The brain that makes you you really is an amazing organ! It controls what you think, do, feel and remember. Your brain is growing very fast during your first ten years of life and now we know that you can help it grow. When you try hard to learn something new, connections grow from neurons and attach to other neurons. Then, your brain can send messages faster, making part of your brain BIGGER and stronger. Making mistakes really helps you learn because your brain keeps trying new things and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g until you figure out the answer to your problem. You are shaping a more elastic brain when you learn new things that build on what you already know… The harder you try without giving up, the more you will learn.
-Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
Each day, we invite our students (and ourselves) to engage in the process of learning. The breakthroughs in neuroscience have allowed educators to deepen their understanding of the process that students undergo during every learning experience. The language we use to speak about the importance of making connections as a learner, is mirrored in the physical science of how learning takes place in the brain. The neural pathways that develop with each new learning experience, deepen with engagement in authentic problem solving. Most importantly, the “struggling brain” is one that is learning as it encounters errors and recalculates the course of action in order to reach a goal.
As essential as this struggle is to the learning process, it is also uncomfortable. Speaking as a life-long learner, I think about the resilience that is required to persist as a learner in the midst of the “stretch.” I often liken the learning process to the growing pains I remember experiencing during an adolescent growth spurt. It takes resilience to try something, sit with the mistake, and then try again. I know this as a learner, and I have seen it as an educator with my students. As a result, we now understand that it is not just enough to teach content and to provide space for the struggle, but we, as the adults, must also help children to understand the process of learning and build resilience in order to engage.
If practice and persistence are key to the learning process, then an important piece of supporting students is to focus on these two ideas as we speak to them about their learning. This shift in language is often referred to as an adoption of a “growth mindset.” Learners who have adopted a growth mindset believe that they can learn just about anything with persistence, effort and focus. In other words, it is less about how fast a learner masters content and more about the level of persistence and effort they put forth. This can apply to a wide range of learning experiences, from acquiring a new academic skill to learning how to navigate a conflict with a friend.
Developing a growth mindset does not happen overnight. It takes time, practice and support. One very concrete way that we can encourage children to adopt this mindset is by affirming their efforts through our praise of their work. Praising a child’s willingness to try builds resilience. A phrase like, “You are such a good mathematician!” becomes “I noticed that you worked very hard figure out that addition problem!” By focusing on the effort, children are empowered in their own learning process.
In addition to what we say to children, they also watch our own reactions to struggle. Whenever possible, I would encourage you to be transparent about your own learning as you take on the challenge of adopting a growth mindset for yourself. Share about your own effort as you engaged in a particularly challenging problem. It may take time and practice to shift your own thinking around learning, but it is well worth it when you see the difference it will make in your children.
Deak, J. (2010) Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. Belvedere, CA: Little Pickle Press
Ricci, M.C. (2013) Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press Inc.