Shortly after [allegedly] smogging out his public television studio, squinty-eyed, instructional landscape painter, the late Bob Ross, would often say things that spanned the spectrum from the insightful to the meta to the outlandish. A sampling of my personal favorites include:
“Clouds are very free.”
“Maybe in our world there lives a happy little tree.”
And, of course:
“We don’t know where it goes. We don’t really care.”
However, the most prophetic thing Ross used to say, and my all-time fave, was “There are no mistakes, just happy little accidents.”
Boom. Admit it. Ol’ Bob just blew your mind.
For all of Ross’ hippie-dippy babbling, recent revelations in education have proved the PBS icon was well ahead of his time. Turns out, our brains are hard-wired to learn from mistakes; especially if we treat them like happy little accidents. Dr. Carol Dweck’s 2008 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, synthesized research from social sciences and neurology to offer nomenclature to two approaches to reacting to mistakes. Dweck’s research showed that people either believe that their intelligence is based on inborn aptitude — dubbed fixed mindset — or that they came to it through hard work, learning, and training — growth mindset.
If today’s economic climate requires flexible, versatile thinking, can you guess which mindset is more often linked to success?
Companies in Silicon Valley (and other tech hotbeds) were early to embrace the concept of growth mindset. Paradigm-shifting ideas (that after having been hijacked by marketers admittedly sound douchey and watered-down,) like disrupting or even failing forward, have been championed, not as a kind of self-discovery-pseudoscience, but as a real way of solving the complex problems of today’s world. The most powerful learning happens when one approaches problem-solving from a unique angle, takes an informed risk, screws shit up, honestly reflects on one’s process, and recalibrates one’s strategy. Mistakes don’t close doors, they open them.
What a wonderful sentiment for kids. Because children don’t start out avoiding mistakes. A child’s approach to problem-solving knows no boundaries. It’s not until adults come along and mess everything up that kids start to insulate themselves from mistakes and criticism. We put barriers in front of children with our actions, our narrow worldviews, our skeptical manner, and our expectations about what kids can and can’t do.
It’s the mother who unwittingly tells her daughter, “I’m no good at math.” Or the teacher who encourages a student by saying “You’re so smart” instead of “You worked really hard on that.” Or the parent who says, “You know us [insert surname here]’s aren’t really the college type.”
Public schools have morphed into stalwarts for the fixed mindset in the way that they operate. Though they used to be places for innovative ideas, over the years, schools took kids with all different learning styles, from all different backgrounds, who may inherently approach problem-solving in their own unique ways, and put them at a desk where they are force-fed the one “best” way to solve a problem. In Florida, our state testing system tests kids on static information, then provides little or no feedback — let alone the opportunity to review mistakes — other than whether they passed or failed.
Combine all of this with the constant bombardment of social cues from American culture at large — minority groups under-represented in public office, 23 female CEOs in all of the Fortune 500 companies, and a lack of diversity in media, to name a few social inputs with destructive effects — and it’s uncertain whether kids are ever given a fair shake at sharpening their growth mindset.
However, all is not lost. Try as we might to curb it with our own brand of jaded cynicism, a child’s spirit is extremely resilient.
For this year’s KIDS ISSUE, Folio Weekly didn’t have to look hard for places across Northeast Florida that operate under the auspices that each child should experience the world on their own terms. That learning should be messy, free from the fear of mistakes, and fun. We went to farms and community gardens where kids are putting their hands in the dirt, messing with bugs, and developing lifelong learning skills. And we visited natural history sites that offer kids opportunities to explore the cultural and environmental heritage of Florida — not through textbooks, but by trudging around in the muck of the swamps and waterways, just like the early natives and colonials did. Because (and I mean this in the most patronizing way possible) we empathize with how hard it is to be a parent, we’ve offered up our expertise on birthday party ideas. And, to highlight the ingenious spirit of adolescence — and because children can always be counted on to say the darnedest things — we’ve brought back the perennially popular Kids Say feature.
So whether you’re a parent or a grandparent, you work with kids in any capacity, or you’re just an aspiring avuncular mentor, peruse this issue, and then go get dirty. Because the best parts of being a kid, or a Bob Ross devotee, are the happy little accidents that occur along the way.