Deirdre Moore | February 2017

Changing Brains to Foster Success

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.  How true, how true.  Especially in our classrooms.  We can provide exciting learning opportunities for our students; we can provide them with skills, strategies, and techniques but they actually have to do the learning.  They have to choose to engage in the activities, to use the strategies and techniques and work to improve their skills.  And sometimes it seems like some students don’t want to try.  Even at a very young age some children already seem to resist taking risks and have little faith in their ability to succeed. We have to change students thinking in order to foster their success.

This may seem a strange comparison but I know how they feel.  I am a dancer and like many girls who were forced early on to focus on their bodies, my weight has fluctuated – sometimes wildly – since I was in high school.  I had gotten to a point in my life where I seem to have lost the will to do anything about it.  So, I started working with a coach on a book written by Martha Beck called The Four-Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace.  (Ah, how I do love a good pun.)

The premise of the book is that everyone knows that moving more and eating fewer results in weight loss.  Beck asserts that if knowledge was all it took to lose weight, most of us would be thin and fit.  However, she (a life coach herself with three degrees from Harvard including a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology) lets the reader know it’s all in your head and the key to weight loss is literally changing your mind.  I knew then and there, this was the book for me.

One of the first exercises in the book was to take a quiz of sorts to assess your level of resistance to weight loss.  I registered in the highest bracket every time.  No surprise to me – I’m living proof of my own resistance.  But doing chapter after chapter of exercises designed to start to change your pattern of thinking about eating and food has just confirmed for me what I already knew – changing my brain was the only thing that was going to work this time around.  I can already see some changes in just a few short weeks.  It made me re-visit the idea of helping students develop a growth mindset so they start to change their thinking around learning and what their brains can do. To change students thinking and understanding about learning, you can change their brains and the likelihood that they will succeed.

Just about two years ago I wrote two articles for Education Closet about grit and growth mindset and the importance of language to foster growth mindsets. This recent experience in my life reminded me just how important changing the minds of our students can be to their success not only in school but in life.  Students need to know that their brains are malleable and that they can literally rewire their brains for success.  Here are a few things we educators can do to change students thinking.

  • Teach that the brain is a muscle and that with “exercise” it can get stronger and smarter
  • Give appropriate or just-right challenges (ones that are not so easy that they require no real effort but not so hard that they lead to frustration) to start building that stamina for learning.
  • Praise efforts, not intelligence or talent.
  • Give constructive feedback so they can learn from their mistakes.
  • Teach them to add  “yet” after any statement that suggests they cannot do something like,  “I can’t do long division…yet.”
  • To change students thinking, emphasize the process over the product – the different learning strategies they used, etc.
  • Structure learning so that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process.
  • Help students identify where they have fixed mindsets so they can learn to talk differently to themselves about it. For those high resistance learners in your room, those who may scoff at the water to which you so lovingly lead them, try teaching them a little neuroscience and a different way to think and talk about learning and you may just get that horse to drink after all.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.