Self Esteem and Learning

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Have you ever thought about the mindset needed to be a successful learner? Carol Dweck, who recently won the Yidan prize for her educational research on  growth mindsets and how children think about learning and it’s impact on academic success has learned through her research that “the most motivated and resilient students are the ones who believe that their abilities can be developed through their effort and learning.” (Stanford University, 2017.)  So what does this mean for parents, caregivers, and teachers who want to provide the best opportunity for their children to grow into successful adults?

Think about your own experiences as a learner. When you are full of self-doubt, or low self-esteem, the ability to persevere, show “grit” and keep trying is tremendously difficult. Low self-esteem can cause a domino-effect and feed our negative self-perceptions.  Low self-esteem then begins to spiral out of control, and depression and academic failure can be the result.

“ It usually is not difficult to pick out the ones that have lower self-esteem vs. those with higher self-esteem. The ones that have the lower self-esteem tend to be quiet, withdrawn, sit in the back of the class, and do not readily participate in class activities as those with higher self-esteem (Phillips, Smith, & Modaff , 2001)”

We all have low points in our lives –I certainly can remember a few. So how do we break out of this cycle –and help our children and others we care about to do so? I recently came across a great list, “20 Tips to Promote Positive Self-Esteem,”  by Richard D. Lavoie. (  First and foremost, you need to know the child – understand their unique strengths, needs, interests and skills, focus on these and celebrate the successes when they come.  On the flip side, however, failure is inevitable, and it is how we learn. We all need time to play, experiment, try, fail, and try again.  In this process, we develop decision-making and problem-solving skills. Choice, and opportunities to practice decision-making are opportunities for growth, and to build self-esteem.

As a parent, teacher or caregiver, it is essential that you offer unconditional acceptance of your child. Provide opportunity for playing, creating, socializing, and provide opportunities for growth in the areas they show skill or interest. Model and teach them good character, and help them fit in.  Through these actions, you will be building their self-esteem, and pave the way for your child to be a successful learner.


20 Tips to Promote Positive Self-Esteem,

Bauman, Shannon A. “The Importance Of Self-Esteem In Learning And Behavior In Children With Exceptionalities And The Role Magic Tricks May Play In Improving Self-Esteem And In Motivating Learning.” University of Central Florida, 2012.

Dweck, Carol S. “Boosting Achievement with Messages that Motivate.” Education Canada, doi:CA01000801.

University, Stanford. “Stanford Psychologist Recognized with $4 Million Prize.” Stanford News, 2017,

Transformative Learning

Planning learning with the end in mind is a time-consuming task, but the results are definitely worth it.  As a teacher, you have a clear idea of what learners need to understand and be able to do, based on the standards, and hopefully, how those ideas, concepts, and skills apply to the real world so that students are motivated, engaged, and an authentic performance assessment can be planned.

If the learners are able to transfer their knowledge and skills to a new situation to solve a problem or create something new, the teacher can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the learners truly understand, and will be able to recall that learning and apply it whenever needed.   To me, this is innovative, transformational learning – whether technology is used or not.  Quite possibly, an authentic task will require the use of technology – as these are real-world tools.  But it is not the focal point of the learning.

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a group of 6th grade science learners engaged in this kind of transformative learning and performance task.  The teacher, Laura Murray, had created a unit using Intel Education Transformation Model – a backwards design process.  According to the Colorado Science Standards, students need to be able to understand that objects, processes and events are systems that consist of interacting parts, objects and events can be viewed at various scales, and that change follows patterns that can be directional, predictive, and/or cyclic. Students are to learn about the constructive and destructive earth processes.

IMG_5786Laura’s backwards plan was able to address these understandings and  big ideas, and culminated in a performance based assessment where students had the opportunity to apply their understanding in a unique way.  Students assumed the role of museum curator –in the far away future.  They were able to choose –500,000 or 1,000,000 years in the future!  Their task: Create a museum display depicting what the landscape of our area of Colorado might look like in that amount of time.

Prior to this culminating event, the students spent a good deal of time studying geologic periods.  You can imagine, to the typical 6th grader, this can IMG_5787seem very abstract – perhaps even a bit dull.   But it really came alive for these learners when Laura introduced them to an online resource provided by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  They featured a special exhibition on Ancient Denvers: The Denver Basin Project.   And –the task that they were given within the role of museum curator was exciting, creative, and engaging. Students had a connection because it was about their own landscape that they were challenged to make a prediction.  The students worked in teams to research the exhibits the museum currently offered, read the descriptions, and then used their knowledge and understanding to predict their future landscape.  This is a 1:1 iPad school, so they used the iPads to research, draw the landscapes for the exhibit, and write up the description for the museum placard.

IMG_5783The day I visited, the students were working specifically on their understanding of scale.  Students were using rolls of cash register tape to physically see and understand the time distance between the geologic periods. They used a scale of 1 millimeter = 10,000 years and had to mark them all out on the tape.   One of the things I loved about this as that Laura chose the best tool for the task at hand. Trying to create these models of scale using the iPad might have resulted in students not being able to see the physical distance from one mark to the next, and reduced understanding as a result.

What’s next? Seeking authentic feedback from real museum curators at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.  Providing authentic feedback is the finishing embellishment on a unit that provided these 6th grade learners with a transformational learning experience that they may carry with them for a lifetime.

Laura has been teaching middle schoolers for 13 years at Academy District 20’s Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs.  She has taught Science and Social Studies in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. She has earned Outdoor Recreation, Business, and Curriculum and Instruction degrees from Colorado State University and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In her spare time, Laura coaches Forensics, is a NJHS sponsor,  and serves on many school and district committees. Laura also volunteers with theater programs at Challenger and Pine Creek High School.

Labels Matter

Cinderella_Castle_and_Partners_statue_at_Magic_KingdomThe labels that we use matter. At FETC, I was reminded of this when a group of us were treated to a backstage tour of the Polynesian Resort and dinner at the Kona Café. We were escorted around by a “cast member” who made the experience so entertaining and informative. Her commitment to the role she plays is evident. Disney parks are known as magical places – but there are some specific practices put in place to help produce some of the magic that customers experience. One of these practices is the use of the label “cast member.” Think of all that this label implies. A member of the cast, in the traditional sense performs in a show. They create an illusion of another time and place to help transform the experience for those they encounter. This all lends itself to the magic behind the “Magic Kingdom” while communicating some pretty unique expectations to those that serve in the role of cast member, whether they are custodians, servers, or executives.

What does all of this have to do with innovations in education? A label we commonly use to refer to our main customer is “student.” Recently, I conducted a book study for a group of forward-thinking educators of Make Learning Personal: The What, Who, WOW, Where and Why by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey. One idea that resonated with our teachers was a simple shift in language: calling students learners rather than students. This came originally from CAST in the UDL Guidelines 2.0. The thinking behind this is that learning happens everywhere, all of the time. The shift in label from student to learner helps convey this. If we were to list out characteristics of learners and students how would they differ? Below are some of my thoughts. What would you add or change?

Learner table


And then, in following the #Educon tweets this weekend, this tweet came across my stream:


This totally reinforces my thinking that our behaviors need to change -simply changing the label is not enough.  By changing the label we use for those in our charge, we can begin to see them differently. The relationship changes, which will help them begin the shift from student to learner.