“I didn’t know how to answer that question. I’m stupid”

The words came from my son, after I had asked him about a recent writing assignment for his 8th grade English class. To say that my son’s words concerned me would be an understatement. As an educator, a former English teacher, and--most of all--as a father, my son’s cursory self assessment--casual, yet sweeping in it’s implications and scope--inspired a range of concerns. It’s one thing to not know how to answer a question: “Not knowing” is a normal and necessary--in fact, essential part of learning. After all, how can you learn what you already know? “Not knowing”--or better, having the wrong answer, what some call “expectation failure”--marks the beginning of the critical process by which students identify their assumptions and revise and/or build on their existing constructs of knowledge, i.e. learning. However, to make the move from “not knowing” to the broader conclusion of “stupidity” is a dangerous and potentially devastating cognitive leap. For while the first claim indicates the necessary and normal (however frustrating) educational challenge of “not knowing”; the second claim operates as a statement of identity, a broad and essentialist labelling of the self and one’s ability, not simply to answer a question in English class, but to take on the many intellectual challenges faced now and in the future, both in school and beyond.

Self Labeling

I have seen students make this kind of cognitive move many times before: A challenge with a question or some difficulty in a class quickly turns into a sweeping self-generalization, a fixed label about one’s innate aptitude and ability, even their character. Terms like “lazy” and “slacker” come to mind. As a result, a simple question in a class suddenly becomes the terrain for a student’s overall sense of themselves as a person. After all, it’s a normal part of development for teens, while forming a sense of their own identity, to begin drawing on experience, then devising “cognitive frames” and personal narratives around those experiences to explain--to put it simply--“who they are.” As education scholars like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Douglas R. Knecht have explored, these narratives are formed at a critical period in adolescence, when different regions of the brain begin to “‘talk’ to one another, co-regulate, and coordinate,” developing neural networks that join emotion and meaning with the construction of new ideas. (I invoke these connections in my own personal narratives below.)

In school, when developing these narrative frames for self understanding, students are often quick to label themselves in reductive terms like “stupid” or simply “not good students.” These simplistic frames can lead to affective links in the brain that impact critical emotional dimensions of intellectual development, shaping cognitive biases around how a student receives and perceives new information and experiences. Suddenly, any new challenge in a class or in life can function as newfound ostensible “proof” of a term like “stupidity.” And even when these binary labels are more nuanced, like "motivated/unmotivated," they still tend to reduce the overall complex of factors contributing to why a student may feel the way they do.


Reductive Binaries

The problem emerges when these labels draw on overly simplistic and reductive language, leaving students with a limited range of options for framing experience and self understanding. In my experience, students often fall into the trap of labelling themselves according to a set of reductive binary either/or options: They see themselves as either stupid or smart, talented or untalented, lazy or hardworking. Because these terms work as binaries, the perceived lack of one can function by default as proof of the other: To fuel a false perception of “stupidity,” a student need not actually experience themselves as “stupid,” but simply lack experiences in which they have the opportunity to perceive themselves as or feel “smart” in a particular context.

Students come by these labels honestly enough: In the absence of a more complex, alternative language, they rely on the most convenient and accessible terms available. Moreover, these labels come from and are encouraged by a culture that frequently frames intelligence and ability in broadly reductive ways. We often compliment others--including our children--with references to how smart they are. Meanwhile, schools classify and track students from early on according to academic performance. Traditional metrics for evaluating student performance typically focus on academic skills, without providing a full “whole student” understanding of the many, often extracurricular dimensions that impact learning. As a result, students are left to evaluate their progress through a semester of complex life experience and learning with little more than a set of quantitative academic scores. All of these practices, both cultural and institutional, lead to a habitual tendency to label students in reductive terms that, one way or another, categorize within a binary frame of intelligent or unintelligent.


From Reductive Binaries to Complex Systems of Understanding

For the most part, traditional models of academic assessment and evaluation label students, whether implicitly or explicitly, without accounting for the broad and complex range of factors--cognitive, psychological, social, and experiential--that affect their performance and learning. A more complete view of student learning would attend to the interdependent system of factors that inform and influence how students experience school, everything from a student’s background and their access to social support, to how much sleep they get, to any anxiety they may experience, both on and off campus.

Consider all the factors that can shape how a student experiences and performs in school. Students bring a whole complex of dimensions to the learning process. As a teacher, I knew that a student’s social relationships, their experiences at home and off-campus, the amount of parental and other adult support they had, their access to everything from food and shelter to technology, online resources, a decent library, or even a home culture of curiosity about learning--all of these dimensions have an impact. And even this quick listing just scratches the surface. Then there’s student motivation: Are students more intrinsically motivated by curiosity in certain subjects, or do external rewards like grades and recognition play a bigger part? Many very talented and capable students underperform in school simply because they are bored and lack the necessary ownership over how they learn. Then there’s cognitive, brain-based factors, such as a student’s ability to process visual or auditory information, or focus in certain learning environments. And there’s a student’s background: Their experience of race, gender, and class, along with the rich range of other cultural and experiential differences, beliefs, and perceptions that also shape how they learn. All of this diversity can influence something as simple as how they can or can’t respond to a question in class. Students, like all of us, “contain multitudes.” Trying to summarize a student’s ability in a reductive evaluation of intelligence is a bit like trying to summarize War and Peace in a single word.

I knew of these challenges well before my time as a teacher. As a student, I was labeled early on as “gifted,” even sent to a magnet school where I could take full purchase on my seemingly innate talent at school. Of course, I also had access to ample support from parents at home. My Dad had a Ph.D. in Biology and was a high school teacher himself. As a young child, I had grown up travelling with him while he had done field research in Mexico. My mom was a psychiatric nurse. We were not wealthy. In fact, my dad was often unemployed for long stretches of my childhood--largely because of his insistent commitment to finding a career in education, where jobs could be sparse in the early 80s.

Yet, despite any economic challenges I may have experienced, when viewed through an academic lens, my upbringing was privileged. We had a large library of books at home, and my parents had exposed me to a rich range of cultural experiences. We travelled regularly, and intellectual curiosity about the world was just a normal way of engaging, well, life. Then, in 7th grade, my parents divorced, and my life suddenly became much more complicated. Focusing on school suddenly felt unusually difficult. School itself felt oddly trivial, arbitrary at best. Either way, I no longer really cared. I had slipped into depression without really realizing it. And while my parents were very sensitive to my emotional well being--even sent me to therapy--for me, focusing on school just no longer seemed like much of a priority.

I left my magnet school and returned to the regular-track campus, where I had all my friends I knew from elementary school. I put school on the backburner and focused on trying to have fun and forget about all my problems at home. I pretty much ignored my homework assignments, and did just enough in class to get by--just enough, and really barely enough, to pass. Of course, my “intellectual ability,” hadn’t changed, but my ability to focus and learn had changed drastically. None of the complex life challenges I had experienced were captured in my GPA. In the eyes of my teachers, I had simply gone from an A to a C student. And with that shift, I noticed, came a shift in attitude. Teachers treated me differently, often with a kind of sardonic skepticism, a bit awry as if accusing me of laziness. Then again, I also began to perceive myself differently. Perhaps, I thought, I actually was lazy. And perhaps, I thought, I really didn’t have what it takes to succeed in school after all. These attitudes about my ability existed in a set of negative feedback loops (more on “feedback loops” below) with my motivation and performance: My poor performance in school reinforced my attitudes about school, and my attitudes about school reinforced my poor performance, all of which translated into a general lack of confidence, which in turn translated into lack of interest in making any kind of real effort, which in turn further perpetuated my lack of confidence. These perceptions did not simply affect me in the present tense; they also shaped my view of my future prospects and potential for success, both in college and in my professional life. As I began to internalize a low opinion of my ability in school, I also began to lower my expectations of myself and life in general, avoiding challenges and tempering my ambitions to more modest goals. Of course, I didn’t have a full understanding of how all these factors were connected to and in fact fed into and reinforced one another. I lacked a language for identifying the different but interdependent factors that shaped my experience, attitudes, and performance. Experientially, I simply felt a collective lack of interest in school, beyond seeing it as a place to hang out with friends.

It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand that adolescent shift in my academic performance more fully. For years, I had simply blamed myself for my own self-perceived 90s-era grunge slackerdom. I was in my 20s before I had recovered my passion for learning--at least in a way that translated into motivation in a classroom. And it took me years to rebuild confidence in my ability. I don’t know whether any natural academic “gifts” had a role in my success. I do know that it required a lot of work, both academic and emotional, driven by passionate interest.

Later, when I went into teaching, I brought my own experiences as a student to the classroom. Having been at both ends of the grade curve, I knew all too well that academic performance had little to do with academic ability or potential. Nor does low academic performance simply reflect “laziness.” I also knew that each student came to class with a vast and richly varied set of experiences and needs, all of which impacted their class performance in complex ways. To really teach them, I would have to do my best to understand them as people, and hopefully help them better understand themselves, especially beyond the kind of reductive binary labels so commonly applied to student ability.

The Learner Variability Project

As a teacher, I certainly understood that no students were ever simply “intelligent” or “unintelligent.” I knew that a student’s performance in class--even a single grade on an assignment--was like the tip of a very large iceberg: You only saw academic performance in their work, but what lay behind that performance involved a deep system of factors hidden below the surface. Research has already gone far to track the complex factors that impact student learning, beyond the destructive reductions of familiar binary labels like “intelligent” and “unintelligent.”

For instance, the researchers at Digital Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding equity in education, have developed the Learner Variability Project (LVP), a systematic mapping of the interconnected factors that impact student learning across 4 key domains: Academics, cognition, social-emotional learning, and student background. Within these domains, the LVP lists over 80 factors (the list is always growing) that affect student learning. Moreover, the LVP maps out the interconnections between factors: No single factor works in isolation, but operates interdependently with other factors.

The LVP maps out a learning “system” in the truest sense of the term: A collection of interconnected and interrelated parts--what they refer to as “learning factors”--that operate collectively, each affecting one another in a complex matrix of influence. As a system, each factor operates interdependently with the whole, meaning that changes in one part of the system can create changes that spread throughout. System-wide interdependence means that even ostensibly distant or seemingly unrelated dimensions of a system can impact one another. I have seen how students with early childhood traumas have difficulty in the present in class, often struggling with factors like stress, anxiety, and mood, as well as difficulty managing uncertainty. I have also seen how students, with the right support, can better manage these challenges and find success.

We can think of this system of factors that influence a student’s learning as their “learning ecosystem.” Like an ecosystem in nature, learning ecosystems dynamically change in time, as students encounter and adapt to new experiences, circumstances, social situations, emotions, ideas, technologies, texts, and so on. (For this reason, attempts to understand learning ecosystems through more conventionally static tools like student surveys and profiles provide only a very limited picture.) And like a natural ecosystem, no single factor of a learning system works in isolation. For instance, no student simply experiences a factor like stress over an assignment. Instead, what can appear on the surface as stress over a test is in fact bound up interdependently with other factors including the student’s sleep patterns, their support at home, their comfort level at school, and social relationships--to name a few. And any change in a single factor--like sleep--can in turn feedback to create system-wide effects that influence all the other factors.


Feedback Loops

Mapping out the many interconnected dimensions that shape a student’s experience in school allows us to better isolate, identify, and understand how these different dimensions function as factors that impact learning at many levels and across multiple domains. I would add that viewing student experience through a systemic lens also allows us to better understand the causal reciprocity between factors. More specifically, by understanding student experience as a system of factors, we can begin to see how each of these factors impacts one another in ways that go beyond more traditional, reductively linear relationships of cause and effect. A simple view of student experience may, for instance, attribute a rise in student stress to an upcoming test. Students themselves often view their stress in these simple terms. In this common-sense view, the test serves as the cause, and stress operates as the effect. Seen through a systemic lens, however, each factor operates at once as both a cause and effect simultaneously, affecting one another in self-perpetuating “feedback loops.” A feedback loop is a mutually perpetuating relationship between factors in a system, in which factors operate at once as both causes and effects. Feedback loops can be either positive, resulting in overall beneficial effects in a student experience, or negative, leading to greater challenges. By seeing relationships between factors in this way, we can begin to understand how student stress and a test affect one another at the same time as a set of negative feedback loops: Stress over a test can impact the ability to focus on studying, which can result in further stress, which in turn further affects the ability to focus on studying, which results in further stress over the test, and so on, in a kind of vicious cycle. Because these factors operate within a system, one feedback loop can in turn impact and operate in further causal loops with a range of other factors, like sleep and eating habits, academic confidence, and even social relationships. And, of course, all of these factors can themselves in turn feedback in more complex causal loops to further affect the student’s stress over a single test. What the student may perceive and experience on the surface as stress over a test is in fact embedded in a much deeper, dynamically recursive system of interdependent factors.

In other words, the challenges students face in school take place within a complex, interconnected causal web, in which multiple factors mutually and dynamically impact one another in self-perpetuating feedback loops that collectively impact a student’s ability to learn and thrive, both in class and beyond. Even the intellectual work of learning new ideas and skills operates within learning ecosystems in feedback loops, reflecting the common truism in education that learning leads to yet more learning--which is to say that learning new ideas and skills does not simply happen sequentially, but “spirals” outward in recursive feedback loops that open up onto still further ideas and skills that in turn build on, revise, resituate, and recontextualize previous knowledge.

Harvard Professor Kurt Fischer’s influential “dynamic skills theory” draws on systems thinking to challenge more reductively linear models of learning. Fischer presents an adaptable framework for understanding learning, one in which learning develops unevenly, in ups and downs, as new skills emerge through feedback loops with previous knowledge as well as a student’s cognitive and emotional development--all of which is in turn vulnerable to variations in contextual factors like the structures of support that enable optimal cognitive function in a given time and place. Meanwhile, scholars like Vanessa Rodriguez have traced how effective teaching requires understanding the ways in which the dynamic development of “teaching brains” takes place in reciprocal “teacher-learner systems.” In her book, The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education, Rodriguez challenges the static, old-school notion of the teacher as the independent class authority, the “sage on the stage” who comes to class equipped with complete knowledge that they then simply deliver to students. Instead, Rodriguez argues that effective teaching involves the ability to recognize and dynamically manage one’s own “teacher-brain” as a system that works--or better, co-evolves--in interdependent feedback loops with multiple other learning systems:

Expert teachers recognize the learner as one system, themselves as another, and their interaction with the learner as a third system, which we’ll call the teacher-learner system. Expert teachers are able to do this at both micro and macro levels, constructing theories of the learning system for each individual student and for the class as a whole. This multilevel understanding, which comes only with years of practice, is what supports effective teachers as they interact with students individually and at the same time manage to be mindful of the collective learning needs of an entire classroom of students.

Academic growth, in other words, does not happen in a vacuum; rather, it is deeply contextual, and must be understood within the larger systems of lived experience, where curricular learning enters into complex feedback loops with factors such as their relationships with teachers (who in turn are themselves best understood as complex “teacher systems”), as well the extracurricular domains of a student’s background, their cognitive function, and their social and emotional experiences. Understanding learning within this broader system of factors radically broadens our understanding of a student’s experience in class, well beyond the reductive binaries of “smart” and “stupid.” Most importantly, more fully understanding these factors enables both students and teachers greater insight into their overall strengths, needs, and challenges--critical insight for supporting truly successful learning.

Fixed versus Growth Mindsets

The problem with reductive binaries like “stupid” and “smart” is not simply that they reduce our understanding of student learning. When students internalize these labels, they impact performance. In fact, labels like “stupid” begin to act, not just descriptively, but prescriptively--not just as effects of particular experiences in school, but as causal agents, newly emergent factors within a student’s learning ecosystem, where these labels can insinuate themselves into and perpetuate negative feedback loops that potentially shape future learning, attitudes, and behavior. These labels can also impact mental health and relationships. Conversely, when language is more positive, and students internalize a view of themselves as “smart,” they can tend to frame an experience of “not knowing” an answer to a question in class (or anywhere else) as an intellectual challenge, a problem that they can overcome. When they internalize a view of themselves as stupid, then “not knowing” becomes more proof of inability, a self-fulfilling (mis)perception that can lead to lower motivation and, often, lower self esteem.

Yet even when these labels are more positive, they can still do damage. Whether a student tends to self identify as “smart” or “stupid,” the deeper problem lies in the fact that these are fixed labels: They point to a more permanent or statically “essentialist” image of the self, as if the self were a fixed equation, programmed at birth as a set of natural strengths and challenges, without accounting for the many ways we are capable of change or growth. It’s a fatalistic perspective, in which a label seemingly determines the scope of your life potential, without accounting for the many ways in which we are capable of change and growth over time--an assumption foundational to the whole project of education. Psychologists and educators distinguish between these two views of the self as two different mindsets: A “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” A “fixed mindset” assumes that our intelligence and overall ability are inherently established traits, carved in stone, often culturally encoded in terms like “talent” or “genius,” that we either do or don’t possess. Those who possess these traits are “smart” and those who don’t are, by default, “stupid.” Psychologists point out that, regardless of any inherent aptitude we may possess, a more accurate understanding of the self assumes a growth mindset: A view of the self as open to change and growth through experience. Instead of seeing academic failure or “not knowing” as evidence of some inherent weakness or lack of intelligence, a growth mindset views failure as an opportunity to learn something new.

Even when a student adopts a fixed view of themselves in more positive language like “smart” or “gifted,” any experience of failure becomes a potential challenge to their sense of identity, often resulting in behaviors that can actually interfere with learning. Consider the examples of John MacEnroe and Muhammad Ali. Both were considered extremely accomplished, and even revered as “geniuses” in their respective sports. And both had arguably internalized a view of themselves as highly talented. Muhammed Ali openly and famously celebrated himself as the “greatest of all time.” In her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential, Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck draws on the examples of MacEnroe and Ali to distinguish between fixed and growth mindsets. According to Dweck, MacEnroe exemplified traits of a fixed mindset: “He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfil his potential.” When he lost, he focused on defending his own fixed sense of himself as talented: A loss was never his fault or an opportunity for growth. Rather, a loss was always someone else’s fault, like the bad call of a referee or a defective racquet. The fixed mindset of “talent” begins with a sense of the self as naturally gifted, then tries to shape experience to fit this label.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, begins with no fixed sense of the self, whether talented or not. According to Dweck, “this growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” The point of the growth mindset is not to disregard talent or aptitude. Rather, a growth mindset sees the self as changeable and capable of development, and of growth through challenges. Dweck points to Muhammed Ali as a paradigmatic example. In terms of natural attributes, Ali possessed few characteristics--in terms of height, weight, and reach--that most professionals consider indicative of success for a professional fighter. Yet, while not a “natural,” Dweck points out Ali prepared and trained tirelessly for his fight with Sonny Liston, by all accounts a far more gifted fighter, at least on paper. In addition to physical training, Ali studied Liston’s style meticulously. Even if he could not win with brawn, he could win with his brains, outsmarting his opponent in the ring. Years later, when Ali lost to Joe Frazier, he rebounded again, working twice as hard to eventually regain his title.

Ali found success because he was able to see himself beyond reductive labels. Even when he celebrated his own genius, he did not simply internalize a fixed view of his ability and “genius” in the ring. He worked to earn his success over and over again. Ali’s growth mindset, his capacity for comebacks, for growth after failure, serves as one of the hallmarks of his true greatness (not to mention the narrative arc that inspired decades of Rocky sequels--arguably, a whole franchise built on dramatizing a growth mindset). Resisting easy labels is not, well, easy, particularly in a culture often prone to reductive definitions. I’m reminded of those famous lines from the 80s classic The Breakfast Club, a film about teens whose final complaint concludes with a plea to be seen beyond “the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions… as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.” Of course, while they struggle not only to be seen by teachers and adults in more complex terms, they also struggle to see and appreciate themselves and one another with that same complexity.

When my son told me he was “stupid,” I wondered about the system of experiences and factors underlying his perception of himself. I pressed him to explore his statement a bit further. Did he actually consider himself stupid? Or did the question from his English homework simply make him feel stupid. (When seeking to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, even minor shifts in verbs signal fundamentally different models of subjectivity.) Then we discussed the difference. Did he really think he lacked the intelligence to answer the question? Or was the question simply frustrating? What about the question made him feel this way? The question with which he struggled was a writing prompt, a short personal essay asking him to reflect on the “highlights” of the past year in quarantine during the pandemic. My son could not answer because he couldn’t think of any highlights. I told him I could relate: I think it would be pretty hard for me to think of any highlights from the past year. He also shared that the question made him feel kind of bad, “Like, what if I just haven’t had any good experiences?” I told him that his feelings made a lot of sense. And perhaps he had found his answer to the writing prompt after all. Once he recognized that it was OK to not have any “highlights” to recall from his time in quarantine, he got past his writer’s block and developed a very sensitive reflection on the challenges of the past year.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had we not had that conversation. I also wonder about the broader system of factors that may have led to my son’s challenge here: Such as his stress over the pandemic, a recent drop in confidence and motivation connected to the shift to quarantine, coupled with the difficult adjustment to 100% online learning, as well as references he had made in the past to feeling uncomfortable participating over Zoom in his English class--all of which may have been bound up in negative feedback loops that informed his stress over the writing prompt in unseen ways. I also thought about the factors that led to his success here: His access to parental support, his past experiences with self reflection, and his ample exposure to and access to reading materials, to name a few. Once he was able to reflect on his difficulty with the question beyond the simple, binary lens of “stupid/smart,” he could identify the more specific challenges and feelings that seemed to block his ability to develop an answer.

Certainly, my son can’t come to me every time he has difficulty with a question. And not all parents are former English teachers, practiced in helping students develop narrative reflections. As a father--a vital part of my son’s own learning ecosystem--I will continue to do what I can to guide him through these challenges. The larger challenge we face, as parents, educators, and product designers in the world of edtech, is to develop accessible ways for students to better understand themselves beyond the fixed and reductive labels that so commonly limit their ability to identify their needs and appreciate their true potential, both in school and beyond.

Heartbeat® by Shmoop


A self-proclaimed slacker in his early academic career, Dr. Owen Matson graduated from Buena Park High School in 1992, then worked his way through community college, UCLA, and eventually on to Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D. in English in 2007.  Drawing on his broad range of experience as a student, Owen became passionate about teaching and digital pedagogy, and before working at Shmoop University, he taught at both secondary and college levels for over 14 years. He is especially proud of Shmoop’s innovative SEL tool Heartbeat® and helping students achieve more academically.

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