Find Your Growth Mindset and Build Intelligence
By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark
The concept of a “growth mindset” comes from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Carol Dweck, whose research has helped clarify why some people thrive on challenges and why others do not. She found real differences in brain activity and behavior between people she characterizes as having a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are all gifts that they came into the world with rather than talents they have developed by working on them, and, if they do not have them, it is bad luck that cannot be overcome. People who have a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence and their abilities, and that enables them to become much more effective learners.
But just believing that intelligence can be changed is not enough. We also need to help our students (and ourselves) develop that intelligence and those talents. It is a two-step dance.
Believing that intelligence can be changed is the first step.
The second step is changing intelligence. People with a growth mindset who have teachers or trainers who provide explicit opportunities for them to develop their intelligence and their abilities will become even more effective learners.
The combination of those two steps can win the dance contest, but we need to figure out how to deliver that two-step dance regularly, day in and day out for our students.
Sometimes, as educators and leaders, we get duped into believing that our students cannot do or learn certain things. We may have a fixed mindset about our students, giving up on them before we give them those challenging educational experiences. Or we may have a growth mindset that is not shared by our students. As parents and teachers, we often see students give up before they start, avoid failure and mistakes at all costs, and then start avoiding anything they expect to find challenging because it might entail failure and mistakes. We forget that one of our jobs is to help them develop a cognitive mindset, oriented toward growth, by structuring opportunities for them to stretch and be challenged — in fact, to develop their intelligence. Even when we know better, we can fall into the trap of thinking that there is nothing we can do to change the way our students learn.
When educators structure opportunities for students to develop their intelligence, the results can be dramatic.
Recently, students in Hammond, Indiana, were given an opportunity to develop their intelligence. These were students who struggled with reading, and whose teachers had not figured out how to teach them to read because of their low cognitive ability in areas of processing related to language and reading.
The students used cognitive training software, either before or after school, four days a week for 10 weeks, and took the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) as the pre- and post-test. These struggling students were able to increase their verbal reasoning ability from the 35th percentile to the 48th percentile. They also increased nonverbal reasoning skills from the 47th to the 66th percentile, on average, resulting in an over improvement in their composite CogAT score of 13 percentile points. Schools use tests like the CogAT because they measure the level of development of cognitive skills that are predictive of academic achievement.
Having a growth mindset means helping children understand they can change their cognitive abilities — that was the first step the teachers in Hammond took with these students. And then they took the second step — providing a cognitive training experience that enabled these students to develop the cognitive abilities they needed to overcome their struggles. This was not about more facts, or more content, or even more practice in reading, but about building students’ ability to learn.
Developing intelligence is not just for elementary students. Neuroplasticity means our brains change throughout our lives, and to an even greater degree than most of us realize. Community college students at Ivy Tech in Muncie, Indiana, have also improved their cognitive skills. Three students took the GAMA (General Measure of Ability for Adults) before and at the end of an introductory course that included cognitive training. They improved their cognitive performance, increasing their IQ scores by 6, 12, and 21 points respectively, with each experiencing significant gains in one or more subtest areas.
Schools, colleges, and trainings that teach to the test may deliver students better prepared for the test. Schools that develop students’ ability to learn can deliver students better prepared for life. School can empower students with tools that are engaging and result in sustainable growth that transfers to measurable outcomes. We sometimes refer to this as offering a life of choice, not chance. Or, as Albert Einstein, albeit without the benefit of Dweck’s research, but with a deep understanding of types of mindset, said, “Education is not the learning of facts. It’s rather the training of the mind to think.”
A true growth mindset requires two steps — believing that intelligence can be changed — and providing the right kinds of opportunities to change it.
Besides developing intelligence through cognitive training, it is also beneficial to exercise your brain daily. For a great brain workout regimen, here are five exercises you can perform on a daily basis:
- Our brains become what brains do, so do wonderful, interesting, and beautiful things. When my youngest son went to college, the dean welcomed parents and shared with us some of the advice he was giving to our children in other meetings; That the mind is like your living room, and that your job is to decorate it. One thing we know is that what decorates our minds best is doing things that are challenging for us — not just the same old comfortable things. Sometime over the winter break, try something you have never done before.
- Practice integrative thinking. You have probably heard of deductive thinking (think Sherlock Holmes) — the thinking police detectives are supposed to do — that is drawing conclusions from multiple facts that point in the same direction. It is what happens when you conclude that there cannot be any other cause or reason for what you are seeing. You have probably heard of inductive thinking — predictive thinking based on a set of facts. You have also probably engaged in both inductive and deductive reasoning. But there are modes of thinking that we need when things are not as clear, or when the choices we are presented with are not palatable. This is the time for integrative thinking. Integrative thinking lets you take inconsistent facts and does not insist on choosing among them but produces a brand-new truth. This is the thinking that you need when you hear about the same incident from two different friends whose stories are very different. What kind of overarching truth can you find that accounts for all of it? Or consider how to compare things that you initially think have nothing in common; What do you think a triple-decker ice cream cone has in common with a political campaign?
- While this may sound hard to do, get enough sleep. Adults with mild sleep deprivation (being awake for 19 hours) perform on cognitive tests like they were legally intoxicated. Your brain solves problems and consolidates memory during sleep (during the REM cycle) — so an extra hour or two of sleep may make that problem you have been wrestling with easier to solve. Physical exercise is also especially important to brain health and stronger cognitive functioning, so get out and enjoy our beautiful summer weather. Besides, it will tire you out, so you will sleep better.
- Challenge your assumptions. We all make assumptions all the time, and we take information for granted. When you listen to the news or a speaker at a conference, play devil’s advocate. Think about what would have to be true for that point of view to be accurate? Is it complete? Does it jump too far from basic truths to a conclusion? Ask yourself what evidence you have that it is true, and what evidence you have that might disprove it. Think about the difference between evidence, opinions, and judgments.
- Whatever seems like a puzzle, put it down on paper. If you are a writer, write. If you are most comfortable with visual images, draw a mind map. Writing is nature’s way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is (paraphrased from someone brilliant, but I have not been able to track down the source). Putting things down on paper forces us to be much more specific about the relationships among things, particularly cause-and-effect relationships, and a mind map can help us keep a large amount of complex information in an order. Draw a circle on a piece of paper with the main idea or question in the center. Draw more circles and connect them to the first, and so on. Do not forget the connections between the second- and third-order circles. There is likely to be a new insight somewhere on that map.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is president of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of “Brain Matters”) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari.