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Building our Children’s Brains

by Anne-Evan Williams, LGL Director of Educational Development

I know a pair of brothers, fifth and sixth graders this year.  They are intelligent boys with well-educated parents.  They have both been labeled "gifted" in school.  For the fifth grader, school has always been a piece of cake, and he's never really had to work for his straight As.  But the sixth grader was a struggling reader for years, always pushing for his grades. 

What is most interesting about these two brothers isn't their successes, it's their failures.  Setbacks make the fifth grader angry and defensive; setbacks drive the sixth grader to work harder.  Early in school, the fifth grader was told how smart he was, and now he believes that.  But early in school, the sixth grader was told that he'd have to work harder at reading in order to be good at it.  See, there's the difference.  No one told him he was a "bad" reader--just that he'd have to work harder.  And so he did. This year, his first quarter in middle school, the sixth grader got straight As. 

So what's the difference? 

According to Carol S. Dweck in a recent article in Scientific American, the difference is mindset.  Dweck identifies two different mindsets in students:  the fixed mindset, which believes that success stems from ability, and the growth mindset, which believes success comes from growth.  Dweck's research has shown that students who are spoken to with a growth mindset are the students for whom growth is more likely, and success greater.  She has even worked with teachers and students on "growing" their brains. 

Dweck writes, "From such instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their own brain development...One particularly unruly boy looked up during the discussion and said, ‘You mean I don't have to be dumb?'"

The fifth grader has a fixed mindset.  He believes he's smart, and so school should be easy.  But the sixth grader has a growth mindset.  He believes that school is hard, so he's going to have to work harder.

So it sounds like the key to these brothers is pretty clear.  They're both smart.  But the one for whom success is most delicious, the one who continues to grow daily, is the brother who hasn't been told all his life how smart he is.

Tags: school success, school achievement, struggling reader, struggling student

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