Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Metacognitive Thinking Skills for Life and Learning Part One: Optimism

This is the first in a series of thinking skills for life and learning. Those of you who follow my blog know the dramatic successes I have had in my class since implementing these BrainSMART strategies. My goal is to provide the reasoning, and practical implementation ideas for each strategy so that you can apply them in your classroom or individual teaching situation.
Is the glass half empty or half full?I consider optimism to be the most important tool. If you only take one tool from this series…let it be optimism. Optimism (aka positivity) opens the mind to be more creative and find solutions that are not readily apparent (Frederickson, 2009). This effect was clearly demonstrated in a powerful study by Seligman, which is discussed in BrainSMART’s 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Seligman found that when fourth graders were presented with a challenging task, “two distinct groups emerged. One group appeared to be optimistic in the face of the challenge. That is, they asked questions and stayed with the task until it was completed.” In contrast, the pessimistic group “gave up easily when the task became difficult. It was as if they did not think they could solve the problems, so they did not continue to try. Their cognitive ability dropped to that of first graders” (emphasis mine) (2011a, p. 32, 33). That is mindboggling. Clearly, these students were under the misconception that intelligence is fixed. The creative and problem solving centers of their brains shut down. They didn’t try because they didn’t believe they could succeed. Therefore, it is imperative to teach all students that the brain is changeable. The plasticity of the brain is a life-changing concept for pessimistic students. This is where explicit teaching of strategies to rewire the brain for optimism comes in.
Getting Started
Once students understand that their brains are changeable, and that you are going to teach them strategies to rewire their brains for thinking and learning, introduce practical optimism. In the book Thinking for Results, Wilson and Conyers define practical optimism as, “An approach to life that focuses on taking practical positive action to increase the probability of successful outcomes” (2011b, p. 148). Share the studies mentioned above to drive home the importance of optimism. If you have a story to share of a time optimism helped you or someone you know, share it. Ask students for examples of times optimism or pessimism has impacted them. Use discussion and questioning strategies to draw out the following: 1. Optimistic people view success or failure as a result of the effort they put in, and 2. Pessimistic people view success or failure as a result of ability. Since students now understand that their brains are changeable, their ability is changeable…success is based on effort! Once students understand optimism, you can discuss strategies to rewire their brains for optimism.
            On one of the BrainSMART class DVDs, Marcus Conyers lays out three essential strategies for an optimistic mindset: Deal with it, TNT, and Delete.
By ‘deal with it’ he is saying to take care of the problem, issue, or assignment right away. He draws a comparison between problems and anacondas by saying; problems are like anacondas, if you don’t deal with them when they’re little, they’ll grow and strangle you! Students sometimes put off assignments because they are afraid of failure, and then by the time they start working it is too late to do a good job which then results in a poor grade. They’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy! Alternatively, a student who understands their grade is a result of their effort (optimism) rather than their ability (pessimism) will deal with the assignment right away. The optimistic student will see greater success because of the increased effort.
TNT stands for The Next Time. When things don’t work out well, an optimistic person will think about what they will do differently the next time. After all, success is based on effort!  Let’s go back to the student who didn’t start the assignment right away. At this point he or she would not reflect on what caused the bad grade, because a pessimist believes success is based on ability. The optimist however will look at his or her grade and determine what could be done better the next time, how the effort could be refocused or adjusted, and then follow through. An optimist grows and learns from mistakes by thinking about TNT.
Finally, we want to delete the negative. Humans have about 4,000 thoughts pass through the mind every day. According to Fredrickson in her book Positivity, our positive to negative ratio should be about 3:1 (2009). So how do we change our thought patterns? Conyers says to put the negative thoughts on the RADAR. First, Recognize a negative thought when it occurs. That is being metacognitive. Next, Assess the thought for accuracy. (Will I really NEVER be able to finish this assignment, or do I need to be more optimistic?) Then Dispute the negative thought. Why is the thought inaccurate? (I can finish the assignment by being more optimistic because optimism broadens the mind allowing for creativity and problem solving). Then find Alternatives. What is another way you could approach the problem or assignment? And finally, Rehearse. Practice or visualize the alternative.
            Another wonderful strategy is to prime the brain at the beginning and end of each day. Last year my students kept an optimism journal. Every morning they would record something good that happened the day before, and something good they expected to happen today. It was difficult at first, but as their minds were rewired towards optimism, the task became easier. Conyers points out that the brain is most open just before sleep. Therefore it is a great time for parents to participate by asking their child about positive experiences from the day, and positive expectations for the next day. Involving parents also makes them more metacognitive about their own optimism.
One More Step
            Once optimism has been introduced and discussed in class, refer back to it regularly. For example, when I see a student trying hard on an assignment I’ll comment to the class about the great example of optimism. Or when a student makes a positive comment, I’ll remark on his optimistic attitude. I also tie optimism into being supportive and respectful of each other, because optimistic people want other people to do well also.
The most important thing of all is to model optimism. Sometimes you will be the only example in a student’s life of an optimistic attitude. Therefore, you must use optimism, and talk optimism. Your optimistic attitude will make your class a better place, which will result in increased student success.  Let's keep our students cognitive abilities strong with optimism.

Conyers, M., Wilson, D. (2011a). BrainSMART 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning (4 ed.). Orlando: BrainSMART.

Conyers, M., Wilson, D. (2011b). Thinking for Results: Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by as Much as 30 Percent. Orlando: BrainSMART.
Fredrickson, B. L., (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life . New York: Three Rivers Press.


  1. Love, Love, LOVE this post! I was so happy to see Seligman and the concept of Priming. Did you know that there is a distinct difference in test scores between black students who are asked to identify their race prior to taking a test versus those who don't? Great example of priming in the negative.

  2. Thank you Jeff. No, I didn't know about the study you mentioned. Wow, that is quite powerful isn't it? Thank you so much for sharing it.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing. You have done a amazing job. Your content is truly appropriate to my research at this time, and I am really satisfied I found your web page. However, I would like to see more information about this subject. I'm going to keep returning here.

  4. Have you read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck? I think you might really enjoy the book which is along the same concept of positiviy and optimism. Check out:

  5. I am a student at The University of South Alabama taking EDM 310. We are required to follow other educational bloggers and leave comments on their recent post. I really enjoyed your post on optimism. I plan to be a Science teacher and I will need to encourage optimism because a lot of students already have the fear of failure in the Science classroom. Thank you for you post.

  6. Diane,

    I agree full heartedly with the idea of Optimism. I use to have a very pessimistic view on assignments. I always thought about how it was going to take a long time to finish. Also about if I didn’t do well that it was going to affect my grade drastically. This in turn made procrastination one of my main issues. There are many strategies as you have stated to make optimism a part of the classroom. All of these strategies will be modeled to the students and they in turn will be optimistic towards their classmates. Pessimism can make life a lot harder on students because they do not think that they can do better. They will do as I did and procrastinate or just give up altogether. The students will believe that “hey if I’m not going to receive a good grade then why try?” This could end a student that has a lot of potential. As you have stated in your post that we might be the only ones to be optimistic in the students life, but even one person can make a drastic change. I strongly believe that one smile can create a room full of smiles. If we could get our students to mold their minds into an “I can” instead of an “I can’t” then we could have a lot more successful students.

    Courtney Block

  7. My oldest daughter is very grumpy natured despite that my husband and I are very happy glass-half-full people. Any suggestions?

  8. Hi Melissa,
    The best thing is to continue modeling that positive optimistic attitude. Also, occasionally discuss (within her hearing) how a positive attitude has helped you in specific situations. I was a grumpy natured kid and teen myself, (my dad would tease me that a dark cloud followed me) but my mom (who I did not live with) has always been bright and sunny natured...I finally picked up her attitude in my very late teens/early 20s. You will definitely see results!

  9. Diane,

    I thought it was appropriate to give a definition of optimistic and pessimistic in your blog so that your readers could understand the possible behavior students may show. After giving a definition of optimistic and pessimistic you talked about two experiments you found of children who were optimistic and children who were pessimistic while working on a task. Thanks to your definition, I could picture the pessimistic children being frustrated with their assignment and why. You gave detailed actions of how the children responded to their challenge. “Clearly, the students were under the misconception that intelligence is fixed.” What does that statement mean? I agree teachers are good resources for helping students understand that their brains are changeable. Also, I can relate to the statement “students sometimes put off assignments because they are afraid of failure and then by the time they start working it is too late to do a good job which then results in a poor grade.” There have been times where I put off an assignment for more than three days because it was challenging and I did not want to give up some of my time to take an attempt at it. Your blog not only helped me as a future educator, but it helped me as a college student. I will keep in mind the outcome of being optimistic and the statement our brains are changeable.
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