The book Limitless Mind by Jo Boaler (2019) focuses on disproving some of the popular beliefs regarding education, particularly the indication that students fit within certain parameters on the academic spectrum. These divisions are oftentimes artificial and stem from as well as contribute to biases in education that can have profound impacts on the students’ lives. The author who is a recognized scholar and Stanford University professor has decades of experience and scholarship in education, provides an insight on unlocking learning potential. The primary premise of this book is that any individual, with any predispositions or genetics, at any age, can learn anything if using appropriate approaches and methodologies, locking the students to specific categories based on initial showings of talent can be highly detrimental.
Before reading this novel, I had relatively outdated knowledge on the topic of how the brain perceives knowledge and learns from a neurological perspective. I have been taught that there are either left-brain orientation (analytical, data-driven) or right-brain orientation (creative, intuitive). However, as Boaler’s book indicated and my further research confirmed, this theory is wrong and based on an outdated premise from the mid-20th century analysis. While I did not necessarily think that the division is so strict as to make it rare that a person can be proficient with both hemispheres of the brain, I did support the idea that some people are generally more analytically focused while others are so-called ‘creative’ types. Therefore, in education, for example, teaching approaches have to be adapted to individual students or collectively based on these notions. However, as I later determined, aspects such as personality traits, individual preferences, and learning styles do not reflect on the hemispheres of the brain, as both are typically utilized in complex activities such as speech, learning, and others.
The primary idea of the book is that when people learn, it is a challenge and new pathways develop in the brain. People are not inherently born with brains that are good at specific subjects, everything depends on how much effort is put into developing the knowledge and skill in that respective field of academics or talent, this ability never goes away, with the brains constantly growing and evolving. “We need to replace the idea that learning ability is fixed with the recognition that we are all on a growth journey” (Boaler, 2019, p. 15). However, the learning is not easy and can be challenging. It takes consistency and dedication but eventually the pathways begin to form. The more these neurons are used, the stronger they become.
One thing that Boaler emphasizes is that mistakes are a positive thing despite often taught that errors should be avoided. In fact, being wrong is part of the learning process in that struggle to form new connections. When errors are made, the brain engages more actively to realize the mistake and thrive from it rather than learning on ‘autopilot.’ Finally, Boaler emphasizes that learning is a lifelong process, and nearly anything can be attained and achieved to develop the brain. While it may sound like platitudes, she does not downplay the patience, flexible thinking, and consistent stimulation of the brain that is needed to develop neuroplasticity and mental prowess.
Questions and Gaps
I think the most important question to me was how these findings can be applied in a real-world educational process. Is there a means of adopting this to teaching methods meant for large groups of students, where a teacher cannot inherently oversee and guide each person individually? I think the logical question also arises, why is that some people are just naturally good at certain subjects or activities than others, even from an early age where the playing field is relatively equal in terms of development. Also, while Boaler does describe the challenges of the process, why does it take some people longer than others, and how can these differences be explained and mitigated?
Opinion on Research
After reading the book, I find myself strongly agreeing with Boaler in that there should be a greater diversity of approaches in education that benefit the students and contribute to their potential. The highly standardized, result-driven, and “one method fits all” solution is detrimental and it inherently destroys not only any potential inquiry and excitement from the student, but also their desire to learn and love the subject. Not everyone approaches each subject the same, some are initially more understanding of math than others, but that is not indicative that a certain subset of students is destined to be average or below at math. I think Boaler’s research highlights that discrepancy, often seen in terms of bias through gender or race, that specific students will not be good at a subject matter or even academics in general.
Adopting the very concept of neuroplasticity into curriculum development and teaching methods could have significant social impacts and promote both equity in education as well as broader opportunities and choice for students. As an educator, both in a subject matter and as part of the academic team attempting to mold students into well-rounded, and knowledgeable humans – this can be a groundbreaking start to shifting education away from predetermined roles and academic paths to instead promoting wholesome growth.
Boaler, J. (2019). Limitless mind: Learn, lead, and live without barriers. HarperOne.