Thinking is hard.
That is to say: real, active thinking is hard. Solving a problem or investigating a complex issue is the kind of thinking that requires complete focus - the kind of thinking that makes your brain hurt the same way your muscles do in a strenuous physical task.
As parents and teachers, we look for opportunities to invite children into this kind of thinking, to engage in what some educators call “productive struggle.” We do this because we know that intelligence is malleable, that the strain and the effort of deep thinking quite literally strengthens our synapses and increases our capacity to think and learn.
What can we do to encourage children to do the kind of hard thinking that grows their intelligence? What does the research tell us about the conditions under which our brains are primed for deep learning?
Feed Her Body, Fuel Her Mind
The importance of healthy eating cannot be overstated. Research has consistently shown that there is a relationship between blood glucose and the self control we need to focus on a challenging task. A lunchtime meal of pasta and cookies will result in unsteady blood glucose levels that make it physiologically impossible to maintain the self-control and focus needed for learning; in fact, it’s unreasonable to expect an elementary school child to learn well under these circumstances. Meals filled with whole grains, nuts, and vegetables help to maintain steady blood sugar and fuel the mind more consistently over time.
Give Him Space
My 18-month-old son loves to help me empty the dishwasher. Occasionally, an item will get stuck in the rack - perhaps a whisk tangled up with an errant spoon - and he puzzles over how to extract it for what seems like an excruciatingly long time. Sometimes I have to quite literally hold on to the kitchen counter to prevent myself from stepping in and taking it out for him. I’ve already learned how to empty the dishwasher efficiently. I need to give my son the gift of space and time to conquer this puzzle.
As teachers and parents, we are there to scaffold this experiential learning when frustration looms. Until then, we need to give them the space to develop solutions to the problem at hand, whether that problem is unloading the dishwasher or solving a quadratic equation.
Praise her Process
Much has been written recently about the power of feedback in changing a child’s behavior. Effective praise describes what the child did well and emphasizes effort and accomplishment.
In math class, for example: You noticed that your first solution didn’t make sense, so you went back and worked out a better way to solve the problem! Great work!
Or in reading workshop: You read independently for 20 minutes today. You must have been very engaged in the story!
Or at home: You offered the last cookie to your sister. How thoughtful!
Words like these draw a student’s attention to a moment of effort that resulted in growth. They remind children that they can quite literally increase their abilities and intelligence through the hard work of thinking. They reconfirm the intrinsic rewards of mental effort.
Thinking is hard… and it’s worth the effort.