I'm worried about the growth mindsets of the growth mindset gurus

I fear for the shrinking hippocampus within the proponents of the growth mindset theory, writes one teacher

Stephen Petty

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I hope that my old bus-driver friend Viv (one of the sharpest minds I know) never gets to sit in on a typical school training session on Growth Mindset. Whenever I attend such a course the latest speaker cheerily recites the very same piece of rather disparaging research, about the relatively stunted development of bus drivers’ brains compared to the magnificent extension of the brain's hippocampus displayed by their cab-driver counterparts.

No Growth Mindset session seems complete without this bus-driver/taxi-driver comparison. So I suspect most teachers and TAs reading this will already be sickeningly familiar with the reason for the taxi-driver's greater cerebral growth. But – in the unlikely event of the odd reader not already having heard this several times - it’s all because bus-drivers like Viv only have to learn a handful of repeated routes, whereas the cabbie’s brain has to apply and adapt its knowledge, calculating brand new journey-routes throughout each working day. 

The example has become the trainer's INSET favourite because it fits in so well with a key aspect of the Carol Dweck “Mindset” message. GM presenters naturally draw upon it as a neat way of illustrating the brain's immense potential, given the right conditions.

Let's be clear, though, I’m as Growth-Mindset-minded as anyone.  As someone who learned in my youth how to do over a thousand keepie-uppies with a tennis ball  I can confirm that you don’t need to have any innate talent in order to become exceptional at something – however pointless and unattractive that skill might sometimes prove to be.

Surely there should be some concern, however, over the apparent impact of these repeat-training sessions on the brain development of the Growth Mindset presenters themselves? Are they themselves turning into “bus drivers”?  Are they now in an existential crisis of their own making?

Consider what may have happened to those presenters and trainers over recent years. All would have gone well for their brains in the early days. The mere process of learning how to present their message well would have ticked all the Growth Mindset boxes. After some early failures, they learned and practised how to deliver brilliantly, in the same way in which I achieved the infinitely more useless feat of assuming almost complete keepie-up mastery over a tennis-ball. 

These Growth Mindset disciples  “became” excellent through doggedness and the all-important "practice"; nothing to do with any so-called “natural talent”. They were, themselves, a shining example of what humans can achieve. By travelling around the country and presenting to us they became highly accomplished in delivering their message. The voice variation, the timely links to slides, the video-clips, the pertinent quotations and the accompanying jokes all became breathtakingly slick, eventually.

But maybe that routine has now become just too familiar to them, rather like driving along the same old bus route? Going down that same path again and again is surely no longer stretching their brains. I fear for the shrinking hippocampus within them. Though if it is now reverting to the apparent size of a bus-driver’s it would - at last - give them a new example to present to their audiences:  themselves.

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Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire. 

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