Dr Svetlana Belić Malinić is an international thought leader who has been inspiring teachers to experiment with new teaching approaches for more than 20 years. She gained her MA in Educational and Social Research at the UCL Institute of Education, whereas she merged her knowledge and experience into a PhD in International Education at the University of Leicester, UK. Dr Belic is also a Programme Leader for Cambridge International Professional Development Qualifications and a member of the Cambridge Assessment Specialists Team. With a digital growth mindset and creativity, Dr Belic has shaped educational trends in the region, pioneered school concepts and ideated innovation at many levels.
People learn in various ways, using their head, hand and heart. In psychology, they are called three domains of learning: cognitive, psychomotor and affective. A lot of theories explore learning, thinking, memory and similar phenomena related to the brain processes. Bloom’s Taxonomy explains the development of intellectual skills. This includes the recall or recognition of specific facts, procedural patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of intellectual abilities and skills.
The cognitive domain (Bloom, 1956) enables learning in six levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. However, the “Bloom” that is less explored taps into the other two domains, psychomotor and affective.
The psychomotor Bloom tells us that we can use skills from imitating to naturalising to learn. It includes physical movement, coordination and use of the motor-skill areas, which requires practice and is measured in terms of speed, precision, distance, procedures or techniques.
The affective Bloom, on the other hand, explains ways to grow socially and emotionally, from receiving phenomena to internalising values (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Three domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy (adapted from European handbook on defining, writing, and applying learning outcomes for IVET qualifications)
Growth Mindset: Flow Swimmingly
For too long, it was believed that teaching was only about imparting knowledge. But, now we know that students’ mindsets play a critical role in whether they learn well or not. If we inspire them to care about learning, enjoy and value effort, we help them grow a positive attitude towards acquiring new knowledge. In other words, when students adopt this mindset, their motivation to learn is enhanced and they feed on the learning success.
Dr Carol Dweck is a world-leading expert and researcher in the field of motivation and a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. In her book, she explored why people succeed and how to foster success.
“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value”, she says.
There are two types of mindsets, she holds, fixed mindset and growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset believe that…
- Abilities can be improved by practice
- Failure is a chance to learn
- Critical feedback is a chance to improve
- Tasks are easy to solve
- Obstacles are a chance to experiment
- Focus is on a journey of continual improvement
- Creative risks are a way to innovate and improve
To foster a growth mindset, we have to think of how to balance the challenge and skill levels of a task. When we strike the right balance, the students are “in the state of flow”. They like what they do and they do it enthusiastically. They are happy, and happy students learn best. However, if a challenge level is set high and students struggle with their skills, then we create learning anxiety, which is obviously not good. On the other hand, if there is little challenge and students are quite skilled, they get bored.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a creator of the Flow Theory and a father of positive psychology, a flow state, also known as “being in the zone”, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of an energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.
Activities that lead to the state of flow are called autotelic (auto=self, telos=goal) because they are enjoyable and they are not the means to an end — the process of being engaged is the end itself.
An autotelic student:
- is interested in achieving the goal, a sense of control and involvement in the task;
- has the necessary support to achieve it, including receiving feedback;
- feels confident that their skills can meet the challenge.
The state of flow obviously empowers students to assess the task given, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses when approaching it and plan accordingly. While discovering alternatives to their learning strategies, they apply various solutions and reflect along the way. This process is called a metacognition cycle. It is a powerful pedagogical tool which may affect students’ intrinsic motivation and a sense of accomplishment.
When students have a growth mindset, they are more likely to believe that their intellectual abilities can keep on developing. They enjoy the challenge of a task and see failure as a new learning opportunity. Unlike students with a fixed mindset, who tend to avoid any effort, the students with a growth mindset see a true value in effort and time to solve a task. Motivation is their driving force and motivation happens in the brain. It is controlled by brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
The Role of Neurotransmitters in Learning
A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries, boosts and balances signals between neurons and target cells throughout the body. These target cells may be in glands, muscles or other neurons.
Billions of neurotransmitter molecules work constantly to keep our brains functioning, managing everything from our breathing to our heartbeat to our learning and concentration levels. They can also affect a variety of psychological functions such as fear, mood, pleasure and joy.
Four of them are particularly important for learning: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphin. D.O.S.E. is a daily dose of happy brain chemicals.
- Dopamine is a “reward hormone”. It enables motivation, learning and pleasure. The effects of dopamine are fleeting due to its instant gratification feeling, which leaves you desiring more. The overstimulation of dopamine can become a real problem because of its addictive nature.
- Oxytocin is a “love hormone”. It enables bonding and care. Unlike dopamine, oxytocin gives you a lasting feeling of calm and safety. It can help fight stress, improve relationships, and promote long-lasting positive emotions.
- Serotonin is a “happiness hormone”. It makes you feel good about yourself. It results from finding opportunities to assert or prevail while creating a sense of belonging and appreciation.
- Endorphin is a “euphoric hormone”. It alleviates pain, stress and depression. The release of endorphins acts as a natural pain killer and diminishes your perceptions of pain.
Navigate the Strategies to Enhance the Growth Mindset
When inspiring students to embrace the growth mindset, try using these guidelines:
- Create tasks which are intrinsically rewarding. When your students face a challenge but have the capacity to solve it, their brain will release dopamine, which, in turn, will increase their motivation and love for learning.
- Foster teamwork but choose the members wisely. When students trust each other, they create healthy relationships which stimulate the release of oxytocin. Through peer learning and collaboration, students will easily acquire new knowledge with zest.
- Make your students happy by giving them control of their own learning. Such agency will drive their interest and inspire them to investigate and explore various concepts. Learning will become an enjoyable experience, serotonin will rise and they will dive for more.
- Inspire creativity in your classroom. Invite students to use their imagination to produce the evidence of their learning and turn it into a formative assessment. Ask them to reflect on their accomplishments and allow their endorphins to create positive reactions.
- Finally, to weave the collective impact story, try to put all these activities together. Give them various perspectives and illuminate paths to learning success. Balance a skill level and challenge level to create flow and scaffold your students in all three domains of learning: cognitive, psychomotor and affective.
A growth mindset is key for life-long learning. In the interplay between the level of task challenge and the students’ level of knowledge, teachers have to strike the right balance and guide the students towards the state of “flow”. When students are inspired to love what they are learning, their brains discharge a D.O.S.E. of neurotransmitters (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins), which enhances memory lanes, embeds lasting knowledge and stimulates the growth mindset. This is when the magic happens: it creates intrinsic motivation and fosters a culture of learning.