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Neurons, Growth Mindset and Teaching

“We are not fixed; we are a work in progress” (Dr David Eagleman)

For years, I have had a fear of the water. The quote by the neuroscientist Dr David Eagleman resonated with me personally, as this year I took the plunge (excuse the pun) and learnt to swim. At age, 42 I told myself this would not be a problem, I would be able to swim and crack it within a month. How hard could it be?

7 months later (yes it took me longer than one month…), I am now able to do breast stroke, backstroke, and still grappling with the idea of putting my face into the water, learning to breathe at the right time and moving my arms and legs to swim. At the start of learning, I tossed and turned all night at the thought of 8am every Saturday morning, after a working week in the teaching profession being faced with not only my biggest fear; but also being every week pushed out of my comfort zone. Thanks to an amazing and encouraging swimming instructor, I can now swim and actually enjoy the experience. Even though I cannot yet to a front crawl – I know that it will not be long and I will get there.

This growth mind-set is the theory of Carol Dweck. She believed that by influencing students in their attitudes. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Leading to higher achievement. This may not only be because of attitude but also due to neuroscience. 

The knowledge that I may also be developing new neurons and brain cell growth to be able to swim actually excites me. Maybe because as an adult and hitting your mid-life makes you question what your future is going to be like and how you are going to grow old. Neuroscientist Sandine Thuret explains in her Ted Talks that we can indeed, as adults develop new neurons and pathways called neurogenesis. She explains that this is the grey structure in the centre of our brains for emotions and developing new neurons. Food, sleep and running all improve neurons and memory.

In Layman's terms, my understanding of Dr David Eagleman’s BBC programme ‘What Makes Us?’, is that from the age of two we have approximately 15,000 connections, this is twice as many as an adult. As we grow older, we reduce the number of connections in our brain and therefore neurons. This is because we become more specific in what we like, what we learn and our interactions with our environment. As an adult, the cortex can change through our experiences.

This is why I also love being a teacher; I can be creative in developing experiences for students whilst learning and making new connections all of the time. Employing the growth mindset for yourself and your class it an important concept to consider. Not only are you encouraging students but also you are also potentially developing stronger connections, neurons, positive outlooks to support their learning. In teaching, you experience the ‘lightbulb’ moment, which is the unique reward whereby you can see a person develop and flourish. This can only occur is you carry a growth mindset yourself, adapt, and change with your learners. Providing you with variety in your career.