Train the Brain

This week spells the start of Spring break for schools in Stockholm. The week-long hiatus from school is called ‘sportlov’ in Swedish which translates as ‘sports break’. Traditionally this is a time for families to retreat to the mountains for a week of high exertion on the ski slopes. However, the long winter has had its toll on many who opt instead for warmer climes and a week of R&R on a beach. Indeed, one of my students quipped that the closest they would come to sport this week would be doing a Netflix marathon.

As we are encouraged to turn our attentions to the benefits of physical activity, we should maybe take some time to reflect on mental exercise too.

– a healthy mind in a healthy body


We know our bodies get stronger through regular exercise. We know we can build muscle by progressively lifting heavier weights in the gym. The same is true of our brains.

Hard work

Torkel Klingberg, Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute talks of ‘brain plasticity’. People are not born with highly developed skills in mathematics, they need to work at it. The brain, like our muscles, he says, is affected by effort. If we want to improve brain power, we need to do some heavy lifting. This means we need to do difficult things, to be prepared to take risks and to be prepared to fail sometimes.

Staying power

This realisation that knowledge and ability are not innate but rather the result of hard work is not in itself enough to improve learning. Resilience, a dogged determination to succeed is necessary too. Learners must adopt a never-give-up attitude, something Angela Duckworth refers to as ‘grit’.

… learning cannot be fun all of the time.

So how do we instil our students with this attitude? Indeed, how do we foster this in ourselves to help us succeed in going to the gym on those dark winter days?

The answer, we might presume, would appear to lie in motivation. Surely it would follow that those who are more motivated will perform/learn better. Not so, according to Klingberg who cites David Yeager and Angela Duckworth‘s paper Boring But Important in noting that learning cannot be fun all of the time. Students who appear to be more motivated don’t necessarily perform best. It all comes back to having grit.


In terms of increasing the impact we have in developing grit in our students, it is more important to improve the quality of feedback than on making lessons fun. Carol Dweck, who has researched the subject of attitude (growth mindset) notes that feedback plays a vital role in students’ willingness to persevere. Dweck impresses that feedback should be nuanced: both positive and negative. It should not simply affirm what students are currently doing well, but highlight areas for improvement: it should point the way forward. The feedback should praise the effort not the performance. Just as lessons cannot always be fun, feedback should not be sugar coated, it should set demands and ask something of the student.

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