I went looking for a resource about “growth mindset” that I could use in class, because I am trying to convince my students that asking questions helps you get smarter (i.e. understand things better).  I appreciate Carol Dweck‘s work on her website and her book, but I don’t find them

  • concise enough,
  • clear enough, or
  • at an appropriate reading level for my students.

What I found was Diana Hestwood and Linda Russel’s presentation about “How Your Brain Learns and Remembers.”  The authors give permission for non-profit use by individual teachers.  It’s not perfect (I edited out the heading that says “You are naturally smart” … apologies to the authors) and it’s not completely in tune with some  of the neuroscience research I am hearing about lately, but it meets my criteria (above) and got the students thinking and talking.

Despite her warning that it’s not intended to stand on its own and that the teacher should lead a discussion, I’d rather poke my eyes out than stand in front of the group while reading full paragraphs off of slides. I found the full-sentence, full-paragraph “presentation” to work on its own just fine (CLARIFIED: I removed all the slides with yellow backgrounds, and ended at slide 48).  I printed it, gave it to the students, and asked them to turn in their responses to the questions embedded in it.  I’ll report back to them with some conversational feedback on their individual papers and some class time for people to raise their issues and questions — as usual, discussion after the students have tangled with the ideas a bit.

The students really went for it.  They turned in answers that were in their own words (a tough ask for this group) and full of inferences, as well as some personal revelations about their own (good and bad) learning experiences.  There were few questions (the presentation isn’t exactly intended to elicit them) but lots of positive buzz.  About half the class stayed late, into coffee break, so they could keep writing about their opinions of this way of thinking.  Several told me that “this was actually interesting!”  (*laugh*)  I also got one “I’m going to show this to my girlfriend” and one, not-quite-accusatory but clearly upset “I wish someone had told me this a long time ago.”  (*gulp*)

I found a lot to like in this presentation.  It’s a non-threatening presentation of some material that could easily become heavily technical and intimidating.  It’s short, and it’s got some humour.  It’s got TONS of points of comparison for circuits, electronic signal theory, even semiconductors (not a co-incidence, obviously).  Most importantly, it allows students to quickly develop causal thinking (e.g. practice causes synapses to widen).

Last year I found out in February that my students couldn’t consistently distinguish between a cause and a definition, and trying to promote that distinction while they were overloaded with circuit theory was just too much.  So this year I created a unit called “Thinking Like a Technician,” in which I introduced the thinking skills we would use in the context of everyday examples. Here’s the skill sheet — use the “full screen” button for a bigger and/or downloadable version.

It helped a bit, but meant that we spend a couple of weeks talking about roller coasters, cars, and musical instruments.  Next year, this is what we’ll use instead.  It’ll give us some shared vocabulary for talking about learning and improving — including why things that feel “easy” don’t always help, why things that feel “confusing” don’t mean you’re stupid, why “feeling” like you know it isn’t a good test of whether you can do it, and why I don’t accept “reviewing your notes” as one of the things you did to improve when you applied for reassessment.

But this will also give us a rich example of what a “model” is, why they are necessarily incomplete and at least a bit abstracted, and how they can help us make judgement calls.  Last year, I started talking about the “human brain model” around this time of the year (during a discussion of why “I’ll just remember the due date for that assignment” is not a strong inference).  That was the earliest I felt I could use the word “model” and have them know what I meant — they were familiar enough with the “circuits and electrons model” to understand what a model was and what it was for.  Next year I hope to use this tool to do it the other way around.