Time for Your Mental Autopsy

mental inventory

If you’re like me, you’re so busy, and the idea of stopping for reflection is a tough one. It is especially hard when the topic is on work habits, mindsets and strategies. Plus, the word “autopsy” triggers thoughts of something that died.

Actually, you should be “killing” off weak or wrong ideas. But, why do you and I keep putting it off? For one, it’s hard work. Second, it may be painful. And finally, it takes time, and who’s got extra time? I don’t, and you probably don’t either.

Yet, to become better, you want to discipline yourself to do the things that others won’t do. This creates “separation” between you and those that complain and stay the same. This, in fact, is what gives you job security. Help yourself get 1% better every week of the year and you’ll become fabulous.

You’re already a minute into reading this, so let’s do a five-minute reflective “autopsy” on what is not working well.

The Research

Let’s start with three areas for a mental autopsy. We will focus on strategy, effort and attitude-building. Regardless of whether you are a classroom teacher, instructional coach or building leader, you had better be developing these three traits.

Strategy is the first trait. Do you foster a policy of constantly evaluating the strategy used? Do you give permission (to yourself and others) to change what is NOT working? Researchers found that students who were able to exhibit cognitive flexibility did much better academically than those who were not (Latzman, Elkovitch, Young, & Clark, 2010). Cognitive control is also a top 5 difference between students from poverty and those from middle or upper income families (Farah, et al., 2006). But even effort and the right strategy can run aground. How? Motivational approach can also be an issue.

Motivating effort is the second trait. Staff who foster effort (motivation, drive and persistence) will develop students with a good shot at success. The effort is the sustained, raw energy over time that makes all good things happen. Research supports task persistence as a huge fundamental factor, besides general mental ability (Andersson & Bergman 2011). In fact, the persistence and self-control to stick to a task matters twice as much as IQ (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). But that’s still not enough by itself. There’s more.

Sometimes the issue is neither effort nor strategy, but it may be the attitude with which a task is approached. Teachers who foster positive, growth-oriented mindsets will get pretty far with students as compared to those who think they’re constantly stuck or hopeless. The ideal success attitude requires optimism-building, hope-fostering and growth mindset enhancements. So, on a broad sweep, the three general factors (in life) that drive success for students are:

  • Strategy
  • Effort
  • Attitude

I mention these for a good reason. These help students get better grades and graduate.

To that short list of life success factors we could add many, many complimentary skills and attitudes. If I could only add one, I’d add social/emotional skills. For a moment, imagine this “package” in a student: strong effort, learns quickly, has a great attitude with cognitive flexibility and tops it off with great people skills. Wow! That’s a very, very good package for any job market.

It turns out that teachers contribute the largest amount to student success. They contribute more than socioeconomic status, student language, school quality or class size (Hattie, 2009).

Classroom Applications

Many staff get overwhelmed and say, “I can’t influence the strategies students use, or how hard students try, or their attitude!”

Actually you can.

All of the research on these three components supports the value of, and possibility for, change.

Start with a reflective autopsy on strategies. 1) Do you teach meta-cognitive skills? Help teachers and students notice when the effort expended is “not working.” Do this through partner or small group discussions, quiet reflection or feedback analysis with formative assessment. 2) Teach your students how to recognize if what they’re doing is NOT working (awareness). How well are you using formative assessment? 3) Teach others how to discover, create or locate a new, better strategy (intention and creativity), and 4) Be flexible enough to actually make the behavioral change.

Next, let’s do a mental autopsy on effort building. 1) When something requires MORE work, how do you respond (internally and around others)? If, in front of your class, you said, “More effort? We can do this. Bring it on!” “Class, repeat after me, “Bring it on!” 2) In those quiet moments alone, how do you respond to “more effort needed”? Your attitude should be, “I am willing to do it. Let me check my strategy first to ensure I am applying my effort in the right way.”

Finally, let’s do an autopsy on attitude and mindset building. The most important insights are recognizing how you and your students, or other staff, handle failure. Are you the one who says (out loud) the following to others?

  • “I can grow and change.” (vs. “I am stuck the way I am now.”)
  • “IQ is malleable and it can be developed/” (vs. IQ is a fixed, permanent trait.”)
  • “Being a lifelong learner is important to me.” (vs. “Looking smart is important.”)
  • “Effort is a positive, since it shows my commitment and passion.” (vs. “Effort is negative and shows I do not ‘have it.’”)

These comments either support or refute the possibility of student growth. We call them implicit theories of change (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007). Do you give those around you affirmations such as, “Brains can change”? Or, “DNA is not your destiny.”? When students struggle, do you help them go through a mental checklist to get better, instead of letting them feel helpless or comforting their losses?

Your checklist might be: 1) “How is my attitude? Am I 100% certain I will find a way to succeed?”, 2) “How will I evaluate this strategy to know if it is working?”, and 3) “Can I put in a big effort and persist to make this a success?”

Just the five minutes you put in today will help you grow your 1% this week. Seriously –just grow 1% per week and you’d be the most awesome educator at your campus. Well… make some notes on how you can “sharpen your saw” and go for it!

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

Andersson, H. & Bergman, LR. (2011). The role of task persistence in young adolescence for successful educational and occupational attainment in middle adulthood. Developmental Psychol. 47, 950-60.
Blackwell LS, Trzesniewski KH & Dweck, CS. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Dev. 78, 246-63.
Duckworth AL, & Seligman, ME. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychol Sci. 16, 939-44.
Farah, MJ, Shera, DM, Savage, JH, Betancourt, L, Giannetta, JM, Brodsky, NL, Malmud, EK & Hurt H. (2006). Childhood poverty: specific associations with neurocognitive development. Brain Res.,1110,166-74.
Hattie, JA (2009). Visible Learning. London, UK; Routledge.
Latzman, RD, Elkovitch, N.,Young, J., & Clark LA. (2010). The contribution of executive functioning to academic achievement among male adolescents. J Clin Exp. Neuropsychol. 32, 455-62
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