An Approach to Learning | December 4, 2015

An Approach to Learning

My dad, Johnny Caldwell, is creative and competitive. Perhaps best known for coaching the US Cross- Country Ski Team from 1965-70, my dad also taught math and coached soccer at the Putney School, a small, progressive boarding school in southern Vermont. He celebrates the player who relishes the impossible, who glories in being the underdog, the player who has no business winning and embraces the act of striving. Though there are many stories about his travels with the US Ski Team, one of his best stories is about his 1966 soccer team.

That year he had a particularly gutsy team. The Putney School usually played schools that were similar in size and approach to education, but they also had Deerfield Academy on their schedule. Deerfield, at the time, was an all-boys school, and had three times as many boys as the Putney School. Deerfield was also famous for having a very strong athletic program. They had multiple athletic fields, several gyms, and a swimming pool—they took their sports very seriously. They also wore green, like a school around here that we know. In contrast, Putney was small, had girls, and had sophisticated interests that went beyond sports: music, drama and community service. Putney School had one athletic field that sloped gently downhill, no gym and no swimming pool.
John Caldwell was a sports psychologist before that term became popular, and as he prepared his soccer team for the upcoming game against Deerfield, he came up with a plan.

Deerfield, Massachusetts is 35 miles south of Putney, Vermont. Just as Deerfield was known for its facilities, Putney was known for its farms. So my dad had the boys find a bike. He put them all in the back of a big farm truck and drove the team with their bikes to a spot about 2 miles from the Deerfield campus. Once there, the boys hopped out of the truck, onto their bikes and pedaled through the Deerfield campus, arriving at the field with just enough time to kick the ball around a few times before the game started. You can imagine how ridiculous this arrival might have looked to the well prepared and disciplined Deerfield squad.

So how did Putney without their own field, without team uniforms, and with 1/3 as many boys as Deerfield win that day? Because they believed they could and, conversely, the Deerfield boys were broken psychologically before the opening whistle blew. What might have been inflated confidence at the sight of the rag tag Putney team immediately turned into respect and fear of losing as the Putney boys came out with more energy and vigor than the Deerfield boys could have imagined from a team that had just biked 38 miles. And yes, after the game, the Putney boys casually hopped on their bikes and pedaled out of town, only to be picked up within a few miles to be driven back to school.

Over the summer, our faculty read a book called Mindset. In this book, Carol Dweck argues that it is not just our innate ability or genetic talent that bring us success. Ultimately, our success over a period of time is directly connected to how we psychologically approach each task, assignment or game. She divides the world between learners and non-learners. For the learners, success is about stretching yourself and taking on a challenge. Learners do not worry about making mistakes, humiliating themselves or not winning. Nonlearners, on the other hand, are afraid of challenges for the fear of failure. They are afraid of trying and not succeeding because they won't take the risk of engaging in an activity where they do not automatically know that they will succeed or win. Needless to say, this approach of the non-learner only leads to a certain level of success before fear of failure prevents any further improvement.

So what my dad did was help his athletes approach the game with hunger for the challenge, hunger to strive for victory no matter what the outcome. His players were not only not afraid to lose, they were free to play with wild abandonment and joy of a seemingly impossible challenge.

On this day, by making Deerfield believe that the Putney players had achieved something Deerfield could not dream of doing, biking 38 miles before an exhausting soccer game, they already had the mental edge. While Putney moved into the game willing to play their hardest no matter what the outcome, Deerfield approached the game doubting their success. On that day, the difference between the two teams was Putney's hunger for the challenge and Deerfield's fear of failure.

Similarly, when our eldest daughter was in second grade, she was told by her math teacher that she would never be a quick or facile math student. She is a competitive girl and tackles certain situations as they come along with abandon. Determined to prove her teacher wrong, she worked on her multiplication tables all summer, knowing that when she returned to school she would be faced with multiplication "mad minutes," an exercise where you see how many multiplication problems you can complete in a minute. Not only did her work pay off, she was the fastest in the class. Her new-found love of the multiplication challenge gave her confidence as a math student, and she was quickly placed in the advanced math class. What is most important is that as she focused on her math and saw improvement, she began to enjoy the subject more and more. She approached the subject with an eagerness to learn rather than a fear that she would not measure up. She became confident in herself as a student and began to seek new challenges.

Two years ago I saw our boys hockey team play this same way when we beat Delbarton in the state semi finals. As the teams lined up, Delbarton seemed bigger, faster and stronger. Yet, after the opening handshake as the players skated back to their benches, one of our players named Thomas Rago shook his fist to the sky as if to say "Bring it." On that day, the Crimson skated with the motivation, drive, and tenacity to prevail over a seemingly more talented team. So as you approach each opportunity whether it is in the classroom, on the stage, on the playing field, rink, court, or pool, engage with the attitude that you can succeed if you have a hunger and an eagerness for the challenge rather than a fear that you may fail. When you do, there is bound to be productive growth regardless of the outcome.


More News from Morristown-Beard School