The brain can be trained!

When my daughter was six years old, she started taking piano lessons. Soon, she could play simple pieces that sounded quite nice, even though she hadn’t learned to read sheet music yet. There was no doubt that she had a skilled teacher, but at the same time, I was sure she had talent. Excited by her progress, I said, ‘You’re so talented!’ ‘You have a real talent for this!’ and ‘Imagine that you can play so well even though you’ve hardly practiced!’. After half a year, the rapid progress stopped.

The pieces she was supposed to play gradually became more challenging and required practice and making mistakes before she mastered them. She also had to learn to read sheet music to progress. Soon, she didn’t want to practice anymore but talked about quitting instead. I didn’t give up easily because my own childhood experiences had shown me that it paid off to persevere to learn to play.

My own perspective

I played the piano for ten years and the violin for six years myself and had several periods when it was boring, and I didn’t experience any progress. When I got through these periods, I felt great joy in being able to immerse myself more and more in the music. But for my daughter, this period didn’t pass, and after three years, she had to quit. A few years later, I began to wonder if I had fallen into a classic trap with her piano playing.

Theory of flexibility and learning

I read the book “Growth Mindset” by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University in California (Dweck, 2006). It gave me a new perspective on how we should talk to others when they are learning something. Had my response to my daughter contributed to her developing a fixed mindset? In the beginning, she was coasting on some sort of talent and experiencing mastery without much effort. But when she could no longer play without making mistakes, she lost motivation. From the beginning, I should have encouraged the process and praised the practice instead of the end result. I could have also talked about the value of making mistakes.

A mindset reflection

It is quite obvious that learning happens through mistakes, and Dweck has integrated this connection into a theory of learning and development that she calls the ‘growth mindset.’ With a growth mindset, you know that hard work pays off. So when you face setbacks, you don’t give up but try a new strategy or ask for help. In contrast, with a fixed mindset, you believe that abilities and talents are primarily innate, and you have lower endurance when facing adversity. You are more focused on the outcome, not the process, and you are afraid of making mistakes.

Learning through mistakes and effort

In that case, others may notice that you lack talent, and as a result, you don’t develop much. To help others adopt a growth mindset, the words we use to describe the learning process are important. People who are labeled ‘smart’ or ‘talented’ can be afraid of losing that status. To save face, they choose to avoid challenges and instead do what they already know. On the other hand, if we praise effort and hard work and emphasize the value of learning through making mistakes, we can strengthen others’ mindsets. The theory of the importance of mindset is based on several years of research from Dweck’s group and has also garnered the interest of other researchers.

Fixed vs. growth mindset

That’s why there are several hundred scientific articles today about the growth mindset (Sisk et al., 2018). Some have investigated whether there is a correlation between this way of thinking and good academic results, while others have examined how teaching a growth mindset affects learning, known as intervention studies. The results show that particularly children from low socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from learning about mindset. This is supported by a Norwegian study that looked at the connection between mindset and family background (Svensen, 2023). The results show that students with mothers without higher education more often have a fixed mindset than students with highly educated mothers. Such a fixed mindset has a negative effect on academic results.

Applying a growth mindset in practice

This applies to students who have a fixed mindset despite having highly educated mothers. At the same time, some of these studies show little or no effect of a growth mindset, but it may have explanations other than it not working. The effect of a psychological factor on a group of people is rarely large and pronounced and can easily be obscured by more important factors, such as school quality, teachers, and home environment. In such cases, large studies are important, and in recent years, such a study has been conducted (Yeager et al., 2019). In this study, 12,490 ninth-grade students from 65 public schools in the USA participated. They represented the diversity of student groups across the country.

Results and associations

Half of the students were randomly selected to receive instruction on a growth mindset in two sessions of 25 minutes each. Here, they gained insight into how neurons work and that connections between neurons become stronger through work and effort. They were also told that, just like we can train our muscles, we can train our brains, and adolescence is a period in life when the brain’s development opportunities are especially significant. The other half of the students had similar sessions about the brain without learning about the growth mindset, making it difficult to know who was in the experimental group and who was in the control group.

The significance of mindset

The researchers then examined whether knowledge of a growth mindset affected grades in mathematics, science, English, language, and social sciences. Students were also asked questions to assess their mindset. The results showed that this simple intervention had a clear positive effect on the grades of low-performing students. With a growth mindset, the chances of completing high school increased significantly. Among academically strong students, a change was also observed. More of them chose to take a challenging math course than their counterparts in the control group.

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