Growth Mindset Research – Sigh.

It seems like the hottest trend in “hard” science academic research is to find the sacred cows of social science academic research, qualitative or quantitative, and slaughter them. Amy Cuddy likely stands as the poster child for this wave, but any research that suggests implicit bias, like the stereotype threat research, has been caught in the cross-fire of culture war battle that academia, and the rest of us, seems intent on waging (on itself).

Next up? Stanford’s Carol Dweck and her acolytes, like David Yeager at the University of Texas, are having their research challenged for its validity via meta-analysis, but on the basis of what appears to be one of the current threads of attack on social science research: publication bias.  In the metastudy from Michigan State, researchers contacted other academics whose growth mindset intervention failed to show results and was not published.

The researchers found a weak correlation between growth mindset interventions and academic achievement, terms they no doubt operationalized somehow. Interventions for children and adolescents had a larger effect than for adults, according to the study, but found that “students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.”

So, ok. I, too, doubt the depth of effect of short reading and writing interventions on long term implicit belief frameworks and self-concept. However, all of this – all of it – seems to miss the point of growth vs. fixed or entity mindset as a conceptual framework. The deep DNA of schooling in the English speaking world is to sort the children into ability groups largely predetermined by the social power of the group a child is born into. The concept

Works. Every. Time.

of a fixed, largely predetermined, innate level of inherited ability is old, but not dead (of course). Sir Ken Robinson’s famous “19th century factory model” analogy resonates, and the bell curve undergirds most testing and assessment. Leading reactionary asshole Jordan Peterson makes a pretty Brave New Argument about the sorts of jobs people can handle by IQ. Fixed mindset, originally termed entity mindset to denote ability as something born within us all, is paradigmatic within and beyond education, so much so that Peterson and his ilk view ability with Joseph Campbell-like depth, woven into reality and expressed by it. But lots of us believe it. Just ask anyone if they are a “math person.”

But as controversial as much of the above might be, what is uncontroversial is expectancy effects, commonly referred to as the Pygmalion Effect, a much replicated reality in which expectations drive outcomes. Rosenthal produced a study in the early 1960’s in which researchers were asked to measure the times of rats through a maze, and some were told their rats were bred for exceptional intelligence – high fixed ability, one might say – others were told nothing, and yet others were told their rats were of low intelligence. The rats were all just rats, like us all, really. “Smart” rats were the fastest, etc. Labeling – the labeling effect – matters, and drives outcomes. This works in the classroom in the exact same way.

Growth mindset is an important implicit belief for teachers to hold, truly, as a north star. Without it, they will implicitly lower their expectations for kids, particularly if those children arrive in the classroom with labels that suggest ability. Everyone can learn, and of course, for certain kinds of learning, some kids come with innate strengths thanks to biology, nutrition, the number of books in their home, and so on. I don’t believe any metastudy has operationalized the implicit beliefs of teachers through a growth mindset lens, and I won’t hold my breath until they do. Truthfully, most people’s experiences with school echo those of Peterson – the infallibility of the Sorting Hat effect. They’ve internalized the fixed mindset communicated by the very structure and purpose of school.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can build for growth, and teach for growth relative only to more growth, to paraphrase Dewey. This is harder to measure than brief interventions, but does and will prove the deep conceptual importance of Dweck’s work.


The Child & The Curriculum – Everything Old is New Again, Again

“Extreme depreciations of the child morally and intellectually, and sentimental idealizations of him, have their root in a common fallacy. Both spring from taking stages of a growth or movement as something cut off and fixed. The first fails to see the promise contained in feelings and deeds which, taken by themselves, are uncompromising and repellent; the second fails to see that even the most pleasing and beautiful exhibitions are but signs, and that they begin to spoil and rot the moment they are treated as achievements. What we need is something which will enable us to interpret, to appraise, the elements in the child’s present puttings forth and fallings away, his exhibitions of power and weakness, in the light of some larger growth-process in which they have their place. Only in this way can we discriminate.” John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, p 13-14

So in my latest reminder that nothing is new, reading John Dewey’s 1902 The Child and the Curriculum exposed that Dewey defined fixed and growth mindsets in educators more than a century before these concepts exploded into TED talks and Twitter. Dewey begins the text by examining the “old education,” which views children as unformed adults in need of improvement, and the “new education,” which views children as complete beings capable of revealing the world to themselves through open, unstructured inquiry. This, distressingly, sounds familiar, as well.

As Dweck’s growth mindset gets battered about in the social sciences research wars, I’ve been considering what makes growth vs. fixed/entity mindset so powerful for me as an educator. As a social constructivist, I am sure that we learn from one another, and that the deeply implicit belief that others around me are learning and can learn, even if it’s not what I wish them to be learning, creates the conditions for growth. By believing in growth as a process, adults can “get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study” (Dewey 11).

Degree presents a key concept for the educator in this regard. In the top quote, Dewey emphasizes discrimination of the child’s progress toward an end, a place on a continuum between novice and expert, not-knowing and knowing, a near infinite series of degrees of capacity. Discrimination places an onus on the educator to at once know what mastery of a given subject looks like and to know the child’s mind. Understanding mastery allows the teacher “to know in what direction the present experience is moving, provided it move normally and soundly… defining a present direction of movement” (Dewey 13). Again, Dewey anticipates Understanding by Design and contemporary curriculum methodology, probably because those authors, brilliant as they are, read Dewey closely.

In this light, Dewey defines teaching as “continuous reconstruction” between the present state of the child and expertise in a subject area (11). The curriculum sets a frame for defining mastery, especially when teachers are asked to serve as a “More Knowledgeable Other” across multiple disciplines daily. Believing in growth as a natural process and the experience of the child as “fluid” exposes for Dewey that “the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process” (11).

The process, of course, is growth. The adult guides the growth; however, Dewey, in characteristic prose, points out that “Guidance is not external imposition. It is freeing the life-process for its own most adequate fulfilment” (17). Dewey defines three levels of a child’s fluid experiences as they dabble in and explore their world: “waning tendencies, ” “prophetic” experiences that suggest future courses of growth, and “signs of a culminating power and interest” which “selected, utilized, emphasized, they may mark a turning-point for good in the child’s whole career; neglected, an opportunity goes, never to be recalled” (14). That’s a great parsing of the teachable moment.

Dewey cautions the educator not to overvalue or celebrate the waning tendency, lest a child become stuck, or to ignore the prophetic in favor of conforming to a different task, lest a child start a million short journeys, always tasting and never eating. Character education, all the rage, suffers from periodicity in this manner – not so much a framework for addressing teachable moments on character in light of a school’s stated values, but more often a means for either judging developmentally appropriate behaviors too harshly as they might wane, thereby fixing them, or dabbling in brief lessons, apropos of nothing, and suggesting that the entire concept of character is mutable and lame.

Clearly, within subject area study, skill and knowledge outcomes, core concepts, and areas for examination must be deeply understood by teachers to allow them to react. Dewey writes that “What new experiences are desirable, and thus what stimuli are needed, it is impossible to tell except as there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at” (19). Reflective, engaged practices connect the teachable moments to a chain of inquiry leading to more and more growth for the child.

The same is true for adults honing their craft. Without a vision for and models of exceptional teaching practice, how can anyone be expected to improve? Some will reach out in the absence of vision or models, particularly with socially networked PLCs or in professional coursework, but left to our own devices or applauded for minor victories, “nothing can be developed from nothing,” Dewey warns us (18). We need a framework.

So here’s my thing: so many of the outcomes of a modern curriculum point to externally examined courses as culminating events – those minor achievements that Dewey warns about in the top quote – or “college & career readiness,” which smacks of dispositional or personality tracking. Often, well-meaning educators fall into prediction and judgement based on some narrow evidence of performance from a subject area in a given time frame. As Dewey writes:

“The child’s present experience is in no way self-explanatory. It is not final, but transitional. It is nothing complete in itself, but just a sign or index of certain growth tendencies. As long as we confine our gaze to what the child here and now puts forth, we are confused and misled. We cannot read its meaning.” (13)

A growth mindset requires that we hold one another, adults and children alike, as works-in-progress in our learning communities, which demands a tremendous amount of grace on the parts of us all. Ours is not to narrow a child’s experience or to communicate limiting judgments to the child, locking her into what Jo Boaler terms “psychological imprisonment.

Growth mindset at once asks the educator to believe in growth, to recognize degrees, and to remain fluid oneself, not fixating on a single moment in the child’s development as a way to understand, once and for all, who the child is, now and forever. A living curriculum creates a framework for learning in which the teacher can make meaning of performances and behavior to suggest and guide future growth toward ever more useful, powerful knowledge and expertise. In this sense, a curriculum provides an epistemological framework for teachers to build a knowledge of learning founded on growth.