The Essential Role of a Growth Mindset and Neuroplasticity in Facilitating Lifelong Learning

“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible.” – Michael S. Gazzaniga

The truth about smart and dumb

Most people imagine that everyone's intelligence is fixed. We are either born smart, dumb, or average, and our ability to learn is determined by our native background. We don't question this, and somehow, we've been led to believe that after a certain point we're either smart or not and that is the end of it.

Although there may be minor variations between individuals with some innate predispositions, it is the exposure to information and experience, combined with the time spent learning, that contribute to a person's intelligence level at any age.

The truth is that intelligence can be developed just as any physical ability can be improved. It requires work and can be difficult, but this is also the case for weightlifters who want to increase their strength or runners who want to increase their speed.

The importance of a growth mindset to support learning

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” - Carole Dweck, 2015

The concept of growth mindset was coined several years ago by psychologist Carol Dweck and refers to the way we see or perceive ourselves.

An essential part of a teacher's job is to encourage students to develop a growth mindset. The key is to get students to adopt a positive attitude toward learning by providing ongoing and constructive feedback. As a result, students build confidence in their ability to learn and develop their skills through effort and practice.

Often the problem is not the child who sucks, but the teacher's view that students' intelligence and talents are fixed. These judgments are often based on arbitrary assessments that do not consider individual character, health, environmental conditions and, most importantly, neuroplasticity!

In elementary school, Fräulein Heinzius, my headmistress, decreed that I was terrible at math. She had serious concerns about my academic abilities and my prospects for graduating from high school (see previous post on personal leadership). The belief that I sucked at math has had a lasting psychological impact on my self-image. It stuck with me for decades, even beyond medical school. It wasn't until I took the G-math test to get my MBA that I was able to break down this mental barrier that viewed my math skills as insufficient and fixed, as assessed by Fräulein Heinzius.

By adopting a growth mindset, I refused to be locked into a box (in this case, the math geek box). I told myself that with practice, perseverance, and help, I could overcome temporary difficulties. This change in self-perception set me on a path to new behaviors that changed my mindset and led me to success.

How are growth mindset and neuroplasticity related? They are complementary

The person who adopts a growth mindset perceives him or herself as capable of developing/improving his or her talents, innate skills, and abilities through sustained effort, which is precisely the logic of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to adapt and develop beyond the traditional developmental period of childhood. The growth mindset is simply accepting the idea of neuroplasticity in the broadest sense.

Conversely, when we have a fixed mindset, we believe that some of our existing characteristics will not change. These limiting beliefs are barriers to learning – when we don't believe we can change, we are unlikely to act.

How are neuroplasticity and learning related?

The relationship between neuroplasticity and learning is easy to see – when we learn, we form new pathways in the brain. Each new lesson has the potential to connect new neurons and change our brain’s default mode of operation – to rewire the brain. When a math student practices more often or gets extra help, his or her neural pathways literally change, building math skills and, in turn, confidence.

The extent to which we use these almost magical abilities of the brain depends on our investment in developing neuroplasticity as well as our approach to life in general.

Teaching students to develop a growth mindset as a tool to develop their intelligence

In a 2007 study published in the journal Child Development, researchers at Columbia University and Stanford University found that both students' morale and grade points jumped once they grasped that intelligence is malleable. Students who already believed this performed better, but in addition, students who were proactively taught this idea did significantly better than their peers in a control group.

Tips for making a classroom friendly to malleable brains:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways creates thicker, stronger, more robust connections in the brain.
  • Put information into context. Recognize that learning is essentially, the formation of new or stronger neural connections. It makes sense to prioritize activities that help students tap into already existing pathways (e.g., integrating academic subjects or creating classroom projects relevant to their lives). In other words, avoid rote memorization. Whenever new material is presented in a way that allows students to see relationships between concepts, they generate greater brain cell activity and achieve better long-term memory storage and retrieval.
  • Educate students on how the brain works. Breaking down mental barriers that view intelligence as predetermined may ease students’ minds and inspire them to use their brains. Especially for those who think they aren't smart, the realization that they can literally change their brains through study and review is empowering!

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