Search form

Busting Brain Boundaries

Students Shouldn’t Assume They’re Not “Good At” Something.

Experts increasingly report that the belief we tend to be either creative and intuitive or analytical and detail-oriented at a young age because we are either left-brained or right-brained is probably a faulty notion.

That idea, and the suggestion that some students are “good at” math or “just not artistic”, for instance, often causes young people to be pigeon-holed and take on certain beliefs themselves about their limited options in the future.

According to Jacquelynne Eccles, an education professor at the University of California Irvine who has studied the choices students make in their studies and careers, such assumptions can cause students to struggle in a subject unnecessarily or veer away from a career path though they might find it rewarding.

“Too often young people don’t believe they can be successful with a subject or in a field, but that belief is based on faulty notions about that subject area or their own skills,” she says.

For instance, students conclude or are told that they aren’t good with numbers and will be unsuccessful in math, and Ed Grocholski, senior vice president at Junior Achievement (JA), says that thinking, or a belief that the might not be good at the details of science or technology, cause students to drift away from STEM careers.

 Grocholski says that’s part of the reason educators can’t seem to get enough students interested in those positions. A recent survey by JA indicated that the number of high school students expecting to enter careers in STEM fields had declined from 36% in 2017 to 24% now.

“Our research indicates that teens are often attracted to careers they believe they would be good at. A lack of confidence in being able to manage STEM subjects could be a factor in this decline,” he says.

The same thing can apply to more creative fields such as the arts or communications, where students might believe they “can’t draw” or “can’t write”. And regardless of whether they choose a career in one of those fields, it can cause even young students to be less successful in a subject area if they believe they aren’t capable.

Harvard researcher Robert Schmerling has found that the idea that we are “right brained” or “left brained” probably doesn’t hold water. That thinking suggests some people are born with a brain that makes them more intuitive and creative and prone to thinking in broader more descriptive ways, while others are more analytical and logical and care about details.

Schmerling notes that research has repeatedly shown that there is no proof that different types of thinking happens in certain specific parts of the brain or that certain people have brains that lead them to be “good at” certain subjects.

“In fact,” he writes, “if you performed a CT scan, MRI scan, or even an autopsy on the brain of a mathematician and compared it to the brain of an artist, it’s unlikely you’d find much difference. And if you did the same for 1,000 mathematicians and artists, it’s unlikely that any clear pattern of difference in brain structure would emerge.”

How can educators get students to avoid making such assumptions? Here are some tips:

Try, try again. Students may develop their own assumptions about their abilities, and while it is important for them to explore their interests, skills and tendencies, they should not be discouraged in a subject because they struggle. In fact, they should be encouraged to try harder because they might improve those skills and find satisfaction in the hard work. It is also a good way to build resilience.

Adult assumptions. Parents and other adults who work with students at any age should avoid categorizing students and their abilities with certainty so that it limits them. They might point out their strengths, but should avoid statements suggesting they “just aren’t good” in a subject.

Inventory skepticism. Career interest inventories can sometimes reinforce ideas students have about themselves. They are a useful tool, but not the final word.

Make it mindset. Famed Sanford University education researcher Carol Dweck has for three decades been trying to convince people that a “growth mindset” is important to develop in young people, and that a “fixed mindset” can keep them trapped in thinking that they can’t succeed in some subjects. Increasingly educators are adopting this thinking about learning and in some cases the way in which students limit their choices. “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” Dweck writes in her most recent book.”

Explore deeper. Eccles is convinced students often steer away from STEM careers because they have ideas about what the work involves based on limited exposure. More and varied experience with work in STEM fields might change their mind.

Don’t let the past set limits. Even if a student hasn’t followed a path toward STEM courses or a STEM career, they should be encouraged to explore how they can still pursue one. There’s still time.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

Copyright© 2019 Education World