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Challenge Shapes the Brains and Bodies: We Build the Individuals We Become.
Mark Dewart, Upper School Science Teacher


We live in a world where innovation steadily makes things easier so that difficulty recedes. Each year the things we buy do more for us, are easier to use, safer, and more ubiquitous. In this context, something that is difficult can appear to be broken and in need of repair. Schools are communities that understand that difficulty isn't always just an inconvenience that you want to minimize or avoid. In schools, teachers help students develop the virtues of grit, resilience and determination by helping students see difficulty through the lens of a growth mindset
With a growth mindset, you step outside of your comfort zone, seek out challenge and difficulty, and then use the feedback from early setbacks and mistakes to improve your performance. The effort students make to overcome the challenges in athletics, arts and academics with a growth mindset results in an astounding amount of cellular remodeling. Over time, these changes in our cells result in new versions of ourselves that make what was once difficult easier. My friend Mario illustrates a growth mindset on our bike rides together. There is always a big smile on Mario's face when we have a tailwind, but Mario calls the headwinds "his friend." Mario knows that great days on our bikes in the future will be made possible by riding hard into the headwind today.
To understand how stronger versions of our brains and bodies develop in response to challenge, students in the Upper School Advanced Biology class study the concepts of skeletal muscle plasticity and neuroplasticity. The important biology topics of gene expression, gene regulation, cell architecture, and evolution are discussed in the context of the long-term changes that take place as our brains and bodies respond with a growth mindset to the difficulties of learning a new song or becoming more physically active.
Students connect research on how learning rebuilds a brain to their experience of walking down the Fine Arts hallway and hearing students learning the songs they will sing in the holiday concerts. When young zebra finch birds engage the difficulty of learning a new song, over 3000 genes are suddenly switched on in the brain cells that enable these birds to perform a song from memory. With so many genes suddenly activated and producing new proteins, there is an explosion of molecular activity in each cell that reshapes the cell structure and enhances its function. One gene that is turned on results in the formation of long chains of actin proteins that create extensions from the cells which bring one brain cell neuron closer to neighboring neurons. This makes cell to cell communication faster and easier. Out of this remodeling of the cells, the ability to remember and perform a song emerges in songbirds and, in a similar way, us.
We learn how our encounters with physical difficulty builds stronger versions of ourselves by discussing the results of studies that challenged sedentary individuals to pedal a stationary bike with just one leg for an hour. In the exercising leg, 900 genes were turned on which resulted in the formation of proteins in the exercising muscle cells that, among other things, repaired cell damage, built new contractile units, created more mitochondria for energy and added transport proteins for moving fuel and waste.  Surprisingly, 500 genes were also turned on in the skeletal muscle in the non-exercising leg. Cycling for just one hour with just one leg produces a staggering amount of cell remodeling throughout the body, which creates a structure that fits better into a physically challenging world.
Students who understand the way challenge causes the brain and body to rebuild itself know the importance of that moment of decision where you decide whether to study with or without difficulty. Having a growth mindset means that you don't just study a lot, but you study using strategies that create "desirable difficulty". Rereading and highlighting your class notes or textbook are study strategies that research shows are widely used, but, as a sole study strategy, these approaches lack the "desirable difficulty" that lead to substantial changes in the brain. Since the answers are always in front of you, the brain never has to engage in an effortful attempt to recall the information. Later, if the test asks you to identify, explain and give an example, this may be hard to do. Without widely spaced, repeated, effortful attempts to recall the information, the cells in the brain never receive the stimulus they need, so they rebuild themselves in ways that make the performance from memory easier. Research shows that when studying, difficulty is a headwind that is your friend.

In times past, people were more confined and developed brains and bodies that were shaped by the challenges of a world that extended only a short distance from where they were born.  With the range of curricular and extracurricular opportunities at Park Tudor, our students are far from that limiting past. Our students have opportunities to place themselves in a variety of experiences, each with its own set of challenges that, when engaged with a growth mindset, will build their brains and bodies in interesting and hopeful ways. Thinking about neuroplasticity and skeletal muscle plasticity is a compelling context to use to teach many of the central concepts of biology. It also helps students understand why widely used study strategies, because they are easier, should be exchanged for study strategies that require more effort initially but save time because they are more effective.  

The most important thinking that emerges from studying the biology of challenge, plasticity, and a growth mindset is the question, "What is a good life and how can I prepare myself to live it?"  This afternoon, will I head out the door and go for a run, go over to a friend's house so we can practice our instruments together, or prepare for the debate in my history class? The bodies and minds students build over time will reflect the activities and challenges like these that they have galvanized themselves to respond to early and often with a growth mindset. What tailwinds will their future-self experience because, while they were young, headwinds were their friend?