Changing Your Brain: A Lesson on Grit, Growth and Neuroplasticity Continued

“People who believe in the power of talent tend to not fulfill their potential because they are so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes.  But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

-Carol Dweck, “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow” by Janet Rae-Dupree from the New York Times

Continuing with the work outlined in the posts about neuroplasticity and grit, over the last couple of weeks, I worked with Melissa Larisch and Susan Turley on lessons intended to help students discover their own ability to grow and develop.

Larisch’s goal was to have a meaningful discussion about her students growth via an examination of their Annual Growth Report from STAR.  To this end, the two-day lesson began with students taking the 12 Item Grit Scale and the growth versus fixed mindset quiz.

Day One

After the quiz data was recorded on this Grit and Growth Versus Fixed Mindset Student Data Sheet, we had students listen to and paraphrase the following definition from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology’s report on “Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance”:

“Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics” (vii).

Students were easily able to identify that “grit” was about overcoming in order to achieve goals, but they struggled to identify the fact that grit is also about strategically planning and utilizing specific resources, so this was something we discussed after students shared out the paraphrases.

I think it would be a good idea to break down and discuss the following parts of the definition in a class discussion:

  • Psychological resources
  • Academic mindsets
  • Effortful control
  • Strategies and Tactics

I then asked students the following two questions:

  • How many of you have ever done something you did not want to do?
  • How many of you have ever chosen to do something you did not want to do?
  • Why did you do it even when every part of you didn’t want to?

Some of the answers were based upon extrinsic factors (such as a punishment or sense of being indebted), but some of the answers were because of long-term goals.  A good example of this brought up in most classes was practicing in the heat of the summer for marching band because students were interested in becoming better performers and musicians.

Once we had at least one example of grit, we did a personalized visualization activity as follows:

  1. Imagine a long-term goal you have accomplished or are currently trying to accomplish.  Write it down.
  2. Share out some of the goals
  3. Imagine the most difficult moment during the process of accomplishing that goal.  This should be a point at which you doubted you would be able to continue working.  Write this point down.
  4. Share out difficult points
  5. Now, put yourself back in that most difficult moment.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  What are you doing that helps you to continue?  In other words, how did you get through this moment and keep going?
  6. Share out the “strategies and resources” students used to continue moving forward despite challenges

The last part of the lesson was defining growth and fixed mindset.  I shared the following two pieces of information with students:

  • Growth mindset is the belief that ability grows with effort and intelligence and talent are not fixed
  • “…research suggest that these factors (grit, tenacity and perseverance) can have just as strong an influence on academic performance and professional attainment as intellectual factors” (1 U.S. Department of Education)

Students ended the lesson by answering the personal reflection questions on their “Grit and Growth Versus Fixed Mindset Student Data Sheet” and turning it in to Larisch and I before they left as an exit ticket.

Day Two

We began the lesson by having students watch the following video about Neuroplasticity:

It is a very short video (two minutes), so students watched it twice and focused on identifying the following items:

  • * – Note one thing that you felt was important
  • ! – Note one thing that was surprising
  • ? – Note one question you have after hearing the information (a point of curiosity, something you wonder about etc.)

This note-taking strategy resulted in some really good classroom discussion, especially regarding thought-provoking questions.  Here were some of the points students made:

  • It is important that: we can change our own brains and have control over how they develop
  •  It was surprising: how recent this information is, how scientists believed that the brain was fully developed and static by adulthood, and how much humans are capable of changing their brains
  • Students questioned: how easy it is to change a habit or reaction, if some habits or paths were harder to change, how much they could change about themselves, and if they changed too much were they really being themselves anymore

Mrs. Larisch and I were impressed by the level of engagement and deep thinking resulting from the discussion.  We ended this part of the lesson with the following question:

  • What does growth have to do with grit?
  • Answers included: You can grow in your ability to be gritty; if you are gritty you can change anything about yourself; and if you believe in the science of grit, you are more likely to persevere when difficulty arises (the last answer was mine)

Students were then given their STAR Annual Growth reports and this SGP Reflection Sheet.  We explained ATOS levels and Independent Reading Levels to students and asked them to examine the changes STAR reported over the course of the year.  Afterward we discussed:

  • Is this an accurate measure of your growth this year in reading?
  • Why or why not?
  • What could you do to improve your growth?

Many students did not feel STAR was an accurate measure of growth.   We discussed and addressed those concerns when possible, making sure to focus the discussion on the fact that STAR measures reading comprehension which is a very specific measure.

In some classes, we had a productive discussion about what STAR measured and how to use ATOS levels to provide “challenge” that would help students to grow as readers.  We also discussed the importance of “grit” in reading difficult material, particularly in non-fiction texts (for example in science classes) where the level of vocabulary and the academic language used might be unfamiliar.  We also discussed the value of this type of reading to help one understand the world.

In other classes, Larisch and I struggled to mend the students discontent with STAR as a valuable measure.  In these cases, I felt as though linking something as important as a students ability to grow to his/her STAR scores might have minimized the importance of the larger lesson: humans are capable of growth and change in ways once thought unlikely or impossible.

Susan Turley and I used parts of this lesson but developed it into a three-day activity where students compared types of information presented in different mediums to explore venues of information presentation for their senior projects.  That lesson can be viewed in this post, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sources on Grit and Growth.

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