Karen Green, from Lyons Hall Primary School in Essex, England, shares her experience, tips and classroom activities to teach the growth mindset
I’m a primary school teacher at Lyons Hall Primary School, where I teach sixth grade students. We had introduced the growth mindset in school, so students were already familiar with the language of it. For instance, they already understood the importance of resilience, determination and perseverance, which, in their own words sounded like: “keep trying,” “do your best,” and “never give up.” Before shifting to a senior school, we wanted to make sure that the 6th graders had a deeper understanding of themselves as learners, so they could build their own autonomy to change and gain confidence in their academic abilities.
My colleagues and I had explored ways to introduce these concepts, and one method we came across was Brainology. When I became interested in it, I thought it could serve to kick-start those students who had been struggling with issues of achievement and motivation, not only academically, but also in other areas of their lives.
Our 6th graders completed the Brainology program, and it certainly had a significant impact both on their attitudes towards learning and on their own self-beliefs. They became much more aware of their own individual learning styles, and they realized that practice is the key to making progress. I noticed that many students gained an increased willingness to take responsibility for their academic progress, mainly because they came to believe in their own ability to impact their academic performance through effort and determination. We observed a great improvement in both the attitudes and exam scores of historically low-achieving students. Going through the units, I saw these children gain a greater confidence in themselves, which translated directly into improved test results.
By the end of the program, it was clear that students had realized that practice is the key to making progress. They asked for 15-20 minutes daily practice sessions to focus on an area they wanted to improve. We created time for this in the schedule, and every two or three weeks the children were responsible for choosing a new target area to improve. For instance, some students chose their writing to focus on, others chose math, and some students chose what we called a ‘free target’, a non-academic goal such as improving drawing abilities. Students would then decide how they wished to work on improving their skills, and with which resources they wanted to practice. This allowed students to have a sense of choice while still helping the teachers to direct attention to where we thought it could have the most impact.
At the end of the two weeks, students measured their progress and created Brainology posters to demonstrate neuron growth for their classmates. The children thought the sessions were fun, and they were eager to participate because they had freedom to choose the subject matter. We definitely saw the children make strong progress.
Below is a step-by-step guide on how other teachers can incorporate these activities with their students, as well as examples and photos of class displays and children’s’ work:
Step 1: We displayed the Brainology smartboard slides (see below) while explaining to students the idea that learning, to your brain, is like water and sunshine to plants. This was followed by showing them images of how neurons make more connections to each other through practice and learning. We asked students what they thought they were good at, what they enjoyed doing and what they needed to get better at. We then discussed what they could do about improving in their weaker areas. For instance, we discussed the importance of breaking things down into smaller pieces, like learning how to spell five new vocabulary words really well first before trying to learn a whole list of new words. Personal anecdotes helped here, as the children started to realize that even teachers need to practice in order to improve. The children were given thinking time to process the new information, and were paired up as ‘learning partners’ to discuss something they would like to improve.
Step 2: We offered the students a choice of resources and activities, such as making a scrap book, PowerPoint presentation, poster, leaflet or collage, and encouraged them to role play and act out ideas with other students who were practicing the same target. We found that, by giving the students a range of options, they were motivated to be more creative with their own ideas.
Step 3: Prep time – We asked the students to think about what resources they wanted to use and what they need to prepare.
Step 4: We collected and collated all responses for easy reference. The class also made reminder cards showing targets, practice methods and resources, which they decorated and laminated. The cards are kept on their desks or in their trays, and can be referred to as needed. This provides the class with a useful bank of fun and engaging ideas for future use.
Step 5: We provided time for the children to do the activities and prepare their resources. The students made scrapbooks, plasticene and lego figures, journals, played math games and even incorporated physical resources (like my teaching books!) to find images to use while writing stories. Students incorporated math activities, division problems, science investigations and frameworks for writing. We now keep these creations in the students’ trays or in our central Brainology resource box.
Step 6: Once a student prepared their materials, we provided them with 15 minutes of daily practice. We asked them to date each entry of practice, print their practice activities if they used a computer, or take photos of what the practice looked like.
Step 7: We conducted self-assessments with the students to decide what the next steps would be towards improving. For instance, a student may decide to practice their writing skills by using a simile to improve their use of language, or instead choose to move on to focus on different items, like metaphors or personification.
In past classes, children decided how they wanted to display neuron connections. For instance, one group created a class brain poster (see picture on the right). On it, the children wrote their improved target skills onto strips of paper, and added them to the class brain poster to display their progress. Another activity involved the use of marbles to represent neurons, and students would add one marble to the jar each time they made progress towards their target. We also incorporated pipe cleaners to show neuron connections, linking them together to show progress as skills were improved.
We found that the students really benefitted from seeing positive visual reminders of how much progress they were making.
The activities below were designed by the children. We were amazed by their creativity!
For instance, one child with special educational needs chose to paint words to practice spelling. He selected five high frequency words that he was having difficulty with. In each session, he would paint the words, and some days, he chose a different color to paint with. Since it took time, I believe it allowed him to visualize the structure of each word in more detail.
Another higher achieving student selected the topic of butterflies, and she was given time and clay to make models of them. Every day she worked on writing a butterfly poem, but each session she would add something to improve it, such as figurative words and powerful language.
One student was very interested in different cultures and researched different countries and their traditions. He wrote key facts in his own words, working on sentence structure and using simple, compound and complex sentences.
An innovative stop-watch activity was invented by one of our children, in which students threw one or two dice and the number they rolled was the number on the times table that they would have to answer. One student wanted to give himself an extra challenge, so he threw the dice twice and multiplied both numbers together. He also set his stopwatch to test his speed, and kept checking the timetables grid for accuracy.
Following our success, we had the younger children in the school participate in daily Brainology practice sessions. We are currently using Brainology with the new intake of 6th graders. For unit one, they created menus that include brain food!
My colleagues and I all agree that the students have progressed from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets, as their vocabulary and understanding of the learning process has changed. The students actually realize that they can become smarter, that they can achieve more, and that it’s not just a natural progression –they can change!