"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
-Morpheus (The Matrix)
Recently, I have become completely engulfed in the process of rewiring my brain to increase my own efficiency and confidence. Through this process, I have discovered some interesting facts about myself. First, I have realized that our brains are massive open spaces begging for us to explore the undiscovered cosmos of our conscious. Basically, we are Master Yoda searching for new pathways to the “Force.” (That allusion was for all of my fans of Star Wars).
Sir John Hargrove describes in his book Mind Hacking How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days (This is an awesome read by the way), our lives are the result of habits or “loops” that we have experienced. In his book, these “loops” can be described as experiences and behaviors that are cyclical in nature (they keep happening over and over again.) Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, suggests many of the same concepts. Duhigg says that we have to replace our negative habits with positive habits...a habit cannot be abandoned, but it must be replaced (Duhigg, 2014). Both authors encourage us to be conscious of our “loops” or habits, to change negative mindsets and actions to positive ones.
Let’s differentiate the negative loops from the positive loops by using the analogy of The Force. The positive loops would be the light side of the force, and the negative side is, of course, the dark side of The Force. Think about the following example: A person who has always been told that they are beautiful, intelligent, and can persevere through any challenge that comes their way will most likely have a positive outlook on life. They will develop the ability to approach life’s woes with a burst of optimism that is essential to be successful in life--a belief in themselves that can only come from a nurturing environment. In other words, they have built a wall of positive loops, that allows them to explore the vast space of their minds, negating limitations. In direct opposition, someone who has not received that type of encouragement, who is consistently referred to someone who is mediocre or less than adequate will possibly approach the challenges of life with a negative outlook--hindering them from reaching their full potential. They may feel as if they have no control, and it is possible that a learned helplessness can develop. Are you feeling The Force yet?
In reflection of my own loops or habits, I instantly thought about our students and their loops. I asked myself, “What loops have they developed?” and “What can I do to help them change those negative loops?”
The truth is that we can often tell the students who are stuck in negative loops, the ones who are benefiting from positive loops, and the ones that lie right in the middle. This post is not about how to tell which students are in which category, but look for signs like “satisfaction with bad grades, believing in themselves, or a disinterest in setting goals-- just to name a few. Our jobs as teachers, principals, parents, or as adults period is to make our children feel that confident in their abilities by creating different mental pathways and options that may not seem obvious to them. Basically helping them rewire their brains.” (Like Yoda had to teach Luke to do!)--Bam! There’s another Star Wars Reference for you!
Real World vs School World
To avoid the risk of oversimplification of the process of rewiring our brains, I have to admit that it is a process that takes both time and practice. However practicing the process diligently is like building muscle, the more we practice the more endurance we build. The more we engage in the mental workout, the larger our mental muscles are, and they more they are able to stretch and reconstruct. (Neuroplasticity, which we will talk about later in this post).
As educators, we have to know that students live in at least 2 separate worlds--the “real world”--which can be considered to be anything outside of the walls of school, and the “school world”--which often has its own set of rules and governments that are separate from outside of society. It’s the old conundrum of the red pill or the blue pill? Traditionally school has been like a simulation, and when we get into the real world, we realize that school did nothing to prepare us for anything we would have to face.
One of my favorite movies to analyze is the Matrix, and that choice that Morpheus presents to Neo (the red or the blue pill) is the beginning of an awakening, and a negation of what we traditionally view as being “in the dark.” It’s the first time we open our eyes and realize that the world is much larger than school. For our black and brown students, often, been awakened after they leave secondary education is too late, and we know where those statistics can end up.
Regardless of the difference in students’ environments, the reality is that both places can create negative loops that need to be replaced by positive loops. How do we find out what these loops are, and how do we help them replace them with positive ones?
Starting the Process
Our brain’s chemistry or makeup is malleable or plastic, meaning that it is easily shaped or molded (Brain Power, p. 13). Previously scientists believed that the brains stopped developing at 18 years old, but new discoveries have surfaced that show that our brains continue to change over time--often depending on our environment’s support or lack thereof. What does this mean for you? Your classroom environment is the training grounds! Educating young Padawan so that they may become full Jedi, or awakening the truth in students so that they can see the real world before they are thrust into it. (Use whichever analogy that you are the most familiar). Being aware that you are the Jedi Master or Morpheus who is responsible for training your students to explore new possibilities in their minds helps you plan new and engaging exercises for them to explore. Consistency is key. Duhigg says that “keystone habits” are those habits that we do each day that helps get our day started. Habits like making up your bed, eating breakfast, meditation, exercising, etc. These habits or loops give us the consistency that our mind craves. A consistent routine helps our brains establish a routine. Simplistically, the development of a positive culture and language in your classroom or school is essential to help them grasp the concept. Try these strategies:
1. Provide students with the space to create a positive consistent classroom. This is pretty common knowledge, but here is the “Jedi Mind Trick,” post this language in random places in your classroom, in your lessons, and even in your conversation. Hearing, seeing, and encountering it over and over again helps the language become more ingrained. They’ll see and use it so much that when they see it, it will start to trigger positive thoughts and behavior. Neuroscience suggests that repetition makes connections between our neurons stronger, which, triggers those neurons when they encounter that familiar language--giving them the ability to change or adjust behaviors or responses without even realizing it. This process has the ability to change or adjust behaviors and responses. The stronger the connections between these neurons, the easier it is for behaviors to become more automatic.
2. Get rid of the word “NO!” (Hargrave, pg 119) The word “no” gives no direction or feedback to an individual. Particularly when we are redirecting students we often choose to do so while using negative terms, like “Don’t do that in my class,” or “You are not allowed to get up and talk in my class,” or my favorite is “There are no cellphones in this class!” Instead of telling students what they are not allowed to do, have them focus on the things that they can do in your classroom. Tell them statements like, “You are allowed to innovate, You are forgiven and allowed learn from mistakes, You are able to be creative and scholars, etc.” Then have students describe what these behaviors look like, sound like and feel like. By having students help you create these rules of engagement, and by focusing on them, you force their brains to start to process events differently--with optimism.--Something that we desperately need more of in the world. Creativity is sparked by a disturbance that allows a little bit of light to peer through the darkness (Duhigg, 2017).
3. Create classroom axioms (statements of encouragements) that are said each day before the day is started and the day begins. Remember repetition connects and strengthens neurons which helps in reinforcing behaviors. Allow students to create personal axioms that they can use when they come to a frustrating event or adversity. One of our most pronounced needs as humans is the need for autonomy. Giving students the space to have created something that is personal to them may bridge the connection between the “real world” and the “school world” or the training field and actual events. Axioms like “No matter what, I am going to succeed,” or “I am special and I can conquer any situation that I am faced with.” Or, “I am a Jedi Master who is in control of his/her learning, actions, and behaviors.”I know it sounds sort of corny, but if we want students to change their lives or their behaviors, the changes must first occur in their minds (Hargrave, 2017).
4. Create student resumes or “perspective maps” to help students visualize the outcomes they desire by helping them create concrete connections to their goals. Have them imagine any roadblocks that may halt their progress or stop them completely. Then allow students to imagine how they will approach these blocks, will they go through or around them. This activity enables students to analyze their futures, using their imaginations (which I don’t think they do enough) allowing them to reshape who they think they are and who they think they will eventually become. According to Daniel H. Pink’s book The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, we are motivated by achievement. When we can see what we have accomplished and what our present accomplishments will lead to in the future, we are more likely to be motivated, as long as there is accountability. It presents the idea that we have control over our lives, which makes us feel more successful. This is just where our Jedi training begins...just the tip of the iceberg for the blue or the red pill...its where our training begins.
While these seem like small strategies shifts, they go along way because it teaches students to think in different ways, disrupting a pattern that may have caused them to be stuck in perpetual suspended animation. Our jobs are to reanimate them by making sure that no matter where they go, they feel that they belong. This feeling starts with what and how they think of themselves. When we get our students, we normally don’t know how long they have been exposed to their negative loops (The dark side of the force), but with some work, we can teach them how to change their mindsets to change negative loops to positive loops. “May The Force Be With You!” Or “Let the Truth set you free!”
Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. Random House, 2017.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
Hargrave, Sir John. Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days. Gallery Books, 2017.
Pink, Daniel, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Hardcover, 2009.
Sukel, Kayt. “The Human Brain Primer.” Brain Power: For a Razor-Sharp Mind and a Healthier Life, Oct. 2018, pp. 8–15.