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Mistakes Grow Your Brain: How to Use the Science of Struggle to Improve the Learning Experience

Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning
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The more you love mistakes, the more your brain will grow.

Brain scans actually show that our brain grows more when we make mistakes - because it means it's entered new territory, so there's more stuff 'firing'.

People are way too scared of 'failure' and mistakes - which keeps them from pushing themselves into new challenges.  Science is showing that this fear is actually illogical, because mistakes are amazing for the brain! 

Here's how it works:

  1. So the more you and your kids love mistakes, the less you'll be afraid of them.

  2. The less afraid of mistakes you are, the more you will try new things.

  3. The more new things you try (and mistakes you make), the more your brain grows and the more challenging things you can keep taking on!

To get better at loving mistakes, understand the science. Start with this article on how mistakes literally and physiologically lead to more brain growth than getting answers right.

Then, watch (and show your students or kids) this video on how amazing mistakes are. Watch this short Khan academy video about growing your brain.

The more you focus on the process instead of results, the longer you (and your students) will persevere and take on challenges.

Research also shows that the more kids understand that 'their brain is like a muscle that grows the more they use it', and the more they celebrate and are praised for effort and strategies (instead of intelligence or results), the more they persevere and take on more challenging tasks! 

To get better at focusing on process and growth instead of results, start with this really great summary of growth mindsets

Next, use "process praise" instead of "person praise."

For example, when an adult uses 'process praise', such as:

"Wow, I love how much you kept trying new ideas!" or "I love how you used a rhyme to remember that!" or "I love how hard you worked on that!" -- instead of  "Wow, you are so smart!" (person praise).

Just changing these few key words in how we praise kids is confirmed by research to change their outcomes significantly and in the long term. (See article above.) 

Then, show kids videos that talk about how the brain grows :

Here are some eally fun animated videos for kids called The Mojo Show based on Stanford research 

The more often kids get these messages, the better...  

Starting around 9-10 years old, kids start believing that 'effort = lack of innate ability', meaning, if something feels hard, it means they'll never be good at it, so they stop trying. (Read U Chicago's research on this.)

This happens a lot in math especially - and teachers who focus too much on speed and getting answers 'right' actually block students from really understanding and enjoying math (and other subjects). (Read Stanford's research on this.) 

So the more you and the young people in your life learn how to 'celebrate mistakes' and love the process more than the results, the better learning will feel, and the more we will all get to see what people are really made of as they take on higher and higher challenges.   

Teachers I consult with who have tried these 'mindset shifts' have observed almost immediate improvements in how their students tackle new tasks and deal with mistakes.  

Let me know if you have been trying these ideas and have seen any changes!


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Stefanie Faye Frank | @stefanieffrank offers neuroscience-based social-emotional, growth mindset and empathy training and consulting services to schools, organizations and university education departments throughout the US and Canada.  Her graduate degree from NYU focused on neuroscience, empathy and social emotional development.  She blends this with over a decade of teaching and consulting with parents, teachers and leaders in countries all over the world.  You can connect with her at expandingmindsets.com

Also check out the How to Teach Growth Mindsets to Students in Five Steps youtube video!

  • Guest
    AW Tuesday, 08 November 2016

    Very enlightening! Thank you.

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Guest Tuesday, 19 March 2019