Category Archives: Mindset

Masters and Performers

[This is a rather long post – sorry. It also may appear a little disjointed in places as it’s a small part of much larger work. I will update later with references]

Many teachers are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck and popularisation of her Mindset theory (I’ve blogged about it before). However, Dweck’s earlier pre-mindset research allows us to see how the theory developed and its connection with other areas such as emotion and helplessness.

Back in the 1980’s Dweck, along with Carol Diener, carried out several studies using fifth and sixth grade children in the United States. They divided the children into two groups based on the outcome a questionnaire, designed to identify those children who displayed helpless characteristics. The aim was to attempt to separate those children who showed persistence in the face of failure (the mastery-orientated approach) from those who tended not to persist when presented with the possibility of failing. The children would then be presented with a number of tasks ranging in difficulty in an attempt to see who would persist and who would give up. More importantly, Dweck and Diener also recorded the flow of the children’s thoughts and feelings as well as their performance.

This early research uncovered a number of fascinating behaviours related to learners and the learning process and highlights the dangers of helplessness. When children are comfortable with their learning and can complete tasks or problems successfully, they remain quite confident about their ability and intelligence – this is the case regardless of orientation. Setting goals too low may, therefore, create a false sense of success because challenge is negligible, however, increasing the level of challenge will trigger helpless behaviour in certain learners and mastery behaviour in others. Pupils categorised as helpless begin to act in dysfunctional and damaging ways when things start to get harder and success on the task becomes more elusive. One of the first things these students begin to do is denigrate their own abilities and blame their intelligence (or rather, their perceived lack of intelligence) on the inability to succeed. Dweck and Diener found that children made specific verbal attacks on their own ability such as ‘I guess I’m not very intelligent’ or ‘I’m no good at things like this’. In fact, one-third of the helpless group spontaneously denigrated their own intellectual ability while none of the mastery group resorted to such intense self-criticism.

Remember that these children had already had a string of successes and it was only when they hit problems and began to fail did they begin to lose faith in their own ability. Before they hit problems their performance was indistinguishable from that of the mastery group; they had rapidly discarded these earlier successes and decided that they weren’t clever enough even though their earlier success should have made them feel more confident about their ability. When asked how many problems they had solved successfully, the helpless children recalled more unsuccessful attempts – they remembered their performance as poorer than is actually was. In another study, students were presented with solvable problems first and difficult ones later. It was found that the helpless group were less likely to solve the later problems even though they were easier, suggesting that the helpless orientation is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self. Furthermore, it works to impair ability and results in less effective cognitive strategies.

We can get a better insight into how helpless orientated students cope with failure by examining their on-going verbal responses during the task. Dweck and Diener tracked the thoughts and feelings of their participants as they solved the problems, in an attempt to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings. Change in attitude was rapid in the helpless group once the tasks got difficult and they started to fail. While the problems presented were solvable the children appeared quite pleased with themselves but when the problems became difficult they lost interest and complained of being bored. The ways in which they coped with the anxiety and self-doubt that exploded within them once they realised that they were having difficulties solving the problems, often involved the children drawing attention to other non-task related successes. In what appeared to be an attempt to counter the failure experienced in the experimental situation, some children would inform the researchers that they had been given and important part in the school play or had succeeded in some other activity unrelated to the task. Others would try to change the rules or give plausible explanations for giving the wrong answer. Even these young children were found to be making desperate attempts to safeguard their self-esteem, in other words, they were trying hard not to seem unintelligent. As a result, the helpless group displayed a significant deterioration in the strategies they used to solve the problems as they increased in difficulty. Interestingly, they didn’t appear to objectively decide that the task was too hard for them but increasingly condemned their own abilities, leading them descend into depression and anxiety.

Carol Dweck’s early work investigated the different ways in which helpless and goal orientated learners approached problems. Other psychologists working in the area of motivation and learning have identified two specific ‘goal orientations’ that appear to influence the way in which learners approach the goals set for or by them. The first is known as the ‘performance goal’ orientation (the ‘helpless’ group in the Dweck and Diener study and the orientation) while the second has been labelled the ‘mastery goal’ orientation. The primary aim of the performance goal learner is first and foremost to demonstrate their competence or to avoid looking incompetent. Furthermore, performers tend to select activities that are easier and therefore represent a higher chance of success. For performers, success is everything, even if that success comes about because they have chosen a task that is below their capabilities. Revising and preparing for exams might include constantly going over the same material because they already know it rather than moving onto to a topic they don’t fully understand. In a similar way, given the choice between a task that requires little cognitive investment and one that takes a great deal of effort and thought, the performer would be more likely to choose the latter. The performer might claim that a particular task is pointless or stupid or say that they just can’t be bothered with it. Those displaying a mastery goal orientation, however, are more likely to choose more challenging tasks and persist at them; the primary aim here is to attain a new skill, one that requires dedication and persistence. So the child who constantly complains that it’s pointless to become skilled at algebra because he is never going to use it again, is more than likely anxious about others in the class viewing him as unintelligent because he struggles with algebra, whereas another child perseveres because she wishes to master the techniques of algebra regardless of its future utiliy.

Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, further developed the view of master and performance orientations, in part due to the inconsistency of the evidence linking performance goals to a number of other motivational constructs. Elliot proposes a trichotomous model that further differentiates between performance-approach, performance-avoidance and mastery goal orientations. It’s important for us to understand that this separating out of the two performance goal orientations grew from the inconsistencies within the research involving the performance only goal orientation; essentially the original distinctions were unable to be explained in terms of research findings. Basically, performance-approach goal orientations represent the individuals’ attempts to demonstrate competence (through the strategies already discussed) while performance-avoidance orientations represent attempts for the learner to avoid being seen as incompetent. Goal orientations fundamentally alter the way learners view achievement situations, having a knock on effect on the ways in which individuals approach learning situations and, ultimately, achievement outcomes. While those students displaying performance-goal orientations will continue to avoid challenging tasks as a means of demonstrating competence, performance avoiders are more likely to disengage and withdraw from the learning process. The performance-avoidance orientation has also been linked to number of other outcomes including shallow processing, poor retention of information and performance decrements.

Mastery goal learners, on the other hand, are expected to enhance their achievement though placing a greater value on improving their skills and developing competencies. Not only that, but, as Andrew Elliot and Carol Dweck discovered, they are also more likely to display greater levels of persistence and employ more advanced cognitive strategies that lead to the deeper processing of information. Furthermore, empirical evidence has discovered that those students who focus more on trying to develop competence are more resilient in the face of challenge and are more likely to employ higher-level cognitive strategies such as elaboration, critical thinking and self-regulated learning. All this would suggest that a mastery goal orientation is directly related to higher levels of achievement; however, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this view. Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost researchers into emotions and motivation, analysed 74 correlational studies, finding that only about 40 per cent of them showed a positive relationship between mastery orientation and academic achievement with five per cent showing a negative relationship. This would certainly suggest that there is some benefit to mastery goal orientation, but in research terms the results are not deemed statistically significant, in other words, the effect is too small, so we can’t be sure of any causal relationship. Frustratingly, there is also some concern over the relationship between performance-approach goals and academic outcomes, with some studies showing a positive correlation between performance-approach goals and cognitive regulation while other studies have found no significant relationship or even a negative relationship.

Inconsistent findings don’t necessarily mean the theory is flawed, it can mean that things are more complex or nuanced than the theory originally proposed. The research for both mastery goals and performance approach goals is in conflict with regards to academic outcomes; the findings for performance approach goals have also been inconsistent in term of persistence. If you remember, those students displaying a performance approach orientation were less likely to persist with a task once the going got tough and much of the research supports this view. However, while in many studies those performance-approach students were more likely to withdraw or opt out of a task and to withdraw their time and energy after experiencing failure, other studies found no significant relationship between performance-approach orientation and effort. Just to make things even more complicated, Elliot found a positive relationship between performance-approach goals, effort and persistence.

The main problem we face is that there appears to be no strong relations between performance-approach orientations and achievement. There is certainly and emotional component at play and this could provide us with a way to reconcile these findings. It appears that while some learners are able to successfully regulate possible debilitating emotions, others are unable to do so, leading to less effort and persistence and the feeling that the task is somehow unworthy of their efforts. Mastery-goal orientated learners are less likely to develop debilitating emotions because they view learning as a challenge and something to become skilled at – they view difficulty and challenge as a vital part of the learning process rather than something that exists in order to trick them or to reveal their incompetence to the world. They also see failure as part of the route they must take in order to reach the goals they have set for themselves. In their model of achievement emotions Diana Tyson, Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and Nancy Hill proposed that mastery learners are more likely to evoke positive emotions due to the way they view difficult tasks; they don’t need to regulate debilitating negative emotions because such emotions are much less likely to arise.


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.

Why is a Growth Mindset so difficult to maintain?

Nurture your Growth MindsetI am great believer in the view that the way in which we view intelligence and ability can have a major impact on achievement. So-called ‘implicit theories of intelligent’ have managed to reach a much wider audience through the continued efforts of Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck. Unfortunately, Mindset theory has been over-marketed during the past few years with a multitude of authors using it in order to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, the theory remains sound and easily understood using just two publications: Dweck’s Self-theories and her quintessential Mindset.

Despite being a fervent supporter of Growth Mindset, I don’t always practice what I preach. In my own school the theory has never really taken off (despite significant training for some staff a few years ago) but despite this I always try and encourage it in my own students. However, there are certainly times when I drift from fixed to growth and every shade in-between. This is also true of my students – when things are going well, a growth mindset is easy to maintain; when things aren’t going so well, it becomes more of a struggle.

There are certainly psychological explanations for this. Continual negative experiences grind us down – a personally disappointing grade on a test might not seem so important at the beginning of the year, but if it continues as the year progresses (and exams begin to loom) learned helplessness begins to creep in and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that GM position. Of course, with constructive feedback and continued support we like to think that this situation should never occur – but it does, doesn’t it?

My Year 13 students have reached the stage where, for some, their worlds are beginning to collapse. They are worried about not getting the grades they need for university and, specific to us, rapid changes in school generally and Sixth Form specifically have left them battle-weary. Maintaining a positive mental attitude and a GM becomes difficult in such circumstances and many have reverted to the fixed mindset position I tried so hard to eradicate a year-and-a-half ago. While I support many of these changes, I can’t help thinking that the welfare of students has been eclipsed by the desire to get the boxes ticked and the hoops jumped through. Perhaps this is simply the result of my lifelong (healthy, I think) disrespect for authority.

A Growth Mindset cannot simply be encouraged and then abandoned – it’s an on-going process, one that requires careful nurturing and constant care. Furthermore, recognising that change (positive or negative) can be a potentially destructive force if not carefully managed should be at the forefront of all our minds.

A Growth Mindset can be fragile – it should come with a ‘handle with care’ label.handle-with-care-logo