4 Principles for erasing “I can’t …”

In this fast-paced world of instant information, instant communication and instant gratification, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to stop, breathe and think before responding to questions, challenges and stimuli. I see adults and children suffering as a result of this unrealistic expectation of human beings who are co-existing with technology.



We need time to think. We need time to learn. We need opportunities to get things wrong … and then grow.

1. No such thing as “I can’t …”

Students of mine know that the phrase “I don’t know” is banned. 99,9% of the time, when given chance to stop and think, students DO know. If not, they can usually figure it out, given a few pointers and guidelines. Instead of, “I don’t know,” I teach my students to say/think, “Just give me a moment, let me think.” This is a far more accurate response to what is happening, cognitively, for them when they’re put on the spot. Similarly, instead of, “I can’t”, I teach them to say or think:  “I haven’t learned that yet, but I’m going to.” The difference these simple changes make to a student’s self-esteem and confidence is phenomenal. They are suddenly empowered to try. They engage actively and have a chance at succeeding, rather than “playing it safe” and not even making an attempt. The key component to this approach is the pause. “Give me a moment … let me think …” Then, give them a moment … LET them think!

2. You have to fail, to learn

The adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is never more true than with learning. No human walked the minute after they were born, yet, miraculously, the vast majority of us learn to do so quite well after a year or two. I doubt any of us can remember the tumbles we took in this process. I doubt any of our parents were fast enough to catch us before we fell each time. If you’re reading this, you survived those bumps and are a much better bi-pedal perambulator as a result, right? Why, then, do we allow fear and external pressure to get in the way of our continued learning and growth? Why do we put ourselves, our children and our students under such inhuman pressure when it comes to Passing! or Failing!? We have to fail at things at first – it’s how we learn.

3. Growth mindedness – it’s an ongoing process

Over 30 years ago, psychologist Dr Carol Dweck first coined the terms “Fixed Mindset” and “Growth Mindset”. Her empirical research involved thousands of students over a number of years and the results were astounding. Students who believed their intelligence was “fixed” didn’t improve their grades, gave up quickly, were disheartened by poor results and didn’t put much effort into learning. In contrast, students with a “Growth Mindset” showed perseverance, took risks, participated in class and understood that mistakes are absolutely normal when people try new things.

Thanks to advances in medical technology and neuroscience, we now know a lot more about how the brain functions. It functions very much like a muscle and – like a muscle – it can grow and strengthen through effort and exercise. IQ is not a fixed determiner. It is possible for people to raise (and lower) their IQ’s when they understand that effort makes their brains stronger.

For more information on Growth Mindset, check out this TED Talk by Dr Dweck, The power of believing that you can, or purchase her excellent book:Mindset

4. You are NOT your marks

Marks/grades, call them what you will, have become the be all and end all of too many students’ lives. The debate for and against our “traditional” system of assigning marks to work done under test conditions rages on, but changes to our education structures seem slow and slight. I feel that assigning marks/grades to students’ work, in the way that schools and universities currently do, can actually inhibit learning. Students who score high on tests and exams are not necessarily the most knowledgeable, nor the most talented in that subject. They are simply the ones who are best at playing “the game of tests and marks”. Chasing the “A” becomes more important than delving deeply into a subject, mastering knowledge, learning new skills and improving the very act of acquiring knowledge. Let’s not even talk about “enjoyment of learning”!

The good news is that educators are debating this issue. Schools are trying out new ways of assessing students. Forward thinking principals and department heads are trying to bring our education systems into the 21st century, with more of a focus on skills-development than on the content-memorising approach of the 20th century. However, there will always be some benchmark necessary for admittance into tertiary institutions and some degree of “ranking” according to achievement. The trick is not to allow these scores or rankings to determine your worth as a human, nor your potential to succeed in life. Avoid judging others on their academic marks. Avoid comparisons altogether. Work on seeing report cards simply as tools to  gauge progress and to figure out where to focus more effort.

Here’s a link to an excellent TED Talk by 12th Grade student, Eva Ren, who unpacks the meaning of grades far more eloquently than I have: What Your Grades Really Mean

In conclusion: Everyone CAN …

It all boils down to accepting and believing that we are works in progress. We can – and do – learn new knowledge and skills all the time. Effort = reward. Some people have natural abilities that make learning certain things appear easier and faster. This doesn’t mean those things can’t be learned by others. It might just take a bit more time and, perhaps, a slightly different method.


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