Thursday, December 17, 2015

Positive Brains Are Smarter Brains

Editor's Note: This blog post, written by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, originally appeared on Edutopia.

Explicit instruction to guide students toward taking charge of their outlook on academic endeavors can lead to a more positive—and ultimately more productive—approach to learning. Applying metacognition to both the emotional and cognitive aspects of learning can help students steer their minds to make steady gains in developing their knowledge and skills.

In a previous post, we explored the gains that are possible when students adopt an attitude of practical optimism as they learn. These advantages persist into adulthood, as business research shows that people with a positive outlook are more productive, motivated, and likely to achieve their goals on the job. And optimistic people enjoy better personal and professional relationships and even better physical health than people who tend toward pessimism.

Influences on Learning Outlooks

A common assumption is that the tendency toward optimism or pessimism is predetermined by genetics. Indeed, research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues indicates that roughly half of people's "baseline level of well-being," the propensity toward cheerfulness or negativity, owes to DNA. However, students can learn to exert control over other significant influences on their emotional outlook and, in doing so, sharpen their focus on positive outcomes. Explain to them that each of us can increase our positive feelings and well-being by taking charge of these three influences:


To a significant extent, we are who we perceive ourselves to be. By consciously seeking to maintain a positive orientation, we can apply a more optimistic frame as we reflect on our learning experiences and abilities to achieve our goals.


Of course, we do not succeed simply by believing that we will. An optimistic outlook must be supported by positive action and persistent effort. Learning can be hard work, but those who keep trying, monitoring their learning to make adjustments when necessary, will make steady gains that create a positive feedback loop to encourage continued progress.

Brain Chemistry

The brain produces chemicals called neurotransmitters in response to both internal functions and external stimuli that affect how we feel. Chemicals that have been associated with positive moods include dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. One way to enhance production of these neurotransmitters is through physical activity. Thus, scheduling challenging subjects immediately following phys ed class and recess can help students channel their positive brain chemistry toward learning. This body-brain power connection also offers a helpful metacognition strategy for students. Remind them that when they get hung up on a problem while doing their homework or independent study, they might try going for a run or taking an exercise break, and then return to the problem with their brain recharged.

The CIA Model for a Positive Approach to Learning

To make the most of their power to steer their brains toward positive learning outcomes, it may be helpful to introduce students to what we call the CIA model, which stands for control, influence, and acknowledge.


By being conscious of our thoughts and actions—that is, being metacognitive about what we are thinking and doing—we take change of steering them in a positive and productive direction. For example, when students feel their thoughts drifting toward negativity or distractions, they can assume control to stay focused on achieving their learning goals.


At this stage of the CIA model, we should consciously consider the many influences that may steer us in both positive and counterproductive directions. We should choose to focus on those influences that can enhance our optimistic outlook and sustain our belief in our ability to succeed through hard work and persistent effort. Some students may harbor unacknowledged assumptions that they aren't as smart as their peers or that they lack the ability to improve in certain subjects. Have you ever heard a student say, "I'm just bad at math," or "I'm not a good reader"? As a gentle rejoinder to these negative self-assessments, remind students that they can become good, even great, problem solvers and readers if they keep practicing, aim for steady progress, and believe that they can succeed.


Finally, it is useful to recognize the areas where we have limited control. As noted previously, about half of our baseline outlook toward optimism or pessimism is determined by genetic predisposition. In addition, we have little control over negative situations and people who prefer to focus on the downside. But we can direct our attention on the aspects of our outlook that are within our control, and we can move past setbacks and negativity.

The message for students is that they should strive to minimize time and energy expended on situations and factors where they have limited control and influence. If a student in their learning group goes off task, for example, they can't control that student's actions, but they can focus their own attention on learning. By reinforcing that students can take charge of their outlook on learning and life, and by guiding them to develop metacognitive tools to do so, we empower self-directed learners to pursue a positive path.


Conyers, M. A., & Wilson, D. L. (2015). Positively smarter: Science and strategies to increase happiness, achievement, and well-being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin.


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