George Lucas Educational Foundation Celebrating our 25th Anniversary!
Subscribe to RSS

Positive Brains Are Smarter Brains

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
PrintPrint
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

Explicit instruction to guide students toward taking charge of their outlook on academic endeavors can lead to a more positive -- and ultimately more productive -- approach to learning. Applying metacognition to both the emotional and cognitive aspects of learning can help students steer their minds to make steady gains in developing their knowledge and skills.

In a previous post, we explored the gains that are possible when students adopt an attitude of practical optimism as they learn. These advantages persist into adulthood, as business research shows that people with a positive outlook are more productive, motivated, and likely to achieve their goals on the job. And optimistic people enjoy better personal and professional relationships and even better physical health than people who tend toward pessimism.

Influences on Learning Outlooks

A common assumption is that the tendency toward optimism or pessimism is predetermined by genetics. Indeed, research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues indicates that roughly half of people's "baseline level of well-being," the propensity toward cheerfulness or negativity, owes to DNA. However, students can learn to exert control over other significant influences on their emotional outlook and, in doing so, sharpen their focus on positive outcomes. Explain to them that each of us can increase our positive feelings and well-being by taking charge of these three influences:

Thoughts

To a significant extent, we are who we perceive ourselves to be. By consciously seeking to maintain a positive orientation, we can apply a more optimistic frame as we reflect on our learning experiences and abilities to achieve our goals.

Behaviors

Of course, we do not succeed simply by believing that we will. An optimistic outlook must be supported by positive action and persistent effort. Learning can be hard work, but those who keep trying, monitoring their learning to make adjustments when necessary, will make steady gains that create a positive feedback loop to encourage continued progress.

Brain Chemistry

The brain produces chemicals called neurotransmitters in response to both internal functions and external stimuli that affect how we feel. Chemicals that have been associated with positive moods include dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. One way to enhance production of these neurotransmitters is through physical activity. Thus, scheduling challenging subjects immediately following phys ed class and recess can help students channel their positive brain chemistry toward learning. This body-brain power connection also offers a helpful metacognition strategy for students. Remind them that when they get hung up on a problem while doing their homework or independent study, they might try going for a run or taking an exercise break, and then return to the problem with their brain recharged.

The CIA Model for a Positive Approach to Learning

To make the most of their power to steer their brains toward positive learning outcomes, it may be helpful to introduce students to what we call the CIA model, which stands for control, influence, and acknowledge.

Control

By being conscious of our thoughts and actions -- that is, being metacognitive about what we are thinking and doing -- we take change of steering them in a positive and productive direction. For example, when students feel their thoughts drifting toward negativity or distractions, they can assume control to stay focused on achieving their learning goals.

Influence

At this stage of the CIA model, we should consciously consider the many influences that may steer us in both positive and counterproductive directions. We should choose to focus on those influences that can enhance our optimistic outlook and sustain our belief in our ability to succeed through hard work and persistent effort. Some students may harbor unacknowledged assumptions that they aren't as smart as their peers or that they lack the ability to improve in certain subjects. Have you ever heard a student say, "I'm just bad at math," or "I'm not a good reader"? As a gentle rejoinder to these negative self-assessments, remind students that they can become good, even great, problem solvers and readers if they keep practicing, aim for steady progress, and believe that they can succeed.

Acknowledge

Finally, it is useful to recognize the areas where we have limited control. As noted previously, about half of our baseline outlook toward optimism or pessimism is determined by genetic predisposition. In addition, we have little control over negative situations and people who prefer to focus on the downside. But we can direct our attention on the aspects of our outlook that are within our control, and we can move past setbacks and negativity.

The message for students is that they should strive to minimize time and energy expended on situations and factors where they have limited control and influence. If a student in their learning group goes off task, for example, they can't control that student's actions, but they can focus their own attention on learning. By reinforcing that students can take charge of their outlook on learning and life, and by guiding them to develop metacognitive tools to do so, we empower self-directed learners to pursue a positive path.

Notes

  • Conyers, M. A., & Wilson, D. L. (2015). Positively smarter: Science and strategies to increase happiness, achievement, and well-being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin.
Was this useful? (1)

Comments (9) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (9) Sign in or register to comment

JonathanCaldera's picture

It's great that a whole child lens was taken in writing this piece for students in the classroom. There are many aspects of this post that remind me of the positive psychology work Carol Dweck has done with growth mindset. Our students benefit an incredible amount from hearing feedback, both affirming and adjusting, with a growth mindset. I wonder how much of Gabriele Oettingen's work on positive thinking, specifically with mental contrasting, was taken into account when writing this article. The 3 influences on learning outlooks and CIA model seem as though they would definitely move the needle if applied consistently in the classroom, and it would be interesting to see them paired up with some mental contrasting and WOOP goal setting.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for your comment and interest in our blog. Marcus' and my professional practice exists to support teachers using science and strategies that are most helpful given the fact that teaching is is complex and can be quite energy draining. We take a lot of care and time to find what we believe will be most usable and effective for busy teachers to take the time to read, internalize and use. We are prolific readers and researchers and this blog posting "Positive Brains Are Smarter Brains" is based on our book Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-being. For a review of the 69 references (including Carol Dweck as one) from cognitive neuroscience and educational research on becoming functionally smarter in the introduction and first chapter and 75 references from two chapters on the topic of happiness, you will want to see this recently published book (Wiley, 2015) Scroll here... http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-351774.html and you will currently see Positively Smarter under the third column "Best Sellers" in cognitive neuroscience.

At the core of our work is metacognition, which includes teaching students to be aware of both positive and negative thoughts and helping them learn to focus on goals that are attainable through effort. By being conscious of our thoughts and actions -- that is, being metacognitive about what we are thinking and doing -- we take change of steering them in a positive and productive direction. You will also see this way of thinking as you consider all three aspects of our CIA model, for example as indicated when we write "be aware of both positive and negative thoughts and helping them learn to focus on goals that are attainable through effort" in the first element of the CIA model. We also note in the two other sections of the CIA model that contrasting opposing thoughts are a part of our approach. Naturally so, as comparing /contrasting is a high yield strategy for student achievement! However, I should note it has been said that specifically "mental contrasting when used by those with low expectations of success leads to reduced goal commitment and demotivation (Amit Amin)." Therefore, since pragmatically, each and every day teachers work hard to reach masses of students, including many who have low expectations of success, it is extremely important to proceed to choose the best science and strategies keeping this fact front of mind.

If you haven't done so, you might also enjoy applying science and strategies that may be found at ... http://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources including related blogs on teaching for metacognition; teaching students about their amazing neuroplasticity; goal setting; and so on.

Again, thank you for your interest. All the best with your work!

Sincerely,

Donna Wilson

JonathanCaldera's picture

Donna,

Thank you for the resources, I am looking forward to digging in! Your writing is invigorating and has strengthened my teaching in many ways.

Jonathan

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Jonathan,

Marcus and I are delighted you are finding our work helpful to you as you seek additional science and strategies in your teaching practice!

Happy digging ...

Donna

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

I write songs up this alley - that help kids track themselves in serious and humorous ways. Reading this makes me smile a happy smile! Here's hoping more and more educators take the time to help kids tend to their mindset. Thank you for leading the way.

(1)
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Lessia,

We are pleased to hear from you and learn of your work writing in songwriting for kids! It is a gift to meet others such as you who are working, writing, playing, and singing in the important area of education-helping students to become ever more mindful.

Sincerely,

Donna

(1)
Steve March's picture

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and writing the article. One thing that I have been working on with my students this year is developing habits of control. I noticed test anxiety in a few of my students and started researching what could be the root cause of the anxiety. I believe these students are focuses on something that is out of their control, thus developing a negative outlook toward it. This, as the article implies, hinders their learning and leads to a lower performance on the assessment. Because students will be assessed continually when they start their career, removing tests will not help them. Rather, it is our job as educators to help them overcome their anxieties to lead effective and successful lives. The CIA model in this article is a good way to help students through challenges like test anxiety. Students can gain a positive outlook when they realize they do not control the test but they do control themselves and shift their focus into areas within their control like study habits. As a classroom teacher, I have found a few ways to successfully start this process, most of it based on using self reflections to set mastery-type goals (Ames, Deci, Pintrich). Also, I have tried to change my language to saying, "You will have a chance to show how much you learned from this unit next Tuesday" instead of, "There is a test on Tuesday". It is a subtle shift, but begins to model a positive outlook and puts the emphasis on student learning--something they can control.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Steve,

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to our article. We too have found that the shifts in framing like "You will have a chance to show how much you learned ..." are often helpful alongside the use of our tried and true strategies such as the CIA model. BTY: the motivation researchers you mention were an important aspect of my doctoral studies bridging research about motivation, cognition, and dynamic/malleable intelligence and the brain to classroom practice.

All the best to you as you continue to educate to be motivated optimistic thinkers!

Sincerely,

Donna

miamirealestate's picture

The brain, it turns out, works significantly better when you're feeling positive, so developing a sunny outlook allows you to be smarter and more creative.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.