Archive for May, 2010

Creating an Optimal Learning Environment

May 19, 2010

For decades, scientists believed that outside of development that occurred during the critical period of brain development early in life, our brains remained essentially unchanged. The concept of brain plasticity introduced the idea that we CAN change our brains throughout life, provided we create an “optimal learning environment” to promote brain development.

So what does an optimal learning environment look like?

Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research into brain plasticity determined that effective training that promotes physical brain growth must be:

  • Frequent
  • Intense
  • Adaptive
  • Motivating

If you’re familiar with the Fast ForWord programs, you will recognize these characteristics in the exercises your child has worked with: daily training sessions of at least 30 minutes, highly adaptive exercises that ensure students are challenged right at the limits of their abilities across a range of language and reading skills, and frequent and varied rewards including animations, bonus levels and point trackers. As professionals offering the Fast ForWord programs, we observe the criticality of each of these elements: students who are engaged and stick with Fast ForWord’s rigorous schedule make the most dramatic gains with the programs.

We just encountered some additional research that suggests that a critical component of learning may also be how well a student embraces the very concept of brain plasticity. In her new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford differentiates between fixed and growth mindsets. Summarized by Dr. Bill Jenkins on Scientific Learning’s The Science of Learning blog:

  • A person with a fixed mindset views their intelligence, talents and abilities as fixed and unchanging. As a result, those with this mindset protect themselves from failure by avoiding new experiences and challenges.
  • A person with a growth mindset sees him or herself as fluid and changing. They see their lives as full of opportunity and personal growth.

As parents and professionals who work with students, there’s a lot we can do to promote a growth mindset. Some specific suggestions, offered by Dr. Dweck in an interview published on Edutopia, include:

  • Teaching students to think of their brain as a muscle that strengthens with use, and have them visualize the brain forming new connections every time they learn.
  • Discouraging the use of labels (“smart,” “dumb,” and so on) that convey intelligence as a fixed entity.
  • Praising students’ effort, strategies, and progress, not their intelligence. Praising intelligence leads to students to fear challenges and makes them feel stupid and discouraged when they have difficulty.
  • Giving students challenging work. Teach them that challenging activities are fun and that mistakes help them learn.

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