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
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.