Limitless Mind

Boaler, Jo.(2019).  Limitless Mind. New York: HarperCollins

This book dispels myths about learning that many people still hold to be true. Boaler synthesizes research from Dweck on Mindset, Duckworth on Grit, Ericsson on deliberate practice, and Grant on creative thinking among others.

No longer can we believe there is fixed intelligence from birth.  Neuroplasticity means we all can learn at any age and expand our neural networks no matter what we are born with. Boaler works mainly in the area of math and the lessons are applicable to all disciplines.

Here are the six keys of learning included in Boaler’s work:

LEARNING KEY #1 – Every time we learn, our brains form, strengthen, or connect neural pathways. We need to replace the idea that learning ability is fixed, with the recognition that we are all on a growth journey.

I, for one, am happy to hear this.  As I get older it means I can continually learn more.  K. Anders Ericsson has done research on ‘deliberate practice’ which is a major cause of getting closer to an expert level in a chosen field.

Even when a young girl had one hemisphere removed, the remaining hemisphere started to accommodate and take on functions of the brain that were lost.

We are not born with these pathways; they develop as we learn— and the more we struggle, the better the learning and brain growth.

LEARNING KEY #2 – The times when we are struggling and making mistakes are the best times for brain growth. Struggling to learn grows more connections.

   has research that can accelerate our learning strategies.

In the U.S. and UK we do a lot of tracking in our schools.  Unfortunately, 88% of those who are put in tracks early in elementary school are still in the same tracks throughout their K-12 education.

San Francisco Unified is a large and diverse urban school district whose school board voted, unanimously, to remove advanced classes until eleventh grade. Within two years, during which all students took the same mathematics classes until tenth grade, algebra failure rates fell from 40 to 8 percent of students in the district and the number of students taking advanced classes after tenth grade went up by one-third.

Another important quote is from J.K. Rowling. Failure is not fatal and can be a learning opportunity. Rowling sent her Harry Potter manuscript to twelve different publishers, all of whom rejected it. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

We have to get over the fixed brain myth that limits the students and those who teach kids.  The fixed-brain myths have been devastating for students of all ages who have been written off in schools, classrooms, and homes, millions of children who have been made to believe they cannot achieve.

            When we are willing to face obstacles and make mistakes in the learning process, we enhance neural connections that expedite and improve the learning experience.  Thirty years ago I heard the HR director of a suburban school say he believed in IWWCW.  Puzzled, I waited for him to explain.  He said that stood for “In What Way Can We.”  That stuck with me. Look for ways to accomplish our goals.

Curricula and textbooks are designed with trivial, unchallenging questions, so that students will get a high percentage of answers correct.

            For students to experience growth, they need to be working on questions that challenge them, questions that are at the edge of their understanding. And they need to be working on them in an environment that encourages mistakes and makes students aware of the benefits of mistakes.

            Nonevaluative self-testing or peer testing is most beneficial. When the pressure of testing increases it has a negative effect on many students.  Stress reduces our thinking ability.

Japanese teachers want the students to struggle—and recalls the times when they would purposely give the wrong answer so that students would go back and work with foundational concepts.

            The defining characteristic of the lesson in China was struggle—the teacher deliberately put the students in situations where they became stuck and had to think hard.

LEARNING KEY #3 – When we change our beliefs, our bodies and our brains physically change as well.

There is more and more conflict in our world and in the field of education. I found the following passages encouraging.

David Yeager and Carol Dweck have conducted important research on mindsets and conflict. They found that people with fixed mindsets (individuals who believe that their abilities and qualities are static and can’t be changed) have a heightened drive for aggressive retaliation during conflicts.

            The researchers found that people with a growth mindset respond to conflict with less hatred, less shame, and less desire to be aggressive growth mindsets are less prejudiced about race.

            So, if you want to be successful in dealing with conflict, it is all right to struggle.  Just keep expanding your repertoire for effectively managing conflict.

Bill’s self-promotion:  I am currently working on a book for Solution Tree on ways to productively respond to resistance.

The “Power of Yet.”  When a person is trying to learn something, add the word YET.  I am not good at drawing, YET.  I haven’t learned to factor binomials, YET.  This signals the situational is conditional and learning is still possible.

LEARNING KEY #4 – Neural pathways and learning are optimized when considering ideas with a multidimensional approach.

Sometimes we signal that learning is function of time or the student has not put in enough effort.  Be careful of that.  One of the things that Carol says keeps her up at night is when students are told to put in effort and that success is all about hard work, without their being given the tools by teachers to learn more effectively. “Effort is key for students’ achievement, but it is not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they are stuck.”

Although we are not born with identical brains, there is no such thing as a “math brain,” “writing brain,” “artistic brain,” or “musical brain.” We all have to develop the brain pathways needed for success, and we all have the potential to learn and achieve at the highest levels.

Learning new knowledge requires different pathways in the brain—pathways that focus on attention, memory, reasoning, communication, and visualization.

Many people believe that Albert Einstein was a genius.  Me included.  However, the following are some of his quotes.  Nice to know humility was present.

  • It’s not that I am smart. It is just that I stay with problems longer.
  • I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
  • In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

Ways to Encourage Brain Communication and Development

  • Can you solve the question with numbers?
  • Can you solve the question with visuals that connect to the numbers through color coding?
  • Can you create another representation of the ideas? A sketch, doodle, physical object, or form of movement?

Every Wednesday, teacher named Marc, presents his “favorite no”—a mathematical problem with mistakes that the students have to work to find the right answer. When he moved to the multidimensional, mindset approach, the success rate went up to 70 percent from 6.

LEARNING KEY #5 – Speed of thinking is not a measure of aptitude. Learning is optimized when we approach ideas, and life, with creativity and flexibility.

Neuroscientist Sian Beilock has studied the brain when people are working under pressure. A particular area of the brain called the “working memory” is needed when we do calculations. The working memory is sometimes referred to as the “search engine of the mind” and, like all areas of our brains, is developed through practice. What Beilock has shown is that when we are stressed or under pressure, our working memory is impeded.

Another point is learning in schools is not a race.  Learning is not time certain; it is learning certain.  Some of the strongest mathematical thinkers are very slow with numbers and other aspects of mathematics. They do not think quickly; they think slowly and deeply.

New information for me was how parents can affect math anxiety. Sian Beilock’s research has revealed interesting associations that tell us just how damaging such messages are. In one study, she and colleagues found that the amount of math anxiety expressed by parents predicted their child’s achievement in school. And their math anxiety impacted students negatively only if parents helped with homework.

There is some advantages to having some things memorized.  If that is what education and learning is about, we may be in trouble.  In every country the students taking a memorization approach were the lowest achievers, and countries that had high numbers of memorizers—the US was one of these—were among the lowest achieving in the world.

Adam Grant notes that the students in the US often regarded as “prodigies”—the ones who “learn to read at age two, play Bach at four, breeze through calculus at six”—rarely go on to change the world.

            LEARNING KEY #6 – Connecting with people and ideas enhances neural pathways and learning.

Connections and collaborations have a tremendous amount to offer the process of learning and living. Vygotsky said years ago that learning is social. Learning with and from more people widens our information and perspectives.

When trying to figure out why African-American students had such a gap in mathematics Uri Treisman, a mathematician at the University of Texas at Austin, found, through studying the students at work, was that there was one difference—the African American students worked on math problems by themselves, whereas the Chinese American students worked collaboratively.

Uri and his team set up workshops for the more vulnerable students, including students of color. The academic improvement that resulted from the workshops was significant. Within two years, the failure rate of African American students had dropped to zero, and the African American and Latino students who attended the workshops were outperforming their white and Asian classmates.

            This sounds promising for us to rethink how we teach and learn math. I have found in my years of observing teachers, those who talk openly about their challenges in learning and solving problems, students feel more connected and know that teachers are human too.

Learning from others who don’t think like you can be very rewarding.  This quote might be a little out there but fits for creativity for sure. Phineas T. Barnum: “Whoever made a difference by being like everyone else?”

Asking students has always proven to provide insights into problem solving for

  1. So. when an interviewer asked students, “What do you guys think it takes to be successful in math?” here is what they said.
  • Being able to work with other people.
  • Be open-minded, listening to everybody’s ideas.
  • You have to hear other people’s opinions, because you might be wrong.

These students were taught that part of being a community, such as a class of learners, involves looking out for each other. Valuing both growth and difference is a powerful way of opening minds.

            So my final advice for you is to embrace struggle and failure, to take risks, and to not let people obstruct your pathways. If a barrier or roadblock is put in your way, find a way around it, take a different approach.

As always, there is much more in this book than I have represented here.  I highly recommend this book for a positive approach to learning and adapting the thoughts in our schools.