Redesign your brain

There was once a school of thought that believed intelligence is fixed and unchangeable. That the IQ you are born with is the IQ you get. Not much you can do about it, full stop. However, there were certain inconsistencies with this theory. For instance, we observed stroke victims developing new ways of compensating for the damaged parts of their brain. We recognised that children with autism made incredible progress after early intensive intervention. On the other hand, we also noticed that people with depression could lose functioning, memory, and even IQ points. Scientists now understand that the brain is changeable. Each time your brain is exposed to new information or experience, it adjusts to accommodate it: changing neurons, vascular cells and glial cells and pruning synapses (forgetting!) by deleting connections the brain no longer finds necessary or useful. We call this ‘neuroplasticity’. If the term reminds you of plasticine, you’d be right on the money. Imagine the brain shape-shifting and stretching, increasing in intelligence under the right conditions as a response to new challenges.   


One of the best Australian documentaries demonstrating brain plasticity is Todd Sampson’s Redesign My Brain. Using intensive training regimes, he overcomes his own debilitating fears, masters new abilities, and develops faster, more complex processing and greater creativity. Education redesigns brains too.  With each year of additional schooling, a student’s intelligence test scores increase by around two IQ points*. Since the introduction of compulsory education in western society, our average IQ has grown by three points per decade!  


 Believe it or not, our beliefs about intelligence play a crucial role in our learning. If deep down we believe that the intelligence we are born with cannot change, that mindset will crop up in attitudes like these:

I’m not at all academic

People like me just don’t belong at school

I’m not a ‘maths’ person

I’m going to give up in case this proves I’m not as smart as everyone thinks I am

Students with this ‘fixed’ mindset can easily fall behind or fail at school regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of teaching going on in the classroom. A ‘growth’ mindset is much more fluid. It recognises the process involved in learning, the importance of training, and that failing at something is not a permanent condition. Like athletic ability, student’s brains develop with effort (exercise), challenge, good teaching and persistence. Eric Cooper, founder and president of a U.S. organisation looking at effective education, says: “As it turns out, we are not ‘set in stone’ at birth — not by genetics, not by the luck-of-the-draw of our ZIP [post] code.”


 This means that effort, not IQ, is the single biggest factor that a student can contribute to their own learning. Education requires ‘grit’, passion and perseverance, optimism and self-control. When a child invests the necessary effort over time, they become smarter. When teachers focus on the effort and persistence that a student contributes to their learning and engages them in this journey, we can really see things happen! Practice, just like exercise, isn’t what you do once you’re good, it’s what you do to make you good. The key to better learning? Never giving up! It’s more than just a platitude.


CHILDREN & PARENTS: Learn with your child about how brains work: ClassDojo, presented in chapters (Chapter 5 due on February 14, 2016).

PARENTS: Psychologist and education researcher Angela Duckworth talks about ‘grit’ and fostering a growth mentality in her inspiring TED Talk.

* Some people believe that this could also be partly attributable to getting better at taking tests.   

AUTHOR: Debbie Cosier is an education blogger, teacher and parent. She has worked at BAC in the past and maintains strong relationships with the school. (