Brain-Based Learning

Cultivating Practical Optimism: A Key to Getting the Best from Your Brain

Increase the likelihood of successful results in your students by cultivating an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action.
November 25, 2014

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. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

Neuroscientists recently discovered that optimism is associated with brain pathways connecting the left prefrontal region to the amygdala. Further research has demonstrated that optimism, traditionally considered to be an unchangeable trait, is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced. People with a positive viewpoint have less stress, better creative problem-solving skills, and better health outcomes than less optimistic people. In addition, optimistic learners are more likely to persist in the sometimes-hard work of learning, motivated by the belief that they can accomplish their learning goals.

Many teachers realize that as students become more optimistic, they are motivated to progress through learning difficulties and to attain higher levels of achievement. More optimistic students also have greater resistance to depression and the negative effects of stress. Over the years, we have taught many educators a toolbox of implementation strategies to increase practical optimism and other keys to learning in the classroom.

We use the term practical optimism to describe an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action to increase the likelihood of successful results. Emphasizing positive emotions helps students become more resilient and more likely to persevere with learning tasks. Their persistence is fueled by the belief that they will triumph over difficulty, learn from their mistakes, overcome plateaus in their performance, and progress. The mantra "I think I can! I think I can!" from an all-time favorite story, The Little Engine That Could, illustrates practical optimistic thinking.

Trash or Treasure?

One of our strategies that can be used to develop positive classrooms features six steps for easy implementation, including a read-aloud story (Wilson & Conyers, 2011, p. 243). This strategy has been used by teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to promote practical optimism in schools:

1. Introduce practical optimism and its benefits. Ask students if they would like to learn a way to more consistently sustain practical optimism.

2. Read aloud the following story:

Treasure Hunters and Trash Collectors
It seems that in life there are two types of people. The first are treasure hunters. Every day they seek out what is useful and positive. They focus on it, talk about it, and think about it. Each of these moments is treasured like a bright, shining jewel that they store in their treasure chest forever.
And then there are trash collectors who spend their lives looking for what is wrong, unfair, and not working. They focus their energy, time, and thoughts on the trash, and every day they put that trash into a big trashcan.
The treasure hunters proudly carry their treasure into the future, while the trash collectors drag their heavy, smelly trashcan from one day to the next. The question is: When they get to the end of the year, what does each person have -- a treasure chest filled with useful, positive memories, or a trash can full of things they didn't like?
The choice is yours. You get to decide.

3. Ask students to think of five things they like or can feel good about.

4. Ask students to write, draw, or create a concept map of these five things.

5. Tell students to approach five people and share with them their five things.

6. Continue to use this process once a week or once a month, encouraging students to find and add more things to their practical optimism list.

Once learners understand that they have the capacity to increase their levels of practical optimism by the choices they make, many are highly motivated to do so. They become more likely to think of setbacks as temporary. They recognize that by using more effective learning strategies or investing more study time, they can overcome obstacles and turn setbacks into triumphs. This progress in turn can lead to more academic success and enhance optimism even further. Practical optimism is a means for getting the best from your brain and your life.

Research

Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.