Brainology #6

“Brainology” by Carol S. Dweck

Read and listen to the last part of the article.

Can a growth mindset be taught directly to kids? If it can be taught, will it enhance their motivation and grades? We set out to answer this question by creating a growth mindset workshop (Blackwell, et al., 2007). We took seventh graders and divided them into two groups. Both groups got an eight-session workshop full of great study skills, but the “growth mindset group” also got lessons in the growth mindset — what it was and how to apply it to their schoolwork. Those lessons began with an article called “You Can Grow Your Intelligence: New Research Shows the Brain Can Be Developed Like a Muscle.” Students were mesmerized by this article and its message. They loved the idea that the growth of their brains was in their hands.

This article and the lessons that followed changed the terms of engagement for students. Many students had seen school as a place where they performed and were judged, but now they understood that they had an active role to play in the development of their minds. They got to work, and by the end of the semester the growth-mindset group showed a significant increase in their math grades. The control group — the group that had gotten eight sessions of study skills — showed no improvement and continued to decline. Even though they had learned many useful study skills, they did not have the motivation to put them into practice.

The teachers, who didn’t even know there were two different groups, singled out students in the growth-mindset group as showing clear changes in their motivation. They reported that these students were now far more engaged with their schoolwork and were putting considerably more effort into their classroom learning, homework, and studying.

Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and their colleagues had similar findings (Aronson, Fried, and Good, 2002; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht, 2003). Their studies and ours also found that negatively stereotyped students (such as girls in math, or African-American and Hispanic students in math and verbal areas) showed substantial benefits from being in a growth-mindset workshop. Stereotypes are typically fixed-mindset labels. They imply that the trait or ability in question is fixed and that some groups have it and others don’t. Much of the harm that stereotypes do comes from the fixed-mindset message they send. The growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences might exist, portrays abilities as acquirable and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped — one that they respond to with renewed motivation and engagement.

Inspired by these positive findings, we started to think about how we could make a growth mindset workshop more widely available. To do this, we have begun to develop a computer-based program called “Brainology.” In six computer modules, students learn about the brain and how to make it work better. They follow two hip teens through their school day, learn how to confront and solve schoolwork problems, and create study plans. They visit a state-of-the-art virtual brain lab, do brain experiments, and find out such things as how the brain changes with learning — how it grows new connections every time students learn something new. They also learn how to use this idea in their schoolwork by putting their study skills to work to make themselves smarter.

We pilot-tested Brainology in 20 New York City schools. Virtually all of the students loved it and reported (anonymously) the ways in which they changed their ideas about learning and changed their learning and study habits. Here are some things they said in response to the question, “Did you change your mind about anything?”

“I did change my mind about how the brain works…I will try harder because I know that the more you try, the more your brain works.”

“Yes… I imagine neurons making connections in my brain and I feel like I am learning something.”

“My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where when u learn something, there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture them when I’m in school.”

Teachers also reported changes in their students, saying that they had become more active and eager learners: “They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention to ensure that connections will be made.”

What Do We Value?
In our society, we seem to worship talent — and we often portray it as a gift. Now we can see that this is not motivating to our students. Those who think they have this gift expect to sit there with it and be successful. When they aren’t successful, they get defensive and demoralized, and often opt out. Those who don’t think they have the gift also become defensive and demoralized, and often opt out as well.

We need to correct the harmful idea that people simply have gifts that transport them to success, and to teach our students that no matter how smart or talented someone is — be it Einstein, Mozart, or Michael Jordanno one succeeds in a big way without enormous amounts of dedication and effort. It is through effort that people build their abilities and realize their potential. More and more research is showing there is one thing that sets the great successes apart from their equally talented peers — how hard they’ve worked (Ericsson, et al., 2006).

Next time you’re tempted to praise your students’ intelligence or talent, restrain yourself. Instead, teach them how much fun a challenging task is, how interesting and informative errors are, and how great it is to struggle with something and make progress. Most of all, teach them that by taking on challenges, making mistakes, and putting forth effort, they are making themselves smarter.

Go to the class Moodle site and take Brainology #6 about this part of the reading.

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