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We’ve all heard the old axiom that humans only use about 10% of our brains. I’m not sure how they come up with a number like that, but it seems a certainty that we all have much untapped potential. How do we reach that potential?

The brain is just like a muscle; the more we use it, the stronger it can become. This is why you will see many studies show that working on brain teasers and word puzzles will strengthen the brain in order to fight against Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life. If all we do with our brain is drown it in television shows and movies, it is not likely to stay strong as we grow older.

I’ve had a running bit in my classroom for years that I am a near-genius based on a high score on an IQ test. However, IQ tests are not considered a great benchmark for true intelligence as much as they used to be. Just like with so many other types of tests, it is a one-shot look at a person on a particular day.

In education, we have new catchphrases come and go about as often as a new emoji is created for texters. One that has been backed up by plenty of research in the past decade is the idea of a growth mindset postulated by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University.

Basically, growth mindset is the idea that we can get better at areas in which we struggle mentally. That seems pretty obvious, but if I had a dollar for every student who ever said, “I’m just dumb in reading. I’ll never get that,” I’d be a lot closer to retirement. Many people have run across something they can’t figure out and just give up. The growth mindset idea says that we should continue to work at the problem and seek help to find a solution.

Some things don’t seem worth the effort. I’m sure that if I had wanted to, I could have figured out proofs in my advanced math classes. I simply didn’t see how that would be worth the time for someone going on to teach English. But when I think about how many kids struggle with reading and writing and use the “I’m just dumb” excuse, it makes me think we need to push the growth mindset; those are skills that everyone needs.

Growth mindset encourages a different type of language. In a world where we praise way too much and everyone gets a trophy, this theory says we should praise progress and effort, not necessarily the end result every time. Most of us probably didn’t make the very first basketball shot we ever took or hit the very first baseball pitched to us. However, good coaches will point out the good shooting form or the correct swing as steps to help players not give up. Why not do this more in our classrooms?

For years, I’ve found ways to reward students who showed improvement on standardized tests over the previous year. Honestly, some kids will never come close to passing those reading tests, but they gain confidence by knowing that simply putting forth the best effort will be acknowledged. Rather than go into those tests thinking they will fail anyway so why try, some kids are motivated to improve, even if it’s by a couple of points.

Those of you who have read my past educational columns know that I’ve been giving students chances to redo most of their work for the past few years. It’s a great feeling as a teacher to see that “Ah-ha!” moment, and this is when it usually occurs. Some students simply understand why they screwed up initially and can turn in a new version with minor effort. Others, though, have sought help from me to understand why they were not doing something correctly. When I see that light bulb turn on, it’s a grand moment.

Why give a test or grade a paper and then just move on? If a student hasn’t learned something, one can hope they would try to get better so they don’t keep making the same mistakes. Now I don’t encourage the idea of making the whole class wait until everyone gets something, but I know an area I need to work on is trying to get more students to look at redoing items to gain a better understanding. Again, not everyone will master every concept. But we need to keep kids from thinking that they’ll never get something and simply give up.

Even as adults, we can continue in this growth mindset. If you’ve never liked reading because you’ve claimed it’s too hard, step back and try out some young adult fiction. Work that brain, and you might discover something you can really enjoy, which will lead to a stronger muscle in your head. There’s no shame in taking a step back in order to leap ahead. This near-genius loves to do that, and it’s helped me grow. Am I at a genius level now? It doesn’t matter; all that truly matters is that I continue to grow.

Word of the Week: This week’s word is lethologica, which means the inability to recall the right word, as in, “Until she started exercising her brain more, she tended to encounter lethologica in her elder years.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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