Stuffed Neurons and Growth Mindset

February 1, 2017

When I was growing up in Central Maine, my parents owned several businesses—some did well, some did not. The beauty salon thrived, as did the sandwich business. The tanning salon brought our family to the brink of bankruptcy, but the ceiling cleaning business, the last of my parents’ entrepreneurial adventures, was extremely successful.

Over the years, my father’s friends, always curious about his business ventures, would ask questions like, “Harry, what ever happened with that tanning business, anyway?” My dad would smile, shake his head and say, “Hey, I don’t know–everyone got tanned and we got burned!”

And when they would ask, “Harry, how’s the ceiling business doing?”  He would grin and say, “Hey, can’t complain, things are always looking up!”

Along with a healthy sense of humor, my dad also had what researcher Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” the idea that intelligence is not fixed, and that given a problem, instead of giving up, we can be open to learning and trying new ways to solve a problem.

Growth mindset directly relates to one of my core beliefs about education. I believe that given the right instruction and environment, all kids can learn.

I am a reading interventionist. I teach students who are reading two to three years below grade level. Last fall, when I started working with my new group of seventh graders, I was dismayed to see how disengaged they were with school, and how years of academic underachievement had the cumulative effect of an attitude of “learned helplessness.” They did not believe they could improve their reading, or at least not significantly.

I knew talking about growth mindset and giving some verbal examples would not help these students understand this abstract concept. I needed a way to teach them explicitly about the brain and how, if they worked hard enough and learned new problem-solving strategies, they could make themselves smarter.

It made me think of an excerpt from Core Proposition 3: Teachers Are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning in What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do:

Motivating students does not always mean that accomplished teachers make learning fun; learning can be difficult work . . . teachers must know how to encourage their students in the face of serious challenges and provide them with support as they push themselves to new physical, affective, and intellectual planes. Accomplished teachers model strategies for dealing with doubts that students may experience, helping them realize that frustrating moments often are when learning occurs. Those moments produce the true joy of education, the satisfaction of accomplishment (27).

After giving it some thought, I decided to try and find a stuffed neuron—like a stuffed animal—to use as an example. We all know you can find just about anything on—including, it turns out, a stuffed neuron! I ordered one and when it arrived, I was amazed at how excited my students were. They passed it around, took selfies with it, and used the photos as their screen savers. As the year progressed, we purchased more neurons and connected them with yarn to represent their impressive reading growth.

This physical representation helped my students on a daily basis. When they were struggling or getting frustrated, I could point up to the neuron display hanging from the ceiling and remind them, “I know this is hard. But that feeling of reading being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.” Then I would ask them to tell me how they tried to solve the problem, or if they knew another strategy or approach they could use. Sometimes they needed me to teach them a new way to solve the problem.

This is a critical aspect of growth mindset. In fact, since her original research on growth mindset was published, Carol Dweck has had to address a common misconception that growth mindset is exclusively about effort. She is right in saying, “certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. They need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they are stuck. We need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving.”

Growth mindset also depends on creating the right conditions for learning, which includes autonomy, relevance, and competence. Students need to be involved in their learning and have access to books, topics and materials they find interesting. They also need a sense of belonging – of connectedness. They need instruction targeted to their individualized learning needs from an accomplished educator. I could hang 100 neurons from the ceiling, but without these other components, they would only serve as a classroom decoration—and an ugly one at that!

My goal as a teacher is to have my students internalize the idea of growth mindset—so they can own their learning. As the year went on, this is exactly what happened, and is best exemplified in the story of Bobby.

Bobby was one of my most disadvantaged students—by seventh grade he had experienced several traumatic experiences, was living in extreme poverty, and was reading at a second grade level. In the spring, I taught a unit on vocabulary, paying special attention to Greek and Latin roots. Three weeks later, Bobby was reading while I was at a different table working with some other students. Bobby called over to me, “Ms. Ranger, Ms. Ranger” – I looked up and he was smiling from ear to ear pointing down at his book. “It’s vacant – one of our words – and I remember: v-a-c-/vac means empty. They are talking about an empty lot. It’s one of our words!” To see his face, you would have thought he had witnessed a miracle—and you know what, he had. He not only witnessed it, he experienced it.

And he is not the only one. Throughout the year, as my students tracked their reading progress on their individual growth charts, they could see their learning. But the more powerful indicators for them were the lightbulb moments like Bobby’s. “Moments,” as Paul Tough describes, “when no one has to persuade them in an explicit or theoretical way, of the principles of growth mindset. They intuitively believe that their brains grow through effort and struggle, and they believe it for the best possible reason: because they can feel it happening.”

Tammy Ranger, NBCT

Currently a reading interventionist at Skowhegan Area Middle School in RSU 54 (Maine), Tamara Ranger has been teaching for 16 years. She is active in a variety of professional groups, including the Maine Education Association Instructional and Professional Development Committee, her district’s Professional Evaluation/Professional Growth Committee and her district’s Proficiency Based Education English Language Arts Committee. Tamara Ranger is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year.