Mindsets: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown (Notes from Northern Rocks 2015)

I approached our session with fewer nerves than I had anticipated, even when I realised that we had been moved from a room to a lecture theatre at the last minute. I had, as usual, over-prepared, partly because I didn’t want to find myself struggling to convey accurately what I wanted to put across but also because there was just so much I wanted to say; there was so much I felt needed saying. Realistically, Mark and I knew that we would probably run out of time and in the end this came to be more because of the enthusiasm and interest of the audience rather than any error in our timing.

For a few moments I stood and looked out on the empty lecture theatre, wondering if anybody would actually turn up. My fears of having to present to empty seats soon dissolved as people began to filter in and take their places. It was like September, watching a new class of year 12’s enter my classroom for the first time, the farthest away seats being taken up first by most while a tiny number ofEmpty more enthusiastic students target the seats nearest the board. It was a little like that anyway. My heart skipped a little when John Tomsett and David Weston came up to Mark and I to shake our hands before taking their seats right at the front – I admire these men incredibly and felt so privileged that they had come to listen. I was also a little apprehensive, as I knew that John was a big advocate of Mindsets. I couldn’t have hoped for better or more challenging audience, they certainly gave me as much to think about as (I hope) we gave them.

What I intend to do here is try and convey everything that I either didn’t have time to communicate on the day or that which I fear I didn’t communicate as well as I wanted to. It was my job that morning to cast a sceptical eye over the well-known theory of Growth and Fixed Mindsets (aka Implicit Theories of Intelligence) developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. I don’t intend to describe the theory because others have done it so well so many times before (including Dweck herself).

The gist of what we wanted to say goes a little like this:

Growth Mindset interventions need careful implementation and sustained effort from everybody.

It’s much more than just an assembly and those who believe that we can just tell kids to go away and develop a Growth Mindset are either deluded, have simplified the theory into extinction or just want to tick another box for Ofsted. Change certainly doesn’t happen overnight, in fact (and because the Growth Mindset view needs to be deeply embedded into the culture of the school) it could take years of concerted and sustained effort before it becomes a seamless part of the school system.

The ‘system’ conspires against the idea of the Growth Mindset (through setting, target grades and even differentiation), creating a form of whole school cognitive dissonance.

When people try and hold two conflicting views at the same time or are given new information that conflicts with existing information, uncertainty and anxiety rapidly ensue. Telling a child to develop a Growth Mindset and then sending him off to his bottom set Maths lesson with his target grade simply isn’t compatible with the belief that intelligence is malleable and based on effort over innate ability or talent. Differentiation within classes may well have the same impact but has become part of the teachers ‘must do’ list. In many cases differentiation simply amounts to setting with classes; a Russian doll of setting within setting within setting.

Labelling can destroy everything we’re trying to do in a heartbeat.

We’ve been telling boys for years that they’re underachieving; research has found that teachers expect less from poorer kids; we don’t expect girls to be very good at physics. As teachers we don’t want to label our pupils but we do it anyway. We might also label them positively – as ‘gifted and talented’ or ‘more able’. Halo’s and Self-fulfilling Prophesies are not compatible with the nurturing of a Growth Mindset. In our session the audience briefly brought up the term ‘ability’ and if we could exclude it from the educational vocabulary and still be able to do the job effectively – it would have been great to discuss this further but time was not on our side.

Poverty also plays a part in academic ability. While research has found that children from poorer backgrounds are more liable to be negatively labelled by teachers, the very act of being poor has been found to lover IQ by up to 13 points, as cognitive resources are redirected towards mere survival. Interestingly, when I suggested that it would be easier for middle-class kids to buy into the concept of Growth Mindset, a couple of the attendees explained that, in their experience, it was the other way around. Could it be that poverty leads to increased striving in the same way that adversity leads to increased resilience?

Other psychological factors cannot be neglected – a Growth Mindset cannot be embedded in pupils and staff if other factors are ignored.

Pupils view themselves differently as learners – what psychologists call Academic Self Concept (ASC). It tends to be state rather than trait specific so they might see themselves more positively as historians than as mathematicians. Academic Self Concept is deeply embedded, having been built up over time from personal experience and the attitudes of educators towards the subject and the individual pupil. Higher Academic Self Concept is positively correlated with achievement so it would appear that developing a Growth Mindset while ASC remain low represents a non-starter.

At the Psychology in Education Research Centre (PERC) at the university of York, a study the role of positive emotions on day-to-day resilience. There is substantial evidence to suggest that emotions can impact on academic achievement in several ways. Anxiety impacts negatively on cognitive functions such as memory and problem solving and, specifically, can have a detrimental impact on working memory function. Worry has been shown to lower mean GCSE scores which would suggest that Growth Mindset gains would disappear if the learner is prone to test anxiety. So any intervention doesn’t begin with a level playing field – a Mindset intervention in isolation would only benefit certain types of learners.

Measuring the effectiveness of interventions is problematic but necessary.

Given the time, I was intending to discuss the need to measure these interventions and ask if measurement was even necessary. This would depend on a number of factors, including the existence of other competing interventions. Another point revolves around the identification of an outcome measure. For many school-based interventions, exam results are used at the dependent variable – higher GCSE results would suggest that the intervention worked and the assumption would be that this was due to more pupils developing a Growth Mindset. Of course, this is unlikely to be an experimental situation so extraneous variables and competing interventions cannot be ruled out. Mindset can be measured through the many versions Implicit Theories of Intelligence Scale – a self-completion questionnaire consisting of several Likert-scale rated questions. There are, of course problems with self-completion scales so these could be combined with teacher observations.

Whatever the problems, this is still a great theory.

I have to emphasise this because I’ve been so fascinated by the idea of Growth Mindsets for so long. As someone who failed their 11+ exam, I know how setbacks and views of intelligence can set kids back in their education. I also have to admit that I struggle to hold onto a Growth Mindset and I think I tend to slide up and down the continuum. Nevertheless, if we remain critical and ask the right questions, Mark and I would certainly agree that striving to become a Growth Mindset school can only lead to improvement for everyone.

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3 thoughts on “Mindsets: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown (Notes from Northern Rocks 2015)

  1. Pingback: The Mindset Journey | drowningintheshallow

  2. Pingback: Growth Mindset+ Part 1 (the PLUS being perseverance, challenge, expectation, enthusiasm, curiosity and inner voice) all at KS1 | Making sense of Little minds

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