The Growth Mindset misunderstood

Roger Titcombe's picture

The width and depth of this misunderstanding is demonstrated in this Guardian headline.

New test for ‘growth mindset’, the theory that anyone who tries can succeed – Researchers are going to examine the theory from American psychology that has taken UK schools by storm. Can it improve Sats results?

It would be hard to get more misunderstandings into a headline.

First, it is not the theory ‘that anyone who tries can succeed’.

This is an especially dangerous misunderstanding as it implies that anybody of any age who does not understand something has just not been trying hard enough. This false notion feeds much of the behaviourist disciplinarianism  that is currently corrupting the English and US education systems and is being used to justify restrictive, rule-driven regimes for school pupils, especially in schools that have adopted the Hirsch knowledge based approach which is explained in this BBC News story.

Hirsch misdiagnoses the difficulty some of his students have in understanding his lessons.

“It wasn’t that they lacked reading ability. It wasn’t even that their vocabularies were excessively small – it was just basic factual information they lacked, which would enable them to understand what they read.”.

The Hirsch solution to understanding hard stuff is to first learn by heart the basic knowledge. According to Hirsch, failure to understand derives from failure to learn the basic facts. Who would argue with that? It appeals to common sense, but when it comes to how learning actually takes place, common sense is frequently wrong, as it is here.

A digression on the general common sense fallacy is needed. It cannot be easily summarised except to state that the laws of nature and the nature of reality are frequently contrary to common sense. This is especially true in relation to learning and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Here are some suggested references.

The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert (1993, new edition 2000)

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)

See also this article

Learning Matters, Roger Titcombe (2015)

The clearest statement of why Hirsch is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky, who is the main historic learning theorist whose work underpins ‘The Growth Mindset’.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

 As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that  Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

Well, momentum = mass x velocity

 Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

‘Alice’ a hypothetical student whose cognition is at the formal operational level, who understands Newton’s Laws of Motion, will also be able to apply her System 2 thinking ability to all concepts that are similarly hard to understand. ‘James’, a student whose cognition has not developed to that level will not only be unable to understand Newton’s Second Law of Motion, he will have the same difficulty with any other concept with the same level of cognitive demand, including those outside maths and science, no matter how hard he tries or how much ‘basic knowledge’ he learns by heart.

Crucially if you give Alice and James a cognitive ability or  IQ test at the stage in their education where Alice understands, but James does not, Alice will come out with a higher score than James. ‘The Growth Mindset’ insists that this is not a fixed difference between them. It is possible that James can be taught to develop the same level of cognition as Alice, but not by memorising facts.

 All teachers know that ‘clever’ students can understand harder stuff than ‘duller’ students, so schools put them in higher streams or sets and leave the duller students in lower streams or sets where they will not face constant failure. How can Hirsch be sure that his students that fail to understand his lessons do not ‘lack ability‘? Has he tested their general cognitive ability levels?

The ‘Growth Mindset’ is not about forcing James to ‘work harder’, it is about teaching James how to learn in such a way that his cognition develops to the level where he can understand harder concepts. The ‘Growth Mindset’ demands the rejection of ‘fixed intelligence’ combined with the recognition of the essential role of failure in the acquisition of understanding.

Forcing pupils to learn things by heart in the absence of understanding makes them not cleverer but dimmer, by denying them a transformative experience of failure and mistakes. For failure to be constructive the learner must be able to consider and evaluate possible reasons for the lack of success, then have another try. This requires the second essential element of ‘The Growth Mindset’, which is called ‘metacognition‘. The pedagogy of ‘The Growth Mindset’ is designed to develop the process of personal individual metacognition by testing it against the metacognitive suggestions and ideas of other students through peer to peer discussion assisted by interventions from the teacher in the form of, ‘what if‘ questions.

Talking and discussing with peers is therefore a key feature of ‘Growth Mindset’ teaching and learning.

 It is not, therefore, going to take root in a school culture that discourages talking where the assumption is that teaching is ‘telling by the teacher’ and learning is ‘listening by the learner, followed by silent rote learning reinforced by regular testing. Of course teachers must impart facts and provide explanations and students must listen to their teachers and to each other, but this is not enough without personal engagement with the essential concepts.

This explains why the ‘Growth Mindset’ does not mean than anyone can understand anything if they try hard enough, and also why English Academies and Free Schools that restrict pupil conversation and have coercive, punishment driven behaviour policies will not succeed with this approach.

To move on to what the ‘Growth Mindset’ actually involves requires consideration of the second major fallacy in the Guardian headline. The theory is not originally from ‘American psychology’. Although much recent excellent work has been published by Carol Dweck in America, the core principles were established by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

The concept of ‘plastic intelligence’ and the development of a practical pedagogy based on its principles are largely down to the lifetime work of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. You can read about this here.

A very good easy read guide to ‘The Growth Mindset’ is, ‘The Growth Mindset Pocketbook‘, Barry Hymer & Mike Gershon (2014)

Here are some quotes. My comments are in square brackets.

For those with fixed mindsets, challenges carry with them the prospect of ‘failure’ and the consequent ‘exposure’ of a limited intelligence.

 When children learn that sticking at tough, challenging tasks leads to changes to their brains [I prefer minds – I am suspicious of neuro-babble] that make them smarter [cleverer], we have a way of disrupting fixed mindsets and reinforcing growth mindsets.

Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education’ (CASE) predates ‘The Growth Mindset’, which draws on the same principles. ‘Learning Intelligence‘ (2002) is a collection of articles from various authors that demonstrate applications of the Cognitive Acceleration approach in a variety of subjects for pupils of all ages.

Section 5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘ addresses principles of ‘The Growth Mindset’ through the work of Shayer and Adey. Here are some quotations.

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs.

 It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

 Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. The idea is that as learners experience cognitive development they also develop a general metacognitive ability that can be characterised as a higher level thinking skill in itself. Einstein described such thinking as ‘thought experiments’, but everybody can be taught to do it.

Lessons that develop cognition and so raise intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

 Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

 A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

 There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the DfE, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts and consequent alienation.

 Not only is ‘The Growth Mindset’ approach not an American innovation, but many of the learning interventions involved, which I have described, have been researched by the DfE funded ‘Education Endowment Foundation’ (EEF). The results of their work and the fact that the conclusions have been largely ignored by the Academy and Free School movement, which is ideologically obsessed with ‘fixed mindset’ approaches, is discussed here.

The thoughtful teacher and education blogger Debra Kidd comes to similar conclusions with regard to the corruption and misunderstanding of ‘The Growth Mindset’ movement. She writes about this here.

The international PISA research into the effectiveness of national education systems comes to similar conclusions as the EEF. My analysis of the results from the latest (2015) round of testing reveals the key relationship between mean national intelligence and the mean national scores on the PISA tests. I go on to show that when student cognitive ability is taken into account the international league table of school system effectiveness is completely changed.

I also speculate on the nature of national cultures that gives rise to differences in mean national intelligences here.

The ‘Growth Mindset’ approach, when not misunderstood and corrupted to justify ‘fixed mindset’ school cultures, allows optimism that the considerable scope for improving the level of intelligence of the general population may lead to population-wide improvements in the quality of knowledge and understanding of the many complex issues confronting UK society and the world as a whole as well as enabling our school leavers to play a full part in our national life and economy.

However the national education systems of the UK and the US are currently following ideologies that lead in the opposite direction and there is little indication that this going to change any time soon.

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