Building the Struggle Muscle

In order to foster a growth mindset, our students must believe that their effort is responsible for their success. Students with a growth mindset towards school see setbacks and “failures” as learning opportunities — a chance to learn from what they are doing wrong, so that they can do it right next time. However, many students do not have a growth mindset towards academic challenges. How do we prove to our students that it’s worth it to keep going in the face of so-called failure?

Invisible benefits

Part of the problem is that students do not always readily see the fruits of their struggle. A student who studies for a math test but still gets a bad grade, for example, is going to have trouble celebrating the effort that went into studying. While we want students to stay focused on attributes that promote a growth mindset, grades are prone to promote a fixed mindset as they are external. What’s more, the benefits of developing executive function strategies or mastery of an academic skill may be invisible. It’s hard for a student to get excited by developments that they can’t see.

Weightlifter or pianist

Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak, addresses this problem directly. He contrasts the image of a child learning to play the piano with a weightlifter. As the weightlifter works out more and more, pushing herself to be able to handle increasingly heavy weights, her muscles will become noticeably bigger, reinforcing her sense of progress. The pianist, however, will see no such physical effect. He will be able to play piano music more fluently; however, if he takes on increasingly challenging material, he may still struggle and feel that he has made no progress at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The effect on the brain of struggling to learn a challenging skill is as dramatic as anything you might see at a body building competition.

Strengthening the brain through struggle

As educators, it is our job to make sure that our students understand the unseen benefit of their hard work in school. We can do this in many ways. Depending on the age of your students, you can share some brain science with them. Show them how learning challenging material can build increased white matter or lead to more efficient connections between areas of the brain. One of my colleagues talks to her students about the “struggle muscle,” using the analogy of the brain as a muscle that gets stronger the more you struggle.

Measuring the positive of struggle on the brain may never be as easy as measuring your bicep, but if you can help students envision the positive impact of their hard work, you’ll be laying the foundation for a growth mindset that will serve them well into their adult lives.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director