I’ve recently read a couple of interesting articles which question the efficacy of the research of Carol Dweck (Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (Grit). The complaint is that if we attribute an individual’s failure to a fault or lack in their character then we are apportioning blame; the reason we are unsuccessful is down to our own weak will and poor attitude. The counter argument is that society should be held to account for the failure of those at its margins; if we fail it is down to our lack of opportunity and the prejudices we encounter.
No one would argue that life is fair; it isn’t. Being born into social advantage hugely increases our chances of being successful, and being born into poverty is a crushing burden.
In Let them eat grit Joe Bower argues:
When pundits call for more grit and resiliency, they aren’t talking about all children. No one is demanding that high-scoring students show more grit. When people call for more grit they are talking about the low scorers — and we know the low scorers tend to be children who are English language learners, special needs, living in poverty, suffering from mental health problems or are for complex reasons generally difficult to educate.
Is there something in this? Is it unfair to ask the dispossessed to suck it up and try harder?
In Dweck’s Research and Ideology Cristina Milos suggests:
…one cannot stop wondering whether the research and motivation theory are used to legitimize over-focus on *student*/individual accountability, while limiting (ignoring) the impact of other contextual factors that influence one’s motivation (poverty, racism etc.) Yet, the research and studies I read converge to the reality that children raised in affluent families out-perform less privileged ones (cultural literacy and Matthew effect are at play here).
So is it wrong to hold the disadvantaged accountable for their performance?
In Where does Mindset meet social inclusion, Gary Walsh asks:
Is the development of a Growth Mindset just another luxurious and exclusive pursuit afforded only to those fortunate enough to be able to access it in the first place? Is it mainly available to those who are included: those who have the right kind of opportunities, the required degree of social mobility, the facilities, resources, health and wellbeing, learning or physical capabilities, and sufficient access to an environment where personal enrichment is actively encouraged and supported?
Could the theory of Mindsets be interpreted or used as just another way of blaming victims? Could a message, intended or otherwise, be received as ‘the problem is your Mindset, therefore it is your own fault that you are not a success’? Is the implication that success is completely within the control of the individual and that society has no role to play?
These are worthwhile questions to ask, and if the answer to any of them is ‘yes’ then we have a serious problem, but is this how schools and teachers are interpreting Dweck’s research?
Let’s take each of these concerns in turn. Firstly Bower’s claim that only ‘low-scoring’ children are expecting to display resilience. Well, I’ll happily bow to his experience of the North American context but I’m not sure this is the case in the UK. Teachers have recognised instinctively that it’s not OK to refer to innate ability when referring to the work of low ability students. We never say, “Oh well, what can you expect of children in a bottom set?” or “No wonder you couldn’t do it, you’re thick!” But we’ll happily say to those in top sets, “You’re so clever!” and “That’s what I’d expect of someone in this class.” As a result there are very many privileged, able pupils who have a fixed understanding of their ability and who have not developed the resilience to cope with set backs or take risks.
My experience suggests that if anything we are likely to have very low expectations of ‘grit’ in children from less privileged backgrounds. We’re not too quick to shrug and say, “What can you expect of kids like these?” As a result we demand less and accept poor attainment and low standards. But if we took the view that the destiny of these students was within their control, wouldn’t we be more likely to have higher expectations?
Cristina’s argument that Dweck’s research has led to an ideological stance that ‘blames’ children for low attainment also seems to be very distant from the UK context. Far from schools and teachers holding pupils accountable for their success, we know only too well we’ll be blamed for their failures. The focus on closing the attainment gap between those children in receipt of the Pupil Premium and those not ensures that schools are anxious to give less privileged pupils every opportunity and advantage they can. We fall over our selves to offer every and any intervention available.
And finally, what of those questions Gary Walsh asks? Whatever the role society has to play in the likely outcomes and relative success of pupils, isn’t it more rather than less empowering to let children know they have some small measure of agency and control? One rather obvious message from Dweck’s research is that a fixed mindset is not fixed. We can all change our intelligence, personality and character. Isn’t this good news for those who might feel most trodden down by society’s grimy heel? Surely, any other message is horribly fatalist and consigns children to remain at the bottom of the pile?
Yes of course we are constrained by our backgrounds and the circumstances of our birth; there’s no doubt that economic disadvantage, race, gender and may other factors have a huge impact on our life chances. But do we also need to be constrained by our beliefs of what is and isn’t possible?
And if you want to see what a growth culture looks like when done properly, see this from John Tomsett:
What do you think? Are ‘grit’ and ‘growth mindset’ more likely to result in blame or opportunity? Are they more likely to trap, or offer a way out?