The Problem with Growth Mindset
It is difficult to think of an idea in the recent educational past that has had as much traction as growth mindset. In researching this topic, I set a Google alert and was genuinely surprised at the amount of articles dedicated to, or referencing it on a daily basis. Growth mindset is a cultural juggernaut its followers are legion. However, recent evidence would suggest that it’s not the educational elixir of life that many of its proponents claim it to be. They might protest that it’s a sound theory infected by poor implementation but there is another argument to say that growth mindset was fatally flawed from the outset and it is now more virus than host at this stage.
Certainly when viewed as an intervention, there are reasons to be sceptical but when viewed as a guiding principle or a set of values, few can disagree with the power of this idea. Perhaps the problem is that growth mindset has travelled too far from its original intent and should be seen as more of a philosophy and less of an ‘intervention.’ Although we have mapped much of the terrain of how we learn, there is still a vast hinterland unavailable to us. Growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, but when administered in the classroom, doesn’t appear to be working. Rather like Dr. Rank in Ibsen’s famous play, we might be able to diagnose the illness but ultimately, we are powerless to cure it.
There is a story of uncertain origin about a visitor to the home of Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Neils Bohr who was surprised to discover a horseshoe nailed above the door of his home. This symbol of superstition was not something he expected to find at the abode of such an eminent man of science. Could the man who made such important discoveries in the fields of atomic structure and quantum theory really believe that a horseshoe brings good luck? When asked, Bohr’s reply was characteristically elusive: “of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.” Despite a lack of evidence, in many schools today growth mindset theory functions as a kind of Bohr’s horseshoe hanging over the front gates; it ‘works’ whether you believe in it or not.
At any rate, I have written a long-ish essay on this topic for Aeon which you can read here.
Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching
1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.
While there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement and we tend to think of it in that order, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round (Guay, Marsh and Boivin, 2003.) It may well be the case that using time and resources to improve student academic achievement directly may well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds (2011) note that:
At the end of the day, the research reviewed shows that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.
Despite this, a lot of interventions in education seem to have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time and may well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. In my experience, teaching students how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, careful scaffolding and then praising their effort in getting there is a far more effective way of improving confidence than showing them a TED talk about how unique they are.
2. Just because they’re engaged doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.
One of the slides from a talk that has stuck with me the most in recent years was this one from Professor Rob Coe which in which he criticised graded lesson observations and highlighted several performance indicators for learning which are actually very misleading:
This again is quite a counterintuitive claim. Why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning? This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks.
3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing.
This subtle difference may seem semantic but there is an important distinction to be made. The value in marking a piece of work may counterintuitively be of more benefit to the teacher than the student as David Didau explains:
While there’s no doubt that marking and feedback are connected, they are not the same. In some parts of the world – Japan for instance – teachers do very little marking but that’s not to say students are not getting feedback. From my own experience, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to make marks in students’ books without providing anything in the way of useful feedback and of course lots of thinking (some of it disastrous) has been done to try to prevent this from happening. Ask any group of teachers if their marking load has increased dramatically in past five years and they’ll fall over themselves to let you know just how much impact marking has on their lives, but what impact does it have on students’ outcomes? The answer is, we just don’t know.
4. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.
Possibly the most damaging misappropriation of research in my career has been the mangling of Assessment For Learning – a quagmire from which we are now only beginning to emerge. Not long after Dylan Wiliam’s seminal 1998 ‘Inside the Black Box’ became adopted at a national level, school leaders and policy makers managed to twist it into a pale imitation of its original form as AFL became about students memorising what level they were working at and teachers marking books at a level that defied sense in order to show ‘evidence’ of learning. But for feedback to be truly meaningful to students, they need to take ownership of it which may well mean not giving levels to a piece of work at all and instead just leaving comments for the student to reflect and act upon. As Dylan Wiliam writes:
Robyn Renee Jackson suggests that one of the most important principles for teachers is “Never work harder than your students” (Jackson, 2009). I regularly ask teachers whether they believe their students spend as long processing feedback as it takes for the teacher to provide it. Few teachers say yes. We spend far too much time giving feedback that’s either completely ignored or given scant attention.
5. (a) The steps needed to achieve a skill may look very different to the final skill itself.
If you want to get good at a certain skill then surely the best way to get good at it is to practice that particular skill right? Well not according to the tenets of deliberate practice which asserts a more indirect approach that breaks a global skill down into its constituent local parts and focuses on specific feedback and incremental improvement rather than a set of assessment criteria/performance descriptors that are “aimed at some vague overall improvement.” (Ericsson) In her book ‘Making Good Progress’, Daisy Christodoulou writes:
Whilst skills such as literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking are still the end point of education, this does not mean that pupils always need to be practising such skills in their final format. Instead, the role of the teacher and indeed, the various parts of the education system, should be to break down such skills into their component parts, and to teach those instead. This means that lessons may look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil. For example, a lesson which aims to teach pupils reading may involve pupils learning letter-sound correspondences. A lesson with the ultimate aim of teaching pupils to solve maths problems may involve them memorising their times tables. The idea here is that the best way to develop skills does not always look like the skill itself.
5. (b). There is no such thing as developing a ‘general’ skill.
Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of the curriculum is often meaningless and ineffective. As Daniel Willingham puts it:
[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.
This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission but without anchoring them in domain specific contexts, they are often a waste of time. Anders Ericsson develops this point:
This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon.
I’ve written more about this here and this by Dan Willingham is probably the definitive piece on critical thinking.
Not All Stress is Bad. The Benefits of Eustress or ‘Good Stress’ For Learning
In the 1930s endocrinologist Hans Selye differentiated between two types of stress, distress and eustress. We are all familiar with the first term but perhaps less with the second term which refers to a positive response to external stressors leading to a state of optimism, confidence and agency, in other words ‘good stress.’ The origins of this model has its roots in 1908 when psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson posited that productivity is directly correlated with an optimal state of stress. Too little of it and you get nothing done, too much of it and you get nothing done either.
A key concern of anyone working in education is monitoring the stress levels of staff and students. Of course we don’t want anyone to be in a state of distress but we now live in an age that often views all stress as distress without acknowledging the benefits of eustress. Is it possible to imagine a more ‘stress-tolerant’ culture where students embrace a ‘sweet spot’ or optimal level of stress, one where we could engender a atmosphere of positive challenge and agency? As Ben Martynoga points out:
This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.
The key point here is that both of these states are responses to external stressors as opposed to being caused by events themselves, in other words, perception is everything. A key question here is in what way do educators shape the perception that all stress is distress?
Broadly there are two responses to stress, an initial avoidance and then subsequent coping strategies. For a group of Yale researchers, both of these approaches deny the benefits of eustress because they perpetuate the idea that all stress is bad:
These approaches advocate and perpetuate the mindset that stress-is-debilitating, a mindset that not only is partly inaccurate but may also be counter-effective. Even hardiness and resilience approaches to stress, while acknowledging the enhancing outcomes, still ultimately affirm the mindset that the debilitating effects of stress must be managed or avoided.
In contrast to the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset, these researchers discovered that students could be primed to adopt a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset in which they embraced a certain level of stress and which resulted in them being more open to seeking help, more open to feedback, which led to lower levels of distress overall and which had “positive consequences relating to improved health and work performance.” This “stress-is-enhancing” mindset has many resonances with Robert Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties.
We are all familiar with the”stress-is-debilitating” mindset. When we have open ended large tasks, we are often are on the left of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, with little or no stress and thus no stimulation to act, but when the deadline is looming, we find ourselves often on the right of that curve, in a state of paralysis, unable to act and making poor decisions in an effort to alleviate the distress. Clearly then the ‘sweet spot’ is to be in a state of eustress, characterised by hope, excitement, active engagement, (O Sullivan, 2010) and that feeling that you are in control of the task you are faced with.
While there are some serious external stressors that are debilitating no matter what your response to them, two questions worth asking are:
- Are the kinds of tasks we are asking students to do genuinely placing them in a state of distress or could they be seen more positively as a potential state of eustress?
- Are we focusing on teaching methods that actually increase distress such as a focus on the storing of information as opposed to the retrieval of it?
In education research there is often very little consensus, but one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in the testing effect. We now know that the worst thing we can advise students to do in terms of revision is to re-read material and highlight key points, and that the most effective thing we can advise them to do is to practice retrieving information through testing, preferable through self testing, low stakes quizzing and flash cards. This distinction between storage and retrieval processes is well researched as Roediger and Butler explain:
“The testing effect is a robust phenomenon: The basic finding has been replicated over a hundred times and its generalizability is well established.”
So we know that testing is beneficial for learning but yet the general perception of testing seems to be altogether negative. Is the problem not just the high stakes nature of them but also how students are prepared for them? If students are using poor study techniques like re-reading and highlighting material for most of the school year within a curriculum that is not interleaved but focuses on mass practice, is it any wonder that they enter a state of distress when they enter exam season?
Stress experienced early in life can be debilitating and potentially devastating if compounded throughout life. Where children experience prolonged periods of distress they need the proper help and support to enable them to cope and we clearly have some way to go in this area. But are the kinds of tasks that we are asking them to do in schools genuinely creating a state of distress? If stress is a often a question of perception as Selye claimed then to what extent is it helpful to portray testing and exams for example as a key contributor to a “mental health crisis spiralling out of control?”
Stress is a very difficult area because it is highly subjective and often results in emotional and sometimes irrational reactions to it. We all want to create a healthy, productive atmosphere for staff and students in which they feel they have agency over their future and in which they don’t feel overwhelmed by external stressors but by viewing all stress as distress without harnessing the hidden benefits of eustress, we might just be missing a trick.
Diamond DM, et al. (2007). “The Temporal Dynamics Model of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law”. Neural Plasticity: 33. doi:10.1155/2007/60803. PMID 17641736.–
O’Sullivan, Geraldine (18 July 2010). “The Relationship Between Hope, Eustress, Self-Efficacy, and Life Satisfaction Among Undergraduates”. Social Indicators Research 101 (1): 155–172. doi:10.1007/s11205-010-9662-z.
Roediger & Butler Encyclopedia of the Mind (2013)
Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response
Inspirational culture and the celebration of failure in education
Speaking on the art of direction, Terry Gilliam said that the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick is that while Spielberg gives you comforting answers, they’re not very clever answers, whereas Kubrick gives you something you have to really think about. For Gilliam, Kubrick’s work articulates a more recondite truth about humanity that doesn’t patronise its audience with platitudes and banalities but instead celebrates ambiguity, complexity and rejects the comforting, media friendly sound byte.
Spielberg’s work has its place of course and provides just as valid a form of entertainment as anything else. Sometimes “not very clever answers” are exactly what we need, but when those answers overreach their scope and are posited as a deep and inherent truth about life and offered as a maxim for how to live our lives, we risk conflating the truly profound for the pseudo profound. Inspirational culture is characterised by this conflation, telling us that the world is a lot simpler that is actually is.
This week there have been a series of ‘inspirational’ messages aimed at comforting students facing difficult exams. One of the central messages is that failing these exams doesn’t matter and that what really counts is “dreaming big” or “going on adventures.” Other messages advise students taking their SATS not to study over the weekend but instead “ride a scooter” or “eat Haribo and ice cream.”
While well intentioned, these statements conceal some concerning messages. They give students comforting, easy answers to difficult questions and implicitly tell them that instead of confronting difficulties, and being OK with confronting difficulties, they should instead be entertained all the time and be unconcerned with consequences. These messages fetishise failure as a means of growing, but failure doesn’t mean dismissing challenge and difficulty. Real failure means trying your very best at something and learning from the experience come what may, not “dreaming big” on a scooter all weekend.
Many inspirational messages not only patronise children with overly simple answers but also reveal a deep ignorance about the very real challenges many of them face. A lot of inspirational culture seems to come via highly successful individuals from wealthy backgrounds who fetishise their own failure with evangelical zeal, but failure is relative. What if you are from a second generation immigrant family with English as a second language? Is it in their best interest to eat Haribo and ice cream all weekend rather than giving themselves every opportunity of academic success? For many purveyors of failure, the consequences of flippantly failing the SAT exam as an adult and posting it on social media are on a different planet to the kind of consequences many kids from deprived backgrounds will face. Failure is relative and not all failure is good. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s “inspirational” message earlier this year claiming that things had “not been easy for him” and that his father had given him a “small loan” of a million dollars to help him get started.
And while we’re on exams, a curious claim this week was that the SATs tests were were too “middle class” and “would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills.” Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about? Isn’t the point of education to broaden the minds of young people and introduce them to the vast expanse of human achievement and the natural world? Surely we want children to be intellectually curious, to have an ever expanding thirst for the best which has been thought and said, and to be exposed to a world beyond the limits of their time and space.
Failure has become the cri de cœur of the inspirational movement. A Princeton academic recently published a ‘Failure CV’ to wide acclaim which lists among them, a series of failed research funding proposals. However, rejections from doctorate programs at Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are a world away from the prospect many children face if they fail key exams up to 16. All failure is not equal, and to propagate that is ill-judged, to celebrate it is irresponsible.
Inspirational culture implicitly tells the reader that they are too stupid to understand actual complexity and that they can do their thinking for them by summing up deep philosophical problems like failure in a pithy phrase or inspirational slogan on social media. We shouldn’t patronise children with the facile platitudes of inspirational messages (many of which are merely cynical opportunism,) we should be honest with them about the consequences of failure, both good and bad. We should equip them with the bravery to accept irresolution, challenge and difficulty and not provide them with the simple answers of inspirational culture. Failure may be an option for some of us, but not for all of us and for some kids, the consequences are far greater than others.