This week Tahnee McShane draws on her teaching and writing experiences to consider how fiction can model positive and problem solving attitudes in young readers through the representation of a growth mindset in the characters and the way they face challenges.
Last year, when I was in the early stages of publishing my first book and seeking feedback from people in the industry, a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that a theme of Annabel and Turtle was growth-mindset. Annabel and Turtle was always intended to be at least slightly moralistic. A children’s story with a simple message that sometimes, bad things happen, they make us sad, but we do feel happy again. This is symbolised when Annabel and Turtle’s beautifully crafted sandcastle is washed away with the tide.
Annabel, my friend observed, is a character with a wise soul who approaches life with a growth mindset. She sees problems as something that can be overcome with grit and determination. Turtle, however, contrasts Annabel’s approach by having a fixed mindset. When Turtle comes across a problem, his first response is to cry. And let’s face it – that’s still my go-to approach a lot of the time when the proverbial hits the fan.
|© Tahnee McShane |
Illustration from Annabel and Turtle.
But a fixed mindset is not only about crying when things go bad. It comes down to a deeper belief that a person holds about him or herself. Working with young children, fixed-mindset can be common. One of the first cries you hear in the earlier grades is “I can’t draw,” which follows on to “I’m not good at…. maths/drawing/singing” - you fill in the gaps. Early on we teach our children to pigeon hole themselves. I clearly remember my friend in grade four being told to mime in the school choir because she “can’t sing.” But, the message we really want our children to know is that they may not be good at it yet. As a teacher, the child who simply will not try anything because they are not good can be extremely challenging (if not time-consuming).
We want our children to understand that when things are difficult, when they are being challenged –their brains are growing, and they are learning. More and more research is being published which suggests that if children have a good understanding of how their brains work, that will help them in the way they approach learning.
Recently, I was watching a documentary about Formula One racing drivers. In this episode, the documentary was following Renault Driver, Nico Hulkenberg. During the show, when visiting America, Hulkenberg was chatting to a group of children. One asked, “do you think you can win? Do you have growth-mindset?” My husband looked over at me with raised eyebrows, (as the self-appointed growth-mindset expert in the house) and I groaned inwardly. Like many things, growth-mindset is open for misinterpretation. In our fast-paced world, changing your mindset can be misinterpreted as a quick fix to “believe in yourself”. In Nico Hulkenberg’s case, it was obvious this would not be enough. For Hulkenberg to win a race in a Renault powered formula one car in 2018, there would be need for serious misadventure from many other cars!
In addition to teaching children explicitly about how their brains function, I’m interested in how fiction can help foster growth-mindset, at a more subtle yet deeper level. I’m interested in characters and the values that they role-model to our little people. As educators and authors, it’s important in choosing or creating literature for our young people that we keep these values in mind. When a character struggles, talk about it with your child or your class. Highlight the times that the protagonist fails, as well as the time she succeeds. Discuss how the character has grown and changed when they failed.
And maybe next time a child is asked to do something that they previously decided they were “not good at,” they will remember the Koala Lou’s or the Digging-est Dogs – or indeed the Turtles, and remember that it’s OK to try, and try and try again. That we do not have to be perfect the first time – indeed we do not need to be perfect at all.
Tahnee McShane is the author of Annabel and Turtle a children’s book and podcast series, for children aged 2 to 8.
Tahnee is also a teacher and mother, and lives in Tasmania with her husband and three children. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram and find the podcast on Spotify and Soundcloud.