Cultivating Practical Optimism: A Key to Growing a Growth Mindset and Getting the Best from Your Brain

by | Nov 22, 2018

Earlier this year, we enjoyed meeting many educators from across Australia and New Zealand when we presented at the 2018 Hawker Brownlow Education Thinking & Learning Conference in Melbourne, Australia. In Donna’s session, “Creating Practically Optimistic Classrooms”, teachers and administrators learned some of our original practical tools for increasing motivation and engagement for learning, which can help students to develop growth mindsets.


The Science


Neuroscientists recently discovered that optimism is associated with brain pathways connecting the left prefrontal region to the amygdala. Further research has demonstrated that optimism, traditionally considered to be an unchangeable trait, is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced. People with a positive viewpoint experience many benefits including less stress, better creative problem-solving skills and better health outcomes than less optimistic people. In addition, optimistic learners are more likely to persist in the sometimes-hard work of learning, motivated by the belief that they can accomplish their learning goals. As students reach their goals, they are more likely to develop growth mindsets that can be sustained over time as they have successful learning experiences.

Many teachers realise that as students become more optimistic, they are motivated to progress through learning difficulties and to attain higher levels of achievement. More optimistic students also have greater resistance to depression and the negative effects of stress. Over the past 20 years, we have taught many educators a toolbox of implementation strategies to increase practical optimism and other keys to learning in the classroom.

We use the term “practical optimism” to describe an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action to increase the likelihood of successful results. Emphasising positive emotions helps students become more resilient and more likely to persevere with learning tasks. Their persistence is fueled by the belief that they will triumph over difficulty, learn from their mistakes, overcome plateaus in their performance and progress. The mantra, “I think I can! I think I can!”, from an all-time favourite story, The Little Engine That Could, illustrates practical optimistic thinking. By thinking optimistically and experiencing more success, virtually all students, including those with learning challenges, can foster growth mindsets.




The Strategy


Trash or Treasure?


One of our strategies that can be used to develop positive classrooms features six steps for easy implementation, including a read-aloud story (Wilson & Conyers, 2018, p. 243). This strategy is intended for use across any year level, and can be most helpful for students with learning challenges. This strategy has been used by many educators to promote practical optimism in schools:

1. Introduce practical optimism and its benefits. Ask students if they would like to learn a way to more consistently sustain practical optimism.

2. Read aloud the following story:


Treasure Hunters and Trash Collectors


It seems that in life there are two types of people. The first are treasure hunters. Every day they seek out what is useful and positive. They focus on it, talk about it and think about it. Each of these moments are treasured like a bright, shining jewel that they store in their treasure chest forever. 


And then there are trash collectors who spend their lives looking for what is wrong, unfair and not working. They focus their energy, time and thoughts on the trash, and every day they put that trash into a big garbage bin. 


The treasure hunters proudly carry their treasure into the future, while the trash collectors drag their heavy, smelly garbage bin from one day to the next. The question is: when they get to the end of the year, what does each person have – a treasure chest filled with useful, positive memories, or a garbage bin full of things they didn’t like?

The choice is yours. You get to decide.


  1. Ask students to think of five things they like or can feel good about.

    4. Ask students to write, draw or create a concept map of these five things.

    5. Tell students to approach five people and share with them their five things.

    6. Continue to use this process once a week or once a month, encouraging students to find and add more things to their practical optimism list.

    Once learners understand that they have the capacity to increase their levels of practical optimism by the choices they make, many are highly motivated to do so. They become more likely to think of setbacks as temporary. They recognise that by using more effective learning strategies or investing more study time, they can overcome obstacles and turn setbacks into triumphs. This progress in turn can lead to more academic success and enhance optimism even further. Practical optimism is a means for getting the best from your brain and your life!


This strategy is one of over 60 practical tools that can be found in Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers’ book, Introduction to BrainSMART Teaching: Science, Structures, and Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, available from Hawker Brownlow Education right now.

Donna Wilson Dr Donna Wilson is a psychologist, professional developer, and author of 20 books applying mind, brain, and education science. Dr Wilson presents at educational conferences in the United States and internationally and blogs regularly on her own blog site, as well as Edutopia and Education Week. She is the head of academic affairs of BrainSMART Inc. and co-developer of the Master of Science and Educational Specialist degree programs with a major in Brain-Based Teaching and the doctoral minor degree in Brain-Based Leadership with Nova Southeastern University. Read more articles by Donna Wilson

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Marcus Conyers Dr Marcus Conyers is an international keynote speaker with a passion for improving human performance through original frameworks for connecting mind, brain, well-being, and leadership research to practice. Dr Conyers is co-developer of the world’s first doctoral minor in Brain-Based Leadership and the first Educational Specialist and Master of Science degree programs in Brain-Based Teaching (BrainSMART® Programs) in partnership with Nova Southeastern University. He serves as a research supervisor for the Ph.D. program in Professional Practice: Psychological Perspectives with Canterbury Christ Church University. Read more articles by Marcus Conyers

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