Effort and Ability | Considering the space for cognitive training in education

My first job after college was teaching math and science at a small, project-based learning school in New York City. There, we typically began each academic year with a micro-unit on the brain. We wanted to provide our students with an understanding of how they would be developing their brains over the next 40ish weeks, before diving into the needs and musts of the K-5 Common Core Standards.

We read JoAnn Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain to instill in our Kindergartners the idea that each time they learn something new, their brains will grow and get stronger—just like their bodies do year by year.

“We’ve learned so much already! Just imagine how big our heads will be when we get to first grade!”

Using bristle bots, LEDs, and UV activated paint we worked with our first- and second graders to illustrate how neurons receive, process and transmit information. We included a healthy dose of sing-along to really bring home the message of neuroplasticity. 

For our oldest students, we dove into sensors and microcontrollers to model how the brain receives inputs through our senses, processes them in various cortices, and responds by generating an appropriate output—either a reflexive action or a controlled response. This to build an understanding of how we approach and interact with the world around us, while fostering a can-do attitude. Our brains are malleable, and by practicing new things we can get better at them. 

These projects were heavily grounded in Carol Dweck’s ideas of how our mental attitudes can shape the ways in which we grow and acquire new skills. In her book Mindset, Dweck posits the idea that, in general, people have two ways of thinking about ability. We either consider our abilities to be static and unmalleable (I am good at the things I am good at, but not the ones I don’t have a natural affinity for), or, we believe our abilities can be developed through effort and training (I might not be good at this, yet, but give me some time to practice). She dubs the first way of thinking a fixed mindset, and the second a growth mindset.

Using examples from business, sports and entertainment, Dweck highlights how many people we today think of as being the ultimate in their field (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Jordan, Lucille Ball, to name a few) quite often began as more or less average talents. But, by honing their skills through rigorous and dedicated practice they became experts. Embodying the growth mindset allowed them to learn from their mistakes, and improve over time.

(Consider Edison who, when prompted to share how it felt to have failed so many times in his attempts to create a lightbulb, responded: “I haven’t failed, I have simply found 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb”.)

Dweck also provides examples of the opposite: people with a fixed mindset for whom the inability to imagine potential for growth led to spectacular disasters (Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, for instance).

At our school, we wanted our students to absorb the growth mindset way of thinking; to not give up when faced with a challenge, but instead realize that a failure is simply a first step toward figuring something out (the fact that the word FAIL is an acronym for First Attempt In Learning is a favorite of mine). With consistent effort and practice, you can turn a can’t into a can. The effort part here is central, something Dweck takes care to emphasize: “praising the process children engage in—their hard work, strategies, focus, perseverance—can foster a growth mindset. In this way, children learn that the process they engage in brings about progress and learning, and that their learning does not just magically flow from some innate ability.” 

Dweck also makes sure to point out that progress comes from more than simply putting in effort. Equally as significant as continuing to try when things are difficult, is “understanding the importance of trying new strategies when the one [you’re] using isn’t working”. This involves both searching in your own toolbox for ideas and tactics you haven’t tried before, and reaching out for help and advice when necessary. 

But what happens when you’ve seemingly tried every single strategy available to you, and you're still not making progress? When practice, effort, support, advice, and adaptations aren’t enough? 

I have worked with many students for whom this rang true; students who are smart, capable, committed, putting in the effort, and who want to learn—but something just isn’t clicking. It all seems twice as hard as it should be. There’s the student who knows all of their individual letter sounds, but just cannot seem to make sense of how to blend them together to make out a word. There’s the student who knows their multiplication tables inside and out, but struggles to figure out how to break down a multi-step math problem into solvable parts. And, the student who raises their hand to participate in group discussions, but who can never seem to remember what they meant to say when they're called upon (if they try to write down their thoughts instead, they completely lose track of what is happening around them). 

The list goes on and on, but one thing stays the same—when cognitive demands increase, these students, try as they might, can’t keep up. 

These learning tasks that pose a challenge—reading comprehension, problem solving, focusing—are all heavily reliant on working memory: the brain’s ability to briefly hold on to small amounts of information, in order to perform a task. Research shows that working memory capacity—the relative strength, or size, of this cognitive function—is a good predictor of key learning outcomes.

Children with a strong working memory typically perform better in school (and beyond!) than children for whom working memory is poor.

The natural development of working memory in childhood was long thought to be purely dependent on genetic factors—what you get is what you get, and this determines the slope of your development. However, recent research finds that, while there certainly is a genetic factor, rather than determining a child’s final cognitive destination, it seems this factor instead signifies how responsive the child is to the development of their cognitive skills through challenge.

It is the nurturing of nature that yields the final outcome.

Instead of being permanently stuck on a lower working memory level than their peers, some students merely require more training to catch up. (In my current role as marketing director of Cogmed, I would be remiss not to mention the significant body of research evidence indicating that Cogmed is the most effective working memory training program available.)

This means that if we can identify the highest working memory-needs individuals early, and ensure they receive appropriate amounts of cognitive challenge to develop this skill, we could support a lot of seemingly low-performing children in going beyond what we might have previously considered them capable of. 

So why doesn’t every school implement working memory training for their struggling learners? A common apprehension for undertaking a program such as Cogmed is that it requires a lot of effort on the part of the participant; it is difficult to complete. In response I posit this: all learning is inherently challenging. As educators, we urge children to stretch beyond their current abilities and do things they previously could not do every single day. A program such as Cogmed is not any different from an intensive reading skills intervention: daily focused training in areas that pose a challenge. But instead of just working with our students on the targets outlined by the core standards (and instilling in them the importance of not giving up), perhaps we should also give them the cognitive fundamentals they need to soar.

I have stepped away from teaching (for now, at least), but as September draws near I find myself considering the potential of a new brain unit. In this project, my (hypothetical) students and I would couple a study of our brains with undertaking a 6-week Cogmed program. We would learn about the principles of neuroplasticity while simultaneously engaging in the process of training our working memory capacities to grow. We would, naturally, partner with a research laboratory outfitted with brain imaging equipment and measure our neural activity over time. Perhaps we’d even practice how to write a research paper. Maybe we could even get it published? In this hypothetical scenario, the sky’s the limit. Who knows what we’d actually be able to achieve, but I for one am certain we’d put in the effort. 

Katarina Holm Rannaleet

Marketing Director & Lifelong Learner

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