In their blog post “Cultivating Practical Optimism: A Key to Getting the Best from Your Brain,” Drs. Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson describe the concept of “positive optimism.” They define it as a way “to describe an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action to increase the likelihood of successful results.” They have then extended their idea to help both students and teachers boost their optimism in the classroom to make the most of the educational process.
Neuroscientists have recently discovered that optimism is associated with pathways in the brain that connect the left prefrontal region to the amygdala, the area primarily responsible for emotion. Until now, optimism was considered to be an unchangeable trait; however, today, many researchers hold that it is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced. And there is plenty of incentive to want to build optimism: People who are positive have less stress, better creative problem-solving skills, and better health outcomes than those who are less optimistic. In addition, students who are positive are more likely to persist with difficult learning tasks, believing that, with effort, they can accomplish their goals.
Practical optimism is related to an idea described by Carol Dweck as a “growth mindset.” This idea holds that “while individuals differ greatly in their initial performance, interests, talents, and skills, everyone can improve, change, and grow through application and experience.” The authors of this article believe that “one of the greatest school-based factors for improving education today is empowering educators with opportunities to develop a growth mindset by working together to build skills and strategies to increase the impact of their instruction in the classroom.”
The traditional view of education holds that some people enter the profession as natural-born teachers endowed with a high level of innate talent, and others do not. This approach (believing that one’s qualities are ultimately unchangeable) leads to teacher isolation; and the lack of support from colleagues both undermines motivation and contributes to a significant percentage of teacher loss within the first few years of entering the profession.
The more progressive outlook teams up with the scientific field of neuroplasticity, the idea that learning changes both the structure and the function of the brain, not just in early childhood, but all throughout a student’s life. (See our previous blog on this topic here.) This idea is borne out by the data, which show that teachers have a tremendous capacity to improve their knowledge and skills in ways that increase their effectiveness in teaching and other professional endeavors.
There is even greater potential for sustained growth within the classroom when teachers have opportunities, either formal or informal, to collaborate. When they work together to create lessons or assessments, for example, they can tap into their collective expertise of students, community, content, and teaching strategies. The next logical, powerful way to support the growth mindsets is for them to experience a positive impact in their classrooms.
Here are a few ideas to help promote a growth mindset among teachers.
Step 1: Establish a clear intent. Establish a motivation for the project in question. Teachers should agree on what positive changes they expect to see in their students from developing and implementing the proposed project.
Step 2: Develop your action plan. Collaborative preparation and intentions must be turned into definitive actions. At this stage, teachers may want to make their goals public, pick their start day, and identify people who will support them.
Step 3: Set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific. This cannot be stressed enough. You must not only set goals for a positive outcome, but you must also ensure that these goals can be measured in a quantifiable way.
Step 4: Take action. Put your plan into action. You may want to reward the teacher team members in some small way for their accomplishments in setting up the plan.
Step 5: Chart course corrections. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned. When you encounter a snag, go back to the original plan and goals, identify what needs to be corrected, and get the project back on track. Remain positive that the plan will be successful, not only despite, but also because of the changes.
Step 6: Persist for continued progress. When the plan involves a long-term commitment, it is often the case that enthusiasm wanes and attention wanders to new ideas and projects. Periodically go back to your original goals and predicted outcomes. Remind yourself of why you’re doing this and all the good you will achieve. Persist and persevere.
It is also important to recognize how critical positive optimism is for the success of the students. Many, especially those who are low-performing, may feel like giving up at the first sign of failure. As a teacher, you need to encourage their optimism about learning. Here are a few suggestions you can incorporate into your lesson planning.
- Be a model for practical optimism. You might say, “We knew this would be a tough project, but we stuck with it and worked hard. Just look at what we’ve accomplished!”
- Share examples of how you have overcome learning obstacles. It’s helpful for students to realize that everyone, even a teacher, sometimes faces obstacles.
- Maintain a positive learning atmosphere. Start the class by asking if any student had something good happen to them since the previous day, and end the class by posing questions such as “What was the best thing that happened while you were at school today?”
Do you have any other strategies you use to maintain positive optimism in your classroom? Please share them with our readers in the comments section below.
 Conyers, Marcus, and Wilson, Donna. (November 25, 2014). “Cultivating Practical Optimism: A Key to Getting the Best from Your Brain.” Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/cultivating-practical-optimism-donna-wilson
 Dweck, Carol, in Conyers, Marcus, and Wilson, Donna. (December 15, 2016). “Incorporating a Growth Mindset into Your Teaching Practice.” Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/incorporating-growth-mindset-into-teaching-practice-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers