget. They get overwhelmed. They need reminders. Over and over and over again.

Our oldest son does not always find written math to be enjoyable. He would rather be building and figuring it out in his head. A few days ago, he said that math didn’t come as easily to him as it does to others, so he’s not good at it. My husband and I reminded him that those people who seem to be good at math are truly interested in it and practice it more often. We then asked him how much attention he gives to math (outside of written work) and he sheepishly acknowledged where his problem might be. The next day, he said he was ready to tackle a little more math each day.

Praise the specific effort
I didn’t learn this in Nurture Shock or Mindset. Instead, I learned it during my Montessori training as this is the language of a Montessori classroom. I still let slip the occasional, “good job,” but I try to find something specific to mention. For art work, it might be, “oh, I like how you used the color yellow.” Or, “Tell me about it” – to hear about the process of how it was created. I might ask, “are you happy with your work or would you like to practice one more time?” “I like how you wrote down information from the problem to help you solve the math problem,” or “I like how you kept trying even though you were frustrated.”

Forgive and learn and try again
Although I have been “living a growth mindset” for a couple of years now, I am far from a master. My Montessori training has helped, but I still make a lot of mistakes. We teachers (and parents) miss cues, have bad days and just plain interpret things incorrectly. In short, we are human. We can learn from our mistakes and it’s important for us to show our kids that we aren’t perfect. We all need reminders and it’s important to remember that life and learning is a process, not an end product.

Help them to realize its importance
I am a huge fan of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, which talks about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the most important motivators for human beings. Although the last one may not readily apply to young children, I do think it’s important that they take responsibility for some of their own learning. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work if our only answer to why someone has to learn something is because “that’s just what it means to be a kid.” Help them to make the connection. Maybe your child wants to be a pilot and so they need to conquer their fear of math. Maybe they want to be a marine biologist, so help them to understand that they need a college degree and will need this “tough” math to get there. (Can you tell that math is a hot button issue for us?) This doesn’t work for all kids, nor for those younger than eight or so, but it can be a powerful tool.

Live the mindset yourself
In your words and in your actions, show your students or your children that you want to have a growth mindset for life. That doesn’t mean tackling everything with gusto, but it does mean accepting that some things might take longer. You can still accomplish that goal, but it might take you longer than the person down the street. That’s okay. Talk about it. Express your frustrations and then outline how you are going to keep going. Help your children to see that the person who is “good at history” might like it better and so they pay more attention to it. It’s not that they are smarter – it’s that they think about it more often, therefore strengthening the connections in their brains.

If you have a chance, please go out and read Dweck’s book or at least some of the research on growth mindset. It’s one of my all time favorite topics.


Our Family’s Growth Mindset

A few years ago, I was fortunate to come across the book, Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. It sounded familiar and I vaguely recalled a chapter on something similar in Po Bronson’s runaway book, NurtureShock. That book was all over the blog-o-sphere and talked about frequently in my parenting groups.

But, somehow Mindset wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous….until recently. Now, there is a lot of talk about grit, brain science and its importance to overall “success.” Personally, I found the book to be life-changing. Not just for my own children or the children I work with, but for myself.

Before, I never would have let anyone see how I struggled. Now, I think it is imperative to show my kids that learning something new can be hard - even as an adult.

An ugly and badly knit tube. My second attempt at knitting solely with double-pointed needles.

Before, I never would have let anyone see how I struggled. Now, I think it is imperative to show my kids that learning something new can be hard – even as an adult.

As a first-born perfectionist, I can recall stopping short of many projects because I got stuck, or found it to be too hard, or was afraid to ask for help. This rarely applied to school work. I was mostly a model student, finding the innate praise of spitting back information to be a true reward.

Nowadays, before I stop a project, I ask myself if I am stopping because it’s getting too hard. Have I really given it my all or do I need to farm out the work? Have I really learned everything about that topic – or am I trying to get to a new level and I need to jump off the plateau? Am I ready to give up because I left it for a few days, weeks or months because I am done learning? Or, did it just get too hard and I need to push through this point and strengthen my brain connections?

knitting in the roundIn college, I dropped classes that I loved because grades were the only thing that mattered. I didn’t pursue my love of French because it was getting really hard – and I thought I wasn’t any good at it. Now, I realize that I didn’t want to fail at anything. It would crack my self-righteous attitude and the carefully created persona that doing well at school had re-affirmed.

In the ensuing years, I have failed many times. Often, I wasn’t ready to learn from those failures, but eventually I did. Changing my mindset has also helped with that. Although I still like to be well-prepared and avoid embarrassment at all costs, I am more willing to admit my mistakes, to apologize and consider another person’s point of view. I realize that my children need to see the mistakes we make – and see them often.

I’ve found this to be especially true with homeschooled children because they do not see frustrated peers on a daily basis. However, I also think it’s good for kids who don’t really struggle in school. If you are always on top, how do you know what to do when you encounter a really tough problem?

That’s why our kids will always see us learning something new. This might be for work, such as computer programming, soldering or learning about circuits. It might be for a personal project – homebrewing for my husband or rekindling a love of French for myself. The journey is not easy and it’s important for our kids to see that. Of course, that doesn’t eliminate the crying and anger that comes from being frustrated, but it does help to move past it.

A "growth mindset" reminder for our family.

A “growth mindset” reminder for our family.

Above our dining room table, we have a small, handmade poster that asks three questions. A couple of years ago, we referred to it often, but now we have internalized the message. “Did I try my hardest today? Did I keep trying even though I was frustrated? How did I grow my brain today?”

After two attempts, I sought out a solution from this fabulous book - The Knitting Answer Book. Voila! A nice, neat tube...I'm almost ready for socks!

After two attempts, I sought out a solution from The Knitting Answer Book, a fabulous resource. Et voila! A nice, neat tube. Now, I’m almost ready for socks…