George Lucas Educational Foundation

Smart Talking: Tell Students to Feed Their Brains

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck discusses her research on intelligence.
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow
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In my last column, I told of an Indian educator's disdain for our obsession with testing, epitomized by the statement that "in India, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don't weigh the elephant." I reported on recent research by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues, Lisa Sorich Blackwell, of Columbia University, and Stanford's Kali Trzesniewski on how children can be taught to "feed their own brains" through understanding that their brains and intelligence can be grown and how this mind-set actually improves their academic performance.

The results of their study are being published in a Child Development article titled "Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention." Dweck also wrote a book last year called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

I asked Dweck about the implications of her research -- what teachers and parents should do, for instance. In an email interview, she recommended the following strategies:

  • Teach students to think of their brain as a muscle that strengthens with use, and have them visualize the brain forming new connections every time they learn.
  • When they teach study skills, convey to students that using these methods will help their brains learn better.
  • Discourage use of labels ("smart," "dumb," and so on) that convey intelligence as a fixed entity.
  • Praise students' effort, strategies, and progress, not their intelligence. Praising intelligence leads to students to fear challenges and makes them feel stupid and discouraged when they have difficulty.
  • Give students challenging work. Teach them that challenging activities are fun and that mistakes help them learn.

I also asked Dweck to comment on implications for policy makers and education policies that would support this kind of teaching. "Teachers themselves should be seen as capable of growth and development, and policy makers should support teachers' efforts to grow," she says. "Teachers should also receive within-school mentoring in areas in which they are weak. The idea should be that all teachers have strengths and weaknesses, but that all can develop their skills in weaker areas.

"Teachers should also be rewarded for motivating love of learning and improvement in low-achievement students, not simply playing to children who are already high achievers," Dweck adds. "Teachers whose students improved most in our workshops were those who devoted extra time to students who asked for help. Teachers need the time and leeway to devote this kind of attention to their students.

"Finally, this kind of teaching is about learning," she says. "American curricula often try to jam too many different topics into each year. For example, American high schools try to teach fifty to sixty science topics per year, as opposed to nine in Japanese schools. To show students how to learn and how to appreciate the growth in their understanding, we need more depth in what we teach them."

I asked Dweck to comment on the role of technology in helping children express their intelligences. "Because our workshop was so successful," she says, "we obtained funding to develop a computer-based version called Brainology. It consists of six modules teaching study skills and teaching about the brain. In the module on the brain, students visited a brain lab and did virtual experiments."

"For example, they could see how the brain formed new connections as it learned," she continues. "Throughout the modules, they saw online interviews with other students their age, kept an online journal, advised animated student characters how to study, and took mastery tests on the material at the end of each module.

"We pilot tested this program in twenty New York City schools with considerable success," Dweck adds. "We are still analyzing the achievement data, but virtually every student reported that they changed their mental model of learning and were doing new things to make their brains learn better, learn more, and make new connections. We are now attempting to revise the program and upgrade the technology to make it ready for wider distribution."

It is striking how closely Dweck's findings mirror GLEF's agenda for redesigning schools, which we have published as our "Big Ideas for Better Schools: Ten Ways to Improve Education." It is our belief that project-based learning, the first of those ideas, is the best approach to designing challenging and engaging curriculum.

The teacher behaviors Dweck recommends are frequently seen and described in our articles, videos, and multimedia, depicting teachers setting high expectations for all students, with resulting high achievement for students of all backgrounds. In Learning by Design, our documentary on the Build SF Institute, for example, architects and teachers are seen pushing students to improve their building designs and requiring greater effort and persistence.

Our work on ongoing teacher development also emphasizes policies that provide more time for teacher collaboration and focus on student work, as well as more support for teacher mentoring. Our Edutopia magazine column Ask Ellen, written by Ellen Moir, executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, also highlights these practices and policies. And Dweck's Brainology software illustrates our belief that technology can help students visualize relationships and connect with other students.

I hope more educators, parents, and, especially, policy makers will take Dweck's research to heart. In this time when the U.S. Department of Education advocates "scientifically based research," here's research that is both scientific and significant.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (36) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ho-Sheng Hsiao's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you considered porting this software to the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop?

Ho-Sheng Hsiao
Isshen, LLC

Dave Grow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My son fit the profile, my grandson seems to be going the same way... PLEASE, Please notify me when Brainology software is available.

MLauj's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've tried really hard to help my son and when a friend gave me this article, I realized that these were the signs my son gives me when we do homework together.

Please let me know when this product is available for purchase.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to be notified once the software is available.

Meryl Schrantz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher as well as a parent and would be very interested in purchasing the software as soon as it becomes available!

M J's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Appears that many folks are very interested in the subject and more information. Justifiably so; our children will be living in a much more complicated world. I, too would like to receive further info as it becomes available.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First read about this in Scientific American Mind. Would love to know when it's available. I work with many middle schoolers and their parents in the NYC area and know this will help significantly. Thank you.

GS Chandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

About some useful tools for enhancing motivation... 'increasing intelligence' (or at least intelligent behaviour!)

I've not yet seen 'Brainology' - sounds fascinating: the thesis is, I believe, entirely valid. I keenly await the release as a product of this excellent concept.

I'd like to bring to the attention of interested readers information about a powerful generic aid to problem solving and decision making that ensures and enables more effective self-motivation (and thereby better accomplishment of well-defined aims, goals, Missions).

This tool is the 'One Page Management System' (OPMS), the prototype software of which is now freely available - along with some (limited) guidance of how to apply it to specific Missions, issues, etc.

The OPMS is based on the seminal contributions to systems science and systems design of Professor John N. Warfield. Information about Warfield's contributions to systems science is available in outline at: The library at George Mason University, from where Warfield retired as Emeritus Professor a couple of years ago, maintains the huge 'John Warfield Collection' of books, papers and presentations by Warfield and his associates into complex systems and very specifically how to cope with complexity - check out .

The OPMS goes several steps further... it enables anyone, even at middle-school level, to apply all the power of sophisticated 'systems thinking' to problems and issues of current concern. No limitations whatsoever. For more information, contact me at gs_chandy AT yahoo DOT com (your email id will not be passed on elsewhere and I shall not send you any mail more than the information asked for and - if you have so requested - instructions on how to download, install and use the OPMS software.

--- GSC

eylisian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

- Sign me up for a copy! My only concern is that I will be able to use the software. Is there any information pointing to what platform it will run under or if it is to be cross platform? If I have to I will emulate, but cross platform would rawk it.
Anyhow, please let me know when the software is available.


ellen vercouteren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sign me up for a copy! We want to research it is possible to use is for high-school students in the Netherlands to improve their learning-skills

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