You can rewire your brain…because it’s plastic!!

In our work with students (and parents) the most common question we are asked is…”Can you teach me HOW to study?” The answer is of course YES but we also explain that a pre-requisite to being able to apply effective study techniques is a background knowledge and basic understanding of the important piece of machinery doing the work – the human brain!

In our work with students (and parents) the most common question we are asked is… “Can you teach me HOW to study?” The answer is of course YES but we also explain that a pre-requisite to being able to apply effective study techniques is a background knowledge and basic understanding of the important piece of machinery doing the work – the human brain!!

Fortunately we now know more than ever about the brain. In fact brain science has progressed at an astonishing rate over the past decade in particular. Not that long ago neuroscientists believed the brain did not change after childhood, that it was hard-wired, that the structure was fixed and incapable of any level of malleability.

More recently, study after study has shown the opposite is actually true, in fact our brain Neuronshas an incredible capacity to  be dynamic, to grow and to change throughout our lives. This finding, known as brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) has been heralded as the most significant neuroscientific breakthrough in over 400 years.

What happens in the brain when we learn?

Our brains have over 80 billion neurons (brain cells) that are all connected together. When we learn something electrical currents fire up in our brain, pass across synapses, between neurons and to different areas of the brain. The more we practice the faster the currents travel along their particular pathways, the deeper the connections and therefore the learning. That is exactly why practice (deliberate and directed) or in this case ‘study’ is so important for long-term retention. When we try new learning tasks our brains carve out new pathways and again these strengthen with practice. Our brains are therefore continuously changing in both structure and function.

Brain plasticity in action…
Researchers from University College London scanned the brains of 79 trainee London black taxi drivers prior to commencement of their rigorous ‘London Knowledge’ learning programme. As part of the process potential taxi drivers have to learn 25,000 street names and 100,000 landmarks and then complete a gruelling six stages
of examinations.

What the researchers found was fascinating… Throughout the process, changes to the trainees’ brains were mapped by regular MRI scans. Compared with similar scans from non-taxi drivers, those who had attempted the Knowledge had increased the size of the posterior hippocampus – the rear section of the hippocampus which is responsible for memory formation and spatial navigation.

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The Professor who led the research, Prof Eleanor Maguire, said: “By following the trainee taxi drivers over time as they acquired – or failed to acquire – the Knowledge, a uniquely challenging spatial memory task, we have seen directly and within individuals how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation.” This is unquestionable proof of the potential of the human brain to change.

This research is very exciting not only for scientists but for educators and parents too. It certainly confirms what we have always thought in Amazing Brains…Your brain has an astonishing capacity and if you use it in an efficient way you can achieve well beyond what you thought was possible!!

Next step… decide on your task or skill, get to work through (deliberate, repeated and directed attention) and witness how your amazing brain can rewire itself.

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

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Does Mindset Matter in Learning?

Stop for a minute and think back to when you were in school … Even if it doesn’t bring back happy memories stay with me! You’re 14, it’s Sunday night and you’re thinking about the week ahead.

Stop for a minute and think back to when you were in school … Even if it doesn’t bring back happy memories stay with me! You’re 14, it’s Sunday night and you’re thinking about the week ahead.
Were there any classes that you dreaded? Maybe there was a subject you weren’t that interested in. Perhaps you didn’t get on with the teacher or maybe you thought you just weren’t smart enough to be able to cope with the subject content?
If you thought you weren’t smart enough, think back to how that affected your motivation to learn the subject? Did you feel demotivated? Every time you walked into that particular classroom, what was your mindset?

“A mindset is a set of attitudes or way of thinking that determines how we behave.”

Fast-forward years later … It is now your child sitting at home on a Sunday night preparing for a busy week in school. How are they feeling about classes? Do they dread any subjects and, more importantly, why? What will their mindset be in school this week?
We all bring a mindset to learning challenges – a fundamental belief about how we learn, of our capacity, intelligence and of our limits. This mindset is crucial because it leads to different learning behaviours that in turn create a range of learning outcomes.
All too often in schools I hear students (and parents) say things like “I’m just not good at Maths, French, Music, Art etc., I’ve never been any good and that is just the way I am.” Some go so far as to say: “I was born that way and there is nothing I can do to change it.”
This fixed way of thinking about ability is highly damaging to learning and ultimately to success. It also happens to be a self-perpetuating myth. We might not be good at a particular subject YET but that doesn’t mean we cannot improve to become ‘good’ at it. You don’t have to take my word for it. Fortunately, there is now a growing body of international research from social psychology and neuroscience that refutes the idea of fixed abilities.
Allow me to introduce you to Carol Dweck, a Stanford Professor of Social Psychology. According to Professor Dweck, most people hold one of two mindsets about their ability, or a mixture of both. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence and ability are static, genetic traits that we simply can’t change in any significant way. Success is therefore the proclamation of that inherent intelligence and avoiding challenge or failure at all costs becomes a way of maintaining the sense of ‘being clever’.
Students that hold this view might say things like: “I don’t have to work that hard, I’m already smart,” “If I fail I must be no good at it, so then what’s the point.” However a “growth mindset” embraces challenge and sees failure not as evidence of  being deficient in intelligence or lacking in ability, but as a springboard for learning, growth and for stretching our current abilities.
Out of these two mindsets which, due to environmental conditions, we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behaviour and in particular our relationship with success, failure and challenge. Dweck has worked with thousands of students over a forty-year period and her research consistently shows the impact of these deeply held ability views on learning.
Dweck’s work has been instrumental in stimulating educators and parents to reflect on certain practices – such as 0001 2labelling students as having fixed abilities in particular subjects. Her work on how to effectively use praise has prompted often well-meaning teachers to think about how their language can  perpetuate fixed views about ability. Most importantly, her research puts ‘effort’ and not ‘ability’ at the heart of discussions around learning and success.
This is what Professor Dweck’s research shows:
In her studies, students who had a fixed view of their ability/intelligence displayed self-defeating behaviours in the face of learning challenges. They believed that intelligence is innate and that it determined their performance on a task, much more than effort or persistence. Dweck found that these students lost confidence more quickly, avoided challenge, gave up relatively easily and blamed their lack of success on their lack of innate intelligence.
The more resilient, persistent students had a ‘growth mindset’. They believed that ability could be improved through effort, hard work and trying new strategies. They saw challenge and obstacles as part of the process of learning and persevered with the task for much longer. Failure was for them an opportunity to learn, grow and develop.
40745._UY500_SS500_Ultimately, Dweck found that it was indeed possible to change students’ views about their ability and their capacity to learn. Where this was evidenced, students experienced an increase in success and achievement.
For more on Professor Dweck’s work, check out ‘Mindset’ – The New Psychology of Success.
Finally, a word of caution … some people often misunderstand growth mindset. It is not simply about believing you can do anything. Yes, the belief that you can grow your intelligence, and understanding that your brain has the capacity to do so, is crucial but growth mindset approaches also involve…

identifying areas for improvement, adopting specific, carefully selected strategies to meet individual needs and deliberately practicing in an effortful way.

We will be addressing all of these elements in the coming weeks so stay tuned.
Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.