Why mindsets aren't a magic wand

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Schools have rushed to embrace Carol Dweck's theory of learning, but a too-simplistic interpretation of its `growth' and `fixed' narrative is a dangerous fairy tale that risks leaving some students unhappy ever after, warns Tim O'Brien

In education, the way that ideas and theories are culturally transmitted through and between schools and systems can sometimes be problematic. An illusion can become a solution, a hypothesis can become a truth and one approach among many can become the only approach in town.

Carol Dweck's mindset theory risks becoming the latest victim of this all-too-common process. It arrived heralded by a fanfare of interventionist trumpets and was given an almost unilaterally positive welcome. Schools rushed with open arms to embrace it. But the education world needs to pause for a moment and take a breath, as Dweck's research could easily be misinterpreted. At its core lies a binary world more reminiscent of fairy tales than reality, and if schools apply mindset research in a particular way the results could be highly damaging.

Before I explain further, let me provide a brief context about the psychology of learning. At a cognitive level, we pay attention to new information, process it, restructure it and make meaning from it. This enables us to learn and, hopefully, remember.

However, learning is not just a cognitive activity. Whenever we learn something, especially something new, we send out a party invitation to a whole range of emotions that relate to our perception of self. You know, those critical inside-your-head aspects of learning that even Ofsted cannot see and measure (yet), such as anxiety, confidence and fear. Learning is a risky business that presents us with the possibility of emotional, as well as cognitive, overload.

Then there is the impact that social factors have on cognitive and emotional processes. If I teach, it doesn't always mean that you learn. Learning is complex.

It was around this complexity that a body of research emerged. Researchers were exploring areas such as personality, motivation and attribution and their role in the psychology of learning. Dweck's seminal work in the field, Mindset, published in 2006, was part of this.

Collectively, the findings raise important questions about whether beliefs can become barriers to achievement and about people's capacity to transform their own psychology. But it is important to note that they are just questions - they are not pedagogic solutions.

This brings us to my interest in the fixed or growth mindset fairy tale and how it is being told in education.

Once upon a time

Dweck's proposition is that we have two mindsets: either a "fixed" mindset or a "growth" one. If you have the former, you believe your intelligence and talent are static and that trying to change them is fruitless. If you have a growth mindset, you believe the opposite.

Mindset research is interesting to teachers in many ways: for example, in how they view a struggling learner and how it could assist in formulating strategies to support that learner. But mindset should be seen as one of many available ways of developing a teaching approach that will meet learning need.

Unfortunately, we risk something quite different happening in schools. It is all too easy for mindset to become the only theory in town and misinterpreted as a catch-all method for defining learners. This enables it to dictate interventions and to be the golden filter through which all other strategies and interventions must pass. This version of mindset-in-action has no bearing on reality - it's a damaging fairy tale.

I say this because the most fundamental tenet of a fairy tale is the polarising of reality. Although fairy tales deal with universally recognised problems, they do so by depicting an eitheror world. In this "A or B" environment, there is no room for complexity, diversity or ambiguity. It is a binary world where people are beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid, good or bad, heroes or villains. Also, people in the fairy-tale world are typical rather than individual - they are more broad-brushstroke than detailed canvas.

This fairy-tale world is not the real world and it is certainly not the world of schools. One of the wonderful challenges of being a teacher is developing your sensitivity and creativity to enable you to respond to individuals' complexity.

We must guard against "A or B" thinking creeping into schools because it can misdirect teachers away from accepting diversity, working with unpredictability and developing their own professional artistry.

Bad medicine

Yet in this new mindset environment, a teacher trying to establish which mindset learners possess will naturally place them as learners on the fixed pole or the growth pole. Instead of the teacher having multiple lenses through which to understand individuality and commonality, they now have only two.

It will not be long before a teacher who frames learners like this will define people like this too, and the type of mindset that you have now becomes the sort of person that you are.

You might argue that schools take more notice of context than that and will consider a learner to have, for example, a fixed mindset in mathematics and a growth mindset in music. But that does not work either.

The thing about the fixed or growth proposition is that it is descriptive and it does not encourage a teacher to predict or generate new formulations of mindset. All that teachers are left with is the hope of being able to teach a growth mindset to those who have a fixed one.

Instead of focusing on what is at the heart of pedagogy - creating relationships - teachers may become obsessed instead with dishing out a daily dose of growth mindset "try harder" medicine.

Although it is damaging for all learners, this shift will hit a certain group particularly hard. Fairy tales always have a shadow - a more sinister side to their narrative - and it is here that we come to the shadow of the fixed or growth dichotomy: it has the potential to further marginalise students who are already marginalised by the education system.

Clearly this is not the intention of fixed or growth mindset research. However, culture is not something nebulous that exists around you or happens to you - every teacher is a cultural architect, and the cultural transmission of the fixed or growth fairy tale in schools makes marginalisation a distinct likelihood. Allow me to explain.

As mentioned earlier, when you polarise learners it's possible that how you conceive of them becomes polarised, too. On one pole you have the growth-mindset learners. There they all are with their ever-expanding brains, capacity to turn setbacks into success and their incremental theory of intellect. Over on the other pole are the fixed-mindset learners, with their maladaptive thinking, their learned helplessness and their endemic lack of persistence. They must be the ones who did not pay full attention to the "winners never quit, quitters never win" poster on the classroom wall.

Perhaps not. Maybe the more painful emotional aspects of learning are just too much to take when you really do give your best but never succeed at the level that is required by the system. Try-harder medicine can taste very sour in such circumstances.

The learner who presents with behavioural difficulties - who needs intensified understanding to help him change - now simply has a fixed mindset. The adolescent learner with emotional difficulties who used to get criticised in the staffroom for having a "chip on her shoulder" now has a far more respectable research-based label to be used against her - she's got a fixed mindset, too.

When reality is polarised, the threat of stereotyping also emerges. Learners who experience social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are likely to be the first victims here because they perpetuate the polarised predictability of the fairy-tale world. Their fixed mindsets and their challenging behaviour serve to reinforce and amplify the "citizenship" and "character" of those who are not like them. This simply ensures the continuation of a discourse that is about them rather than with them.

The fixed- or growth-mindset concept will be used against certain groups of learners as a tool for labelling, blame and exclusion. It may be happening already.

A different ending

I wish to make it clear here that the fairy-tale telling of mindset theory is not the fault of teachers - cultural transmission is a phenomenon that occurs in all environments. Teachers simply need to be given the time and opportunity to take more control over this type of transmission process.

But how can they do that? Teachers are constantly bombarded with one externally imposed pedagogic demand after another. Soul-devouring bureaucrats and rampant test-fetishists have hijacked education.

The rules of the game have to change. Since leaving teaching I have observed from a distance the ongoing erosion of teachers' confidence. Of course, I know that there are assured and inspirational teachers in schools but it is their lack of confidence as a professional body that worries me. Maybe the decades of enforced change without consultation have understandably worn teachers down and gnawed away at their resolve. I would love to hear them speak with one voice. If they did, they could begin to reclaim pedagogy and pedagogic processes.

I hear a lot about evidence-based practice in education, but what about practice-based evidence? I believe that as a consequence of their professional working conditions, teachers in sufficient numbers are still not confident enough to initiate, impact-assess and champion their own examples of practice-based evidence.

They have been almost beaten into submission. This is not surprising when others create the teaching and learning model for you and become the key influencers in how you deliver it. A rigorous teacher-generated pedagogic evidence base could help change this situation. It would also increase the confidence and perceived value of teachers as a professional body. Teachers could then use their own evidence base and professional expertise to stand up for what all learners have in common, as well as the needs of groups and individuals. After all, they are the ones doing the teaching and reflecting on a daily basis. Teachers should be the makers, not the takers.

Standing up for what you can demonstrate to be pedagogically valid and authentic for your learners is powerful. It also works.

Many years ago, such an approach enabled my colleagues and me to turn around a special school that was in special measures: a school that would now be described as bursting at the seams with fixed-mindset learners.

Unless we challenge the status quo, the cultural transmission of ideas will proceed unchecked. What will also continue is that the teaching profession will remain anonymous, or even disrespected, when decisions are made about what education should and shouldn't look like.

Teachers can regain their professional confidence and pride by leading the pedagogic debate from the inside and shaping a tradition of evidence-based practice. They could start by questioning and investigating how they are making meaning out of mindset theory, take a good look at whether they are telling a fairy tale and always be conscious that such stories usually have a dark side.

Dr Tim O'Brien is a psychologist and former teacher who worked in mainstream and special education. His last academic post was in psychology and human development at the Institute of Education, University of London. He currently works with individuals and teams in global business and elite sport. Find him on Twitter at @doctob

`We should certainly not dismiss it as a fad'

International research into growth mindsets has had encouraging results, writes Education Endowment Foundation chief executive Sir Kevan Collins, pictured.

We must be careful that promising science like this isn't discarded without careful consideration and rigorous evaluation. After all, it's only through conducting robust trials and getting better evidence that we can really help teachers to better understand the mindset approach and its impact on wider outcomes.

At the Education Endowment Foundation, we funded a randomised controlled trial of Changing Mindsets, a programme developed from Carol Dweck's ideas, to find out whether growth mindsets could have a positive impact on attainment.

We tested two methods. One taught pupils directly about the malleability of intelligence; the second trained teachers on approaches to developing and reinforcing growth mindsets through their teaching.

The pupils who attended the workshops made an average of two additional months' progress in English and maths. Although the findings were not statistically significant, the results for English were close to statistical significance, giving us some evidence that this approach shows promise.

However, pupils whose teachers were taught mindset theory made no additional progress in maths compared with pupils in the control group. So teaching pupils about growth mindsets directly is likely to be more effective in increasing attainment than training their teachers.

Our findings show that the approach has promise in improving attainment and we should certainly not dismiss it as a fad. But they also illustrate how important it is for us to test the conditions and implementation of innovative practice before we pass judgement on its effects.

`High levels of teacher self-confidence are vital'

In many high-performing countries, there is a dawning realisation that high levels of teacher confidence - or self-efficacy - are linked to the health of their education systems, writes John Bangs, pictured, senior consultant to Education International.

"Self-efficacy" is still a niche term, but the most authoritative study of teachers' professional views globally, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis), uses it a lot. It basically means that teachers are confident they can enhance the learning of their students and know that their professional views are respected. For "self-efficacy" read "self-confidence".

A number of initiatives seek to enhance confidence by empowering teachers professionally. In the US, the Obama administration's partnership with teacher unions on promoting teacher leadership is one. In the UK, the University of Cambridge's International Teacher Leadership project is another. Some of the most useful information, however, comes from Talis.

The 2013 Talis report finds that good staff collaboration, positive teacher feedback, quality professional development, positive staff-student relationships, job satisfaction and how much society values teachers all feed into self-efficacy.

The report also argues that teachers should play a role in decision-making in schools and calls for policymakers to issue guidance on teacher leadership.

Scotland doesn't participate in Talis, but how did its neighbour England fare? The report strongly recommends that schools should engage teachers in decision-making and that the quality of their professional development should be improved.

Its strongest criticism, however, is reserved for the country's performance-management system. On average, more than half the teachers who responded to the 2013 Talis survey had a poor view of formal appraisal because they felt it was largely undertaken to fulfil administrative requirements; in England, that outlook was even worse, with a third fewer teachers viewing appraisal positively than the average. The report argues that since self-efficacy is vital for teachers, the system should be changed to introduce positive feedback.

Why does all this matter? As OECD director Andreas Schleicher notes in his background document for this year's annual summit on the teaching profession, "research suggests that there are positive associations between self-efficacy, job-satisfaction and student achievement".

In other words, high levels of teacher self-confidence are vital for a successful education system.

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