Blog: The Educated Reporter

Can Changing Mindsets Boost Student Learning?

At EWA’s 67th National Seminar at Vanderbilt University last month, we took a “deep dive” into the impact of noncognitive factors on student learning. This is the second of three guest posts from that session. Part I is here and Part III will follow.

Reporters, who are often people with super-muscular language skills and atrophied math abilities, are the perfect audience for explaining the value of a growth mindset in schools. That was my big takeaway after sitting in a room with my EWA peers for several hours at the organization’s National Seminar last month in Nashville, listening to researchers explain the principle.

With a growth mindset, students understand that their brains are capable of growing stronger as they struggle to learn new things. That understanding produces motivation to tackle problems from new angles and work through frustrations that often produce what effectively is an impenetrable barrier to academic progress.

Perhaps we, as reporters, were eager to learn about the growth mindset because we already are all so familiar with the fixed mindset — the idea that people’s intellectual strengths and weaknesses as learners are pretty much innate and unchangeable. During a Q-and-A session, one reporter said she went into journalism because she grew so familiar with the idea that she “wasn’t a math person.” Many of us nodded knowingly.

So the ideas of neuroplasticity and the growth mindset are easy for adults to understand because we have the benefit of hindsight and the recognition of our own failures to apply it in the past. But what about students? How can a youngster starting the learning process really benefit from this approach? And how should teachers change their classroom practices to encourage students to grow all of their abilities, rather than simply showcasing the abilities they already have?

The answer might be as simple as teaching students about their own brains.

“To be successful, students must choose to learn and persist when learning is challenging,” said Dave Paunesku, the cofounder of the PERTS applied research center at Stanford University.

(Read more about Paunesku’s research in Part I of this series.)

Eduardo Briceño, CEO and cofounder of Mindset Works, said it takes some reinforcement from teachers to help students break out of a fixed mindset. He noted that students absorb a fixed approach from interactions they see all around them. For example, a table of adults displays a fixed mindset when they quickly pass a restaurant check to a friend to split, claiming that the rest of them are “not math people,” he said.

Mindset Works has developed a program called Brainology, through which animated characters walk students through individualized computer exercises and lessons about the brain. The students are given periodic opportunities to type in thoughts, reflections, and questions that their teachers can later review to track their progress.

Briceño showed some video testimonials that included an adorable 7th-grade girl explaining how much she’d learned about neurons.

He emphasized that changing a students’ mindset is not a Pollyanna approach that claims “everyone can do everything.” Rather, it’s a way of making failure more productive for students and helping them to reach their potential in a wider range of subjects.

“Mindset is the beginning of the learning journey, not the end,” he said.


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