Explain the neuroscience


One way to help students develop a growth mindset is by telling them how the brain can get smarter. You can explain how certain experiences cause new connections in the brain to form or strengthen, making the brain smarter by literally rewiring it. Here’s some evidence you can talk about:

  • In a study with rats, researchers put some rats in empty cages and others in stimulating cages with puzzles and other rats. The rats in the stimulating environments were smarter, and their brains even weighed more!
  • London taxi drivers have to give their brains a workout when they navigate the complicated streets of London. Research suggests this has an impact on the brain. The part of the brain responsible for spatial awareness is bigger in taxi drivers compared to other Londoners. And the longer a person has been a taxi driver, the bigger that part of the brain.

One way to help your students develop a growth mindset is to explain that the brain can get stronger and smarter. Research shows that student actually do better in school when they learn this.

For example, you can explain that the cells in the brain called neurons are each connected to thousands of other neurons. The strength, number, and location of those neurons affect how the brain works. Amazingly, these connections change all the time as a result of our experiences. Certain experiences cause new connections to form or strengthen, making the brain smarter by literally rewiring it.

Here's a synopsis of two studies that show the brain changing in action. In one study, researchers studied rats. They found that what the rates did day to day affected the connections in their brains. Some rats were put in empty cages with nothing to do besides eat and sleep. Other rats were put in more stimulating, challenging cages with puzzles and other rats to interact with.

At the end of the experiment, they examined the brains of each group of rats. The rats who were put in the challenging environment with mazes and other rats had much denser, more interconnected brains, and the brains actually weighed more. Most important, they were smarter, too. They were better at solving problems and learning new things.

A study on London tax drivers provides additional evidence that working hard on something challenging can cause anatomical changes in the brain. Anyone who wants to be a taxi driver in London has to take a very challenging exam known to Londoners as The Knowledge. They often spend years studying for the exam and familiarizing themselves with the streets of London.

Scientists hypothesize that since they give their brains such a workout, the part of the brain responsible for spatial memory, the hippocampus might be larger in taxi drivers compared to other Londoners. That's exactly what they found. On top of that, the longer the person had been a taxi driver, the bigger the hippocampus was.

Sources: Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113–125 Blackwell, L. A., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Theories of intelligence and achievement across the junior high school transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. Good, C., Aronson, J. A., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645–662. Paunesku, D., Walton, G., Romero, C., Smith, E., Yeager, D., & Dweck, C. S. (in press). Mindset Interventions are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement. Psychological Science.
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