by Roger Stark
The concept of a “growth mindset” comes from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Carol Dweck whose research has helped clarify why some people thrive on challenges and why others don’t. She found real differences in brain activity as well as behavior between people she characterizes as having a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are all gifts that they came into the world with rather than talents they have developed by working on them, and, if they don’t have them, it’s bad luck that can’t be overcome. People who have a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence and their abilities and that’s what enables them to become much more effective learners.
But just believing that intelligence can be changed isn’t enough. We also have to help our students (and ourselves) actually develop that intelligence and those talents. It needs a one-two punch.
Believing that intelligence can be changed is the first punch.
The second punch is actually changing intelligence. People with a growth mindset who have teachers or trainers who provide explicit opportunities for them to develop their intelligence and their abilities will become even more effective learners.
The combination of those two punches can be a knockout, but we need to figure out how to deliver that one-two combination on a regular basis, day in and day out for our students.
Sometimes, as educators and leaders, we get sucked into believing that our students cannot do or learn certain things. We may have a fixed mindset about our students, giving up on them before we give them those challenging educational experiences. Or we may have a growth mindset that isn’t shared by our students. As parents and teachers, we often see students give up before they start, avoid failure and mistakes at all costs, and then start avoiding anything they expect to find challenging because it might entail failure and mistakes. We forget that one of our jobs is to help them in dveloping a cognitive mindset oriented toward growth, by structuring opportunities to for them to stretch and be challenged, in fact, to develop their intelligence. Even when we know better, we can fall into thinking that there is nothing we can do to change the way our students learn.
When educators to structure opportunities for students to develop their intelligence, the results can be dramatic.
Recently, students in Hammond, Indiana were given an opportunity to develop their intelligence. These were students who struggled with reading, and whose teachers had not figured out how to teach them to read, because of their low cognitive ability in areas of processing related to language and reading.
The students used BrainWare SAFARI cognitive training software, either before or after school, 4 days a week for 10 weeks, and took the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) as the pre- and post-test. The results are in. These struggling students increased their verbal reasoning ability from the 35th percentile to the 48th percentile. They also increased nonverbal reasoning skills from the 47th to the 66th percentile on average, resulting in an over improvement in their composite CogAT score of 13 percentile points. Schools use tests like the CogAT because they measure the level of development of cognitive skills that are predictive of academic achievement.
Having a growth mindset means helping children understand that they can change their cognitive abilities – that was the first punch the teachers in Hammond delivered with these students. And then they threw the second punch – providing a cognitive training experience that enabled these students to develop the cognitive abilities they needed to overcome their struggles. This was not about more facts, or more content, or even more practice in reading, but about building students’ ability to learn.
Developing intelligence is not just for elementary students. Neuroplasticity means our brains change throughout our lives, and to an even greater degree than most of us realize. Community college students at Ivy Tech in Muncie, Indiana have also had an opportunity to improve their cognitive skills. Three students took the GAMA (General Measure of Ability for Adults) before and at the end of an introductory course that included cognitive training. They improved their cognitive performance, increasing their IQ scores by 6, 12 and 21 points respectively, with each experiencing significant gains in one or more subtest areas.
Schools, colleges and trainings that teach to the test may deliver students better prepared for the test. Schools that develop students’ ability to learn can deliver students better prepared for life. School can empower students with tools that are engaging and result in sustainable growth that transfers to measurable outcomes. We sometimes refer to this as offering a life of choice, not chance. Or as Albert Einstein, albeit without the benefit of Dweck’s research, but with a deep understanding of types of mindset, said “Education is not the learning of facts. It’s rather the training of the mind to think.”
A true growth mindset requires two punches — believing that intelligence can be changed — and providing the right kinds of opportunities to actually change it.
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