A couple of days ago I wrote a post titled Do You Require “Reading Logs” For Homework?

It shared a link to another blog’s post where a mother spoke very strongly against that kind of homework, and I shared the very simple “logs” I have my students complete and my reasoning behind them.  I invited readers to share if and how they used them.

I received many excellent responses, which you can read in the comments section of that post.  I was especially struck by something that Teresa Ilgunas wrote:

“We will have discussions over the year about being honest with your log …. and also we talk about how much their intelligence increases if they actually do read 30 min. a day…”

That reminded me about Carol Dweck’s work on the brain being a muscle that can grow with exercise, and how I did a very short, but seemingly engaging, lesson with my students a couple of years ago about that concept.

Then, earlier today, I read a post by Lisa Thumann where she shared, among other resources, this short piece titled Why Can’t I Skip My Twenty Minutes of Reading Tonight?
So, after reflecting on those ideas,  I’ve concluded that though I feel good about the simple reading log practice I’m using, it’s not quite enough. Going the extra mile, which I think I do, to help students find just the right book for them; hoping they will indeed develop a desire to read it and others; and adding some accountability with a parent signature, is good, but not good enough. The many reluctant readers in my mainstream ninth-grade English class need, I think, to see an even clearer “self-interest” in making the time to read, especially those for whom the act of just basic decoding can be a chore.

And there’s no better time to help them identify that self-interest than at the beginning of the school year before some bad habits get “fossilized.”

So I decided to get to work and figure out some lessons that I can do this week to help students learn about — and “own”– the idea that the brain is indeed a muscle that can grow and get stronger by exercising. It is not fixed. And that exercise can include reading (as well as other academic “stretches.”

After searching the Web for potential lessons related to Carol Dweck’s research, and then searching my own brain (which was working less and less efficiently as the night grew later), I think I came up with an okay plan for my mainstream ninth-grade English class that I hope readers here will make better.

First, though, I think some background on Dweck’s research might be helpful.  I should be clear that though a key part of her work has been the importance of praising the effort and not the intelligence of children, I’m not really going to get into that here — though it’s obviously connected to the topic of this post.  You can read more about that aspect in a post I wrote earlier this year.

This particular post is going to be focused on how students themselves can learn the explicit knowledge that by working harder academically, they can make their brains grow stronger. A number of people in addition to Dweck have been writing about this topic in similar terms (including Malcolm Gladwell), but I’ve found Dweck’s perspectives to be most directly applicable to the classroom situation.


Here are some excerpts from an Education World interview with her (it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing):

“Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge.

We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated — through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they seem naturally to become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles.”

And here’s an excerpt from an article about her work titled How Not To Talk With Your Kids:

“Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school [in East Harlem] with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell [Dweck’s “protegee”] split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. “Even as I was teaching these ideas,” Blackwell noted, “I would hear the students joking, calling one another ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid.’ ” After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.

It didn’t take long. The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”

The last excerpt I’d like to share is from an article she wrote titled Brainology: Transforming Students’ Motivation To Learn. In these paragraphs, she compares how students who believed intelligence can be grown with effort did compared to those who believed it was innate:

“Those with growth mindsets reported that, after a setback in school, they would simply study more or study differently the next time. But those with fixed mindsets were more likely to say that they would feel dumb, study less the next time, and seriously consider cheating. If you feel dumb — permanently dumb — in an academic area, there is no good way to bounce back and be successful in the future. In a growth mindset, however, you can make a plan of positive action that can remedy a deficiency.”

Dweck has started a website called Brainology which offers an online interactive series of activities for students to learn these concepts. Though she offers quite a few resources for free, the cost for the online program is $20 per student.

Since purchasing the program isn’t economically feasible for me, I developed an alternative and very strategy which I suspect will not be as effective as using the online system, but which will, I hope, be somewhat helpful.  I’d also be very interested in hearing feedback from readers –including critique and suggestions on how to make it better.


My plan is simple.  I’m thinking of starting off with something like this:

“Some people say you’re born with a certain amount of intelligence – you’re either smart, average, or below-average — and that’s just the way it is and always will be.  Others say we’re all pretty much born with the same amount, and that people who work harder at learning just become more intelligent.  Take a minute and think about those two perspectives.  Write down which one you think is right and why.”

I’ll then have people share in partners and, while that’s going on, identify a few people to be prepared to share what they wrote to the whole class after the partner-sharing is complete.  I won’t given an “answer” to the question.

Then I’ll distribute this You Can Grow Your Intelligence hand-out that’s free from the Brainology site. It’s four pretty simple pages. Students will read the first page on their own, highlight what they think are the twelve most important words that convey the main idea, and write a one sentence summary on the page. They’ll then share what they wrote with a partner. I’ll ask some to share with the entire class.

Next, they’ll take turns reading the second page aloud to their partner, again highlight no more than twelve words, and write a summary. I’m also going to have them write down a question. Again, I’ll ask one or two to share with the class.

Students will change partners again, and then do the same thing with page three as they did with page two. In addition, they’ll demonstrate the reading skill of visualizing and draw what they are seeing in their mind when they read the page. They will also write a sentence describing their drawing. I’ll ask one or two to share with the class, and bring their drawing up to the document camera.

With the same partner this time, they read the last page, repeat the same highlighting and summarizing steps, and then demonstrate the “evaluating” reading strategy by writing if they agree or disagree with what the article says and why. Again, one or two will share with the class.

I’ll ask students to take a minute to think about if and how this article might relate to them, share it with a partner, and a few with the class.

Next, I’ll show a short video titled Neurons and How They Work (here’s a link to it hosted on another site in case that on is blocked). It’s a short video that shows how neurons (the article the students will have just read talks about how learning strengthens and multiplies neurons) work.

Then I’ll share the Why Can’t I Skip My Twenty Minutes of Reading Tonight? piece (explaining that the concept is the same even if the specifics are not).

I’ll ask for a show of hands then to see how many feel that intelligence is innate or can be grown, and then ask them to write anonymously if they think they’ll do anything differently after having learned this information.

Depending on how it’s going, I may do it all in one day or split it into two.

I’m also considering somehow using this diagram, which shows what Dweck describes as a “fixed” mindset as opposed to a “growth” mindset.

What do you think?  Am I on the right track?  How can I make it better?

You can read how this lesson actually went in “Now I Know My Brain Is Growing When I Read Every Night”

(Alice Mercer has posted an excellent post describing a lesson she’s done with a similar purpose. I highly recommend that you take a look at Is your brain grass or a glass?)

(Also, A new study came-out that provides further evidence that reading and learning grows brain white matter.)