How Your Brain Learns New Things


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What are you good at?

What are you bad at? 

These two questions were posed to the ninth graders in English class on the first day of school. I sat in the back row, amused, watching how the teacher handled “slow time”, that awkward silence that comes in waiting for that one, brave hand to rise. hat happens when not a single. New teachers are terrified of slow time. Seasoned ones know how to hold that steady, shifting glance that says: I’ll wait. (An aside: I’ve been in graduate school for teaching for a total of one month and I’ve already mastered the ins and outs of slow time.)


Freshmen are all about performance. They know these first few months are the auditions, for friend groups and homecoming dates, for the precious and rare gifts of acceptance and belonging. So they stay silent to make no mistakes. To not be a teachers’ pet. To not be bold. They wait for that one of the renegade, over-achieving classmate to clear his throat, stand up.


Eventually one did, and as these go, then the whole activity snowballed. And a certain pattern emerged.


The talents, the good-ats, differed, were unique to each individual student. There were athletes and math whizzes, knitters and readers, video game extraordinaire. But pretty much across the board everyone said they were bad at writing.


I couldn’t tell if this was a crowd thing. If, after the first person said it, others saw the nodding acceptance of their peers and decided that this was a safe thing to be bad at. Or… if this was strategic. This is English, after all. This is the September stage. This is high school. This is where expectations of you are set. And why not start off by lowering the hurdles for what you have been told is the hardest race you’ll run in your life?


If their educational experience was anything similar to my own, and since I’m only twenty-five, I assume it was, then they spent the last year of middle school with exhausted, easily disappointed teachers who were quick to note, in the event of a C grade on a test, how good they have it in middle school. Middle school is cake. Middle school is easy. High school is going to eat you alive.


They approach cautiously. They know that things are about to get really hard. So they lower our expectations. They claim they can’t do what the teacher wants them to do, because they simply aren’t good enough.


This was the genius of the lesson. This was the hook.


Each student had to open up about who they think they are. And who they think they are is static. They think they are one thing and not the other. They think you are born in with a fixed set of strengths and weaknesses. As they navigate this jungle, looking for their place, looking for their people, they are always aware of their shortcomings, always certain they can’t overcome them. They define themselves by everything they are not. So they don’t know how to find who they are.


Once everyone had gone, the teacher pulled down the projector and began playing a video. The video is about the brain. It shows the students what happens when the mind learns a new thing. It puts a romantic notion into the concrete, the chemical, and there is something so empowering about seeing that. Visualizing the fruit of our practice, our hard work, our head-banging struggle against all odds. Seeings these strong little bridges between our cells, moving from shaky to sturdy to strong. 


Here was the general message: You are not static. You evolve. You change. You are built for the purpose of becoming more. SCIENCE objects to all your attempts to categorize into a can’t do. The brain possesses all the magic you’ll need, for any pursuit of your heart.


As someone currently in grad school who often struggles in writing, who feels- at times- as if I’m wired for failure, I found myself scribbling down the terms. Looking up synapses and cell regeneration. Feeling a certain sense of perseverance rise up within me.


Here’s the video. It’s short and educational and might be completely boring to you. But it’s a great reminder: You are unfinished. You are always in process.