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Friday, December 4, 2020



Millions of children, every year, start school excited about what they will learn but quickly become disillusioned when they get the idea they are not as ‘smart’ as others. That is because parents and teachers inadvertently give out the message that talent is inborn - you either have it or you do not.

The myth that our brains are fixed and that we simply do not have the aptitude for certain topics is not only scientifically inaccurate; it is omnipresent and negatively impacts not only education but many other events in our everyday lives. Even though the science of neuroplasticity - how our brains change in response to learning - suggests learning can take place at any age but this news has not made it into the classrooms.

Understand that your brain is always changing. Every time we learn, our brain forms, strengthens or connects neural pathways. This means that no one is stuck at birth with a limit on what they can learn. Instead, it is the belief in giftedness and how that impacts the way teachers teach that actually hampers people’s learning. For example, when schools practice tracking - dividing students into different reading groups or mathematics groups based on ability - it can produce worse results for students than keeping mixed-ability students together. 

Learn to embrace struggle, mistakes, and failure. Students and teachers commonly believe that getting the right answer on a test shows that students are learning. It is actually when students practice difficult things - problems just beyond their ability - that the brain works harder and imprints new knowledge. This also makes knowledge more accessible later on. Practicing what they can already do well actually hinders students’ learning while making mistakes helps them focus on different ways of considering a problem, which helps strengthen learning. When teachers encourage students to struggle and students give themselves permission to make mistakes, it can be incredibly freeing for both.

Change your beliefs about your mind, and your brain will follow. When you change your mind about yourself, it turns out that this will also change your body and brain. For example, researchers found that adults who had negative ideas about aging in their younger years - between 18 and 49 years old - were more likely to experience a cardiovascular event during the next 38 years, regardless of their initial age, heart health, race, or many other factors. The same is true for how you think about your learning. For example, if young kids learn that their success in school is tied to being smart rather than tied to the effort, they may be less motivated to learn later on.

Try multiple approaches to learning. Though it is important to have a growth mindset for learning - a belief that knowledge is not fixed, but can be developed through effort and perseverance - it is also important to try new learning strategies. Multi-dimensional approaches to teaching and learning work best because they engage many areas of the brain at once, and communication between different brain areas aids in learning. Even mathematics proficiency can be enhanced by seemingly unrelated knowledge or skills - like verbal skills or finger perception (the ability to identify our fingers without looking at them). The new discoveries about the working of the brain are revealing the need for a different approach to teaching that is more physical, multidimensional, and creative than the approaches that have been used in the past in most institutions of learning.

Aim for flexible thinking rather than speed. Too often, teachers and learners think that being fast at something means you are good at it. But, as research suggests, that is not often the case. Trying to do something under pressure - such as a timed test - can cause stress, which compromises the working memory needed to recall important information. Giving students long problem sets to solve at home, or trying to measure mathematics performance under timed conditions, is not useful. It could also unnecessarily discourage potential future mathematics scholars who give up early because they think speed equals competency. While some students thrive in timed tests and are adept at cramming for examinations, it is not likely their learning will stick. Instead, engaging with material in flexible ways over time is key to learning.

Try collaboration. Schools that teach a growth mindset would not necessarily help students learn better if there is no peer support for the idea - meaning if students still buy into the myth of the gifted student. It is crucial for schools to reinforce the idea that learning together is better than learning alone. As one study showed, working together instead of alone can make the difference between passing a difficult mathematics class and giving up and failing the class. An important change takes place when students work together and discover that everybody finds some or all of the work difficult. It reinforces the idea “that learning is a process and that obstacles are common.” Focusing on collaboration in the classroom - rather than trying to test students individually - also more closely resembles the conditions in the working life, and can help reduce the gender bias so often found in science-related subjects.

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