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Taming the Lizard Brain Part 3

Alice Wellington Rollins said that the test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him - which he finds hard to answer.

Easier said than done.

It seems nowadays to just get a learner to greet you in class is an unsurmountable task in itself. I suppose one of the reasons for that could be the years and years of fostering a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset.

I believe the answer to Alice Rollins's challenge is first to create a positive classroom culture and then promote a growth mindset. But promoting a growth mindset in our classrooms is not as easy as flipping a switch and then, suddenly, we have a class in which all our learners are eager to learn, love challenges, and make multiple mistakes without giving up. It takes meticulous planning and purposefully changing the words we use.      

The key ingredient to fostering a growth mindset
I certainly do not have all the answers, but this is how we created a growth mindset culture in our school. We learned early on that even the best teaching techniques and methods will fall flat if the culture in your classroom is not positive.      

One of the first aspects of creating a positive classroom environment is trust. Learners have to believe that you want the best for them, and they will try their best as a result.      

How to ensure a sense of belonging and trust in your classroom
Before I get to fostering a growth mindset, I want to share a few techniques we use to make learners feel they belong and in doing so create a positive culture. These techniques are all listed in Doug Lemov’s book, ‘Teach like a champion’.

Positive Framing

People are far more motivated by the positive than the negative. Wanting to be successful and seeking praise will spur stronger action than trying to avoid punishment.      

Positive Framing is the technique of framing interactions, especially academic or behavioural redirections. Using this technique allows you to give all types of feedback and guidance that can include praise as well as critical or corrective feedback.

Assume the Best

You will agree that as teachers, especially teaching  High School learners, we tend to attribute learners’ actions to their character or personality rather than the situation.      

At times, we assume intentionality behind a mistake. We can often hear this echoed in our classes. “How many times have I explained this concept?” Or “You would be able to do it if you listened the first time.” When we make comments like this we attribute ill-intention to what could possibly be the result of distraction, lack of practice or honest misunderstanding.

This technique also helps teachers maintain our emotional constancy and stability. One of the most useful words we must remember when using this technique is the word “forget.”      

Practical example: “Just a minute; a few of us seem to have forgotten that we are working quietly on our own. Let’s try that again, this time without speaking. 

Precise Praise

Where positive framing focuses on how you can make critical feedback feel motivating and caring, precise praise is more about managing positive feedback to maximise its focus and benefit.

Practical example: The learners are busy with independent practise. You want them to use conjunctions to join two sentences, but most learners are using short sentences. The teacher then says: “Well done, Sarah, I love how you use conjunctions to join two sentences.”

Warm and demanding

The magic of this technique lies in the relationship between being the person who can say, “I believe in you and I care about you” and “therefore I will not accept anything but your very best.”

It is when we learn how to be caring, funny, warm, concerned, and nurturing—but at the same time strict, by the book, relentless, and sometimes uncompromising with students. It means establishing the importance of deadlines, expectations and rules, but not because you are their superior, but because you care about them

Emotional Constancy

I think this technique is the most difficult to truly master because as teachers we are human beings with our own troubles and emotions. And when a learner constantly pushes buttons, it can be difficult to control your own emotions.

However, teachers who show this characteristic know that they are the leaders of their classroom and that learners need to be able to experience emotional safety as they figure out how to manage their behaviours and emotions on their own.

A teacher who practices emotional constancy always keeps learning; moving forward with their actions and mindset. Your goal with regard to discipline should be this: “Discipline without emotion.”

The Joy Factor

The J-Factor is a way to integrate joy into the children's learning. Our learners will work harder if they are having fun learning. Creating joy in the classroom in a “punctuated” manner will create a positive classroom environment.

By using this technique, teachers assign work with a substantial amount of enthusiasm, passion, and energy - not to undermine hard work, but to inspire hard work.      

Nurturing a growth mindset

Now that we have created a positive classroom, marked with high expectations, trust and joy we are ready to look at a few techniques to create a growth mindset.

  • Normalise the struggle. As we have already discussed, when we struggle we build grit and perseverance. Be vocal about this, even model it in your class.
  • Embrace the word “yet. If one of your learners tells you they cannot solve a maths problem, rephrase and say it back to them, “You cannot do the problem yet.”
  • Demonstrate errors and celebrate corrections. Mistakes should always be viewed as learning experiences. Teachers can model this technique in reactions to their own mistakes and the steps they make to correct it.
  • Set goals. Have you learners set incremental, achievable goals to demonstrate the attainability of growth.
  • Encourage engagement with challenges. Depict challenges as fun and exciting - and easy tasks as boring.
  • Promote the value of hard tasks to the brain. Emphasise the idea that our brains are flexible “muscles” that can be developed. Too many learners in our classes truly believe that they are not able to do something. Show them the research and the science.
  • Implement cooperative learning. Working together to solve problems highlights process and reinforces the importance of getting help and finding solutions. It also deemphasises individual outcomes.
  • Provide challenges. A massive part of developing a growth mindset is teaching learners to overcome obstacles. A hard math problem or difficult writing assignment that stretches their capabilities can provide opportunities for growth and further instruction that emphasises problem-solving.
  • Avoid praising intelligence. When we praise our learners for being smart, we reinforce the idea that intelligence is a fixed trait. Your learners will then have one of two thoughts. “I am smart, I do not have to try harder” or “I am not smart so I do not have to try.”
  • Don’t oversimplify. “You can do anything!” could feel like innocent encouragement, but if learners aren’t put in a position to overcome challenges, they will conclude that such declarations are empty, and the teacher will lose credibility.

Being a teacher is a massive responsibility. Perhaps this is a good time to remember a quote by Margaret Sangster, “No one should teach who is not in love with teaching.”


1. Chicago. Lemov, Doug. 2014. Teach like a Champion 2.0. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

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