Unfixing Growth Mindset
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Carol Dweck’s idea of growth mindset (GM) – a general attitude of optimism towards learning, which makes engaging with effort and difficulty feel like a positive challenge rather than a threat to self-esteem – has run into a bit of trouble recently. Some practitioners have developed a bit of a fixed mindset about growth mindset, you might say. They have become mesmerised with what Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) called the ‘cheesy posters’. They think by sticking up a few colourful exhortations like ‘Don’t say Can’t; say Can’t YET’ round the classroom, it’s job done – and it isn’t. Such conscious messages tend to be pretty weak drivers of behaviour change, so it is no surprise that such ‘Growth Mindset Lite’ messaging doesn’t seem to have any consistent effect on students’ performance in school. And the research that has failed to find such effects is, of course, catnip to those critics who find anything even mildly psychological distasteful, and prefer to see the world’s wrongs exclusively in sociological terms. They are happy to dismiss Dweck’s substantial body of peer-refereed research, and conclude that, as one elegant blogger put it, "Growth Mindset is bollocks".
It is also true that some proponents and popularisers of GM have presented it in unhelpfully ‘absolutist’ terms, as if it were a thing you had, like ginger hair or freckles, that affected all learning everywhere all the time. But a slightly more nuanced and productive way of looking at GM (and FM) occurred to me a while ago while watching an excellent TED talk by an associate of Carol Dweck’s called Eduardo Briceño.
Here’s how I think about it now (which, be warned, is a bit different from the way Eduardo puts it). When students enter a classroom, say, they (usually) unconsciously put their minds into one of a number of different ‘modes’, and the mode they select determines a range of ways their minds are going to work in that setting. It’s like choosing from the menu of sound modes that are built into an amplifier like a television sound bar. You can opt for ‘Drama’ or ‘Sport’ or ‘Music’ or ‘Documentary’, and so on, and when you do, lots of small adjustments are made inside the amplifier that change the overall quality of the sound.
In L-mode, the goal is to enhance long-term competence. Activities have to involve ‘not perfect yet’ knowledge and skills – things you can improve on.
Just so, kids can set themselves into Learning-Mode, Performance-Mode or Defensive-Mode, and the mode determines how all the different bits of the mind will respond to what happens in that situation. In L-mode, the goal is to enhance long-term competence. Activities have to involve ‘not perfect yet’ knowledge and skills – things you can improve on. Errors and experimentation are treated not just as normal but as essential. Attention is alert to valuable information and feedback. Cheating is pointless; learning starts from admitting you are not good enough yet at something. In P-mode, by contrast, the goal is to create, as near as you can, flawless performance. Activities are based on already-mastered knowledge and skills. Errors, experimentation and the appearance of effort are minimised. Attention is on others’ assessments of your quality (am I going to get the mark or the applause I want?). Cheating, if you can get away with it, becomes a rational option. And in D-mode, your sense of self-worth is under attack; your goal is to avoid or neutralise the threat, and to minimise the psychological damage. You are neither learning nor performing; you are surviving. Activities are driven by fight, flight or freeze. (You try to hide, create a distraction, or seek alternative sources of validation such as peer laughter at your antics.) Attention and energy are dedicated to minimising the damage to self-image and reputation.
The key points that emerge from this way of looking at things are these. First, all of these modes are needed at times; they are all valuable. Second, the issue is: are our learners in the right one for the current circumstances? Third, the choice of mode may well depend not on an accurate appraisal of the current situation, but on expectations derived from experience in apparently similar situations. Fourth, P- and D-modes are most likely to be selected when mistakes are perceived as being costly, either socially (they will laugh at me) or educationally (I won’t get the mark I need). Fifth, we as teachers need to send clear signals about whether ‘now’ is the time for L-mode or for P-mode, and to challenge antiquated or over-generalised expectations that may be counterproductively flipping our learners into the ‘wrong mode’ for the occasion. Fifth, we also need to be sure that there are no inadvertent cues in our classrooms that are causing students to select an inappropriate or unnecessarily defensive mode.
We as teachers need to send clear signals about whether ‘now’ is the time for L-mode or for P-mode, and to challenge antiquated or over-generalised expectations that may be counterproductively flipping our learners into the ‘wrong mode’ for the occasion.
Sixth, all other things being equal, we want L-mode to be our students’ default mode, as this is the mode where learning is fastest and most effective. (That default setting is what we call ‘having a growth mindset’.) Seventh, a ‘fixed mindset’ is just a way of saying that a student in our classroom has got stuck in P-mode: it has become habitual (so we need to fetch our educational WD40 to free them up to be more agile and flexible). And eighth, we can (and should) be explicitly helping our students to be good at each of the modes – experimental, imaginative and adventurous in L-mode; well-rehearsed and calm in P-mode; and able to protect, sooth and take care of ourselves when we find ourselves under threat in D-mode – and agile and perceptive enough to choose the right mode at the right time.
There’s much more along these lines in the series of books about The Learning Power Approach which we are producing at the moment (two out already, a third out in May). Suffice it to say here that we have found this way of thinking to be very productive as we think about our roles and our habits as classroom teachers. What do you think?