Professional Learning

Smart Talking: Tell Students to Feed Their Brains

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck discusses her research on intelligence.

March 16, 2007

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.

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