The Courage to Learn

school boy wearing a superhero costume with blackboard behind him
school boy wearing a superhero costume with blackboard behind him

The thing about learning is that it’s not always comfortable. Whether we are tackling a new math strategy, a new spelling word, or a new recipe, by its very definition learning means acknowledging that we don’t know how to do something. Learning requires risk-taking, especially when it’s hard. It also often requires asking for help.

For students who struggle with anxiety or low self-esteem, this can be asking a lot. Consider a class being introduced to long division for the first time. All students may begin on an equal playing field, but not all students will react in the same way. Students who have typically experienced success in school, who consider themselves “good at math,” will likely be up for the challenge. They’ll be listening avidly, trying to be the first one to “get it.” Students who find school more intimidating, who have been labeled (or labeled themselves) as “bad at math,” may have very different responses. They may be harder on themselves when they make mistakes, and they will almost certainly give up more quickly.

As educators and parents, it is our job to show students that if they are brave enough to take the risks that learning requires, we will be there to help them through. Here at the Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, when students tell us that they are “not good at math,” we like to invite them to add the word “yet” to that sentence. The reality is that nobody is born understanding long division. We all need to be taught, and we all make mistakes along the way.

At a recent staff meeting here at the RRLS, one of our Learning Specialists brought up the problem of conflicting definitions of intelligence and the impact they can have on students’ confidence and learning. If I define intelligence as fixed, I either have it or I don’t. If I’m bad at math now, I’ll be bad at math forever. When I try something new and make a mistake, that mistake is revealing my lack of ability. Trying hard reveals a lack of natural talent.

Although very few people (and certainly no teachers!) would claim to ascribe to this definition, it underscores many of our conversations about skills and abilities. Fortunately, there’s a very different way to define intelligence that offers students another message: intelligence can change.

If I define intelligence as changeable, then I can change my own. Long division might be a challenge, but I can tackle it. I can learn the strategies to master it, and one day it won’t be hard anymore. My mistakes demonstrate my courage to take risks, and my effort reveals my strength of character.

We must recognize that students’ abilities to deal with making mistakes relate directly to our own abilities to show them that we consider dealing with mistakes much more important than getting something right the first time. When educators truly value the learning more than the outcome, students can begin to do the same.

For more information on supporting the development of students’ confidence and self-esteem, please contact Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space at 416.925.1225 or visit


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