Author Interview: 'Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources' Lost to Poverty and Racism
(This is the first post in a two-part interview)
Cia Verschelden agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism and Social Marginalization.
Part Two of this interview will appear in a few days. References for the entire interview will appear in Part Two.
Cia Verschelden is the vice president of Academic & Student Affairs at Malcolm X College in Chicago.
LF: Can you explain the idea of "mental bandwidth" (I've also seen it referred to elsewhere as "cognitive bandwidth" and assume it's the same thing) and how poverty, racism, and prejudice can impact it?
Every second, in a student's brain, about 11 million bits of activity are happening, like telling their bodies to pump blood, breathe, digest, and think. Of all those millions of bits of activity, they have conscious control over fewer than 100 of them. That's what I'm calling their mental bandwidth.
Bandwidth is the amount of cognitive—or attentional—resources each person has available for learning, working, relationships, creating, and so on. The term "bandwidth" comes from a book called Scarcity, (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013) in which they described many research studies showing that scarcity "steals mental bandwidth." They were talking about economic insecurity, but I thought of all the other kinds of scarcity students experience, like scarcity of acceptance, respect, safety, belonging, and dignity, because of societal realities like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and other ways people are made to feel like they don't belong or are not good enough.
When children are worried about money (which includes many other issues that grow out of not having enough money, like having enough to eat, a doctor if you get sick, warm clothes in winter, and a safe place to live), or if they often experience hostility and discrimination based on one or more of their identities, lots of their cognitive resources are not available for things like learning, studying, being competent at work, and all the other things they have to do every day. This bandwidth depletion happens to toddlers, young children, and adolescents who are trying to learn and succeed in school.
If students' bandwidth is being used up by external stressors, there might not be enough left to devote to doing well in this school. Even when they are studying hard and paying attention in class, somehow not enough of what they are reading or hearing is getting into their long-term memory.
It's helpful if we can understand the kinds of things that are robbing students of bandwidth. When we see this more clearly, we may be better able to look at school and classroom environments and think about ways to help students' recovery and learn to their full potential.
LF: You share several strategies that educators (your book is focused on higher education, but it seems to me that it's very applicable to K-12 teachers, too) can implement to help mitigate some of the damage caused to students' mental bandwidth. One is a growth mindset. I think most readers of this interview are familiar with the concept, but can you briefly explain what it is and, more importantly, share how it can affect students' mental bandwidth?
Growth mindset is the idea that, with effort and practice, students can grow their brains. They can get smarter. Carol Dweck (2016), a professor at Stanford, worked with 5th graders and engaged them in solving progressively more difficult puzzles. She began to notice two distinct propensities in the students about learning and trying more challenging tasks. Some of the students only wanted to try puzzles that they were sure they could solve, and others wanted harder and harder learning tasks that they had to struggle to successfully complete. She named these two perspectives "fixed" and "growth" mindsets, respectively. Fixed-mindset students believed that they were as smart as they were ever going to be and that people are born with certain abilities, like being good at math or writing or music or athletics and that other people were born without those abilities. To these students, it didn't matter how much you practiced or studied because those abilities are fixed.
Students with a growth mindset invited challenge. They believed that, with enough effort, they could grow their brains and learn to do better in whatever they were studying or learning, like reading or writing or drawing. Although these students probably didn't understand the science of it, they had it right. We now know that, by learning new things, we form new neural pathways and we actually do grow our brains.
Fixed-mindset students can waste mental bandwidth worrying about getting something wrong and someone finding out they aren't smart enough. When you're worried about failing, you don't have as much of your cognitive resources available to learn well. Add on to that the fact that you are probably not asking questions and getting the help you need to achieve in school because you don't want the teacher and your classmates to see that you don't understand. A student who has a fixed mindset who says, "I'm not good at math," can sabotage himself by not doing all the homework problems and studying the concepts and asking for explanations of things he doesn't understand.
A growth-mindset student knows that by doing all those things, she can get better at math. Most importantly, she understands that the greatest opportunity to learn is when she makes a mistake or doesn't get a concept or process. That's when her brain is primed for learning because she wants to know the answer and wants to be able to do the calculation or solve the equation. Dweck advises teachers, in giving feedback to students, to use language that communicates rather than "not," "not yet." She suggests that teachers maintain high expectations of all students and give them the support and encouragement that tells them they believe the students can meet those expectations. A teacher with a growth mindset gives students chances to revise and improve their work, to ask questions, to take risks and make mistakes without censure, and to keep trying until they reach the learning goal. A teacher with a growth mindset can help students recover bandwidth by assuring them that they will stick with them until they get it, that they don't have to worry about failure or mistakes because that's when the best learning happens, and that students will be supported and affirmed as they attempt to accomplish new learning.
LF: "Belonging" is another strategy you suggest for educators. Again, can you elaborate on what you mean and why it can be effective?
When children and youths enter a school or a classroom, they mentally assess how safe and secure they will be in that place. Actually, most of us do that when we enter a new environment. We're wondering ... "Is there anyone here who will be my friend?" "Will I be liked?" "Will I be safe?" "Will anyone talk to me?" "Will I be respected for all of who I am?" "Am I in charge of my destiny here or will other people determine if I can succeed?" Some of that assessment is based on how people look—like me or not like me—and some is based on other impressions of classmates and the teacher, including girl/boy, smart/not smart, athletic or total nerd, outgoing or shy, etc. This "belonging uncertainty" (Walton & Cohen, 2007) comes with a big bandwidth tax. In fact, I suggest that uncertainty, in general, is a major bandwidth stealer. For most of us, uncertainty is a source of worry and, for some, fear. For students who are members of negatively stereotyped groups, their previous experiences in life may indicate that if there are not clear signs that they are valued and that this place will be a safe place, their default is worry and fear, which eats up significant amounts of attentional resources.
Messages to all students (and their parents) early, often, and pervasively throughout a school that everyone is valued, everyone is welcome, and everyone is safe and respected in all their identities are critical for the bandwidth health of a school community. Students who feel like they belong, and that they are safe and respected, don't have to use any of their precious mental bandwidth on those basic needs and so have more of it to devote to learning and development. Belonging is not a luxury or a feel-good concept, it is necessary for success in school.
See Part Two of this interview in a few days!