My Arms Are Too Short: A Life Lesson in Adopting a Growth Mindset


Dylan Barth, Associate Vice President of Learning, Online Learning Consortium

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How can you encourage your students to adopt a growth mindset?

We chose to homeschool our then six-year-old son, Ezra, during the pandemic. One day during gym class, Casey asked him to touch his toes. Ezra complained: “My arms are too short.”

I laugh whenever I think of that response. To Ezra, the problem was not that he lacked flexibility. That didn’t even occur to him. He just needed longer arms or perhaps shorter legs.

We could read Ezra’s declaration as evidence of a fixed mindset. He gave up, thinking this was an obstacle he could not overcome, and following the logic of his argument, he would be right. It’s not as though he can extend his body parts like some sort of adolescent Mister Fantastic.

But what Ezra experienced was more than just a fixed mindset. It was a misunderstanding of the world that ultimately produced, or at least reinforced, a fixed mindset. Without knowing that muscles stretch, he used his prior (albeit limited) life experience to make sense of the situation.

Similarly, students come to our classes with all sorts of misconceptions about our disciplinary fields. They are novices who have limited knowledge about what we’re teaching and what they’re learning. In fact, one of our challenges is that students often need to do a significant amount of unlearning to be successful.

Take writing, for example. Many students perceive writing as a simple matter of transcribing thoughts to the page using a predetermined number of paragraphs. They often fail to see that writing—as a process—produces new ideas and connections, that writing conventions are fluid and contestable. It takes some time and effort to help them see writing differently.

Casey explained to Ezra that he could touch his toes through practice and effort. She helped him see his situation differently, and it worked. His genetic blueprint probably prevents him from becoming a professional contortionist, but at least he can reach his feet at this point.

Some of our students will come to us thinking that their arms are too short when, in fact, they are not flexible enough. Our job is to reveal to them how muscles work and then to teach them how to stretch.

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