We are what we believe we are.

Benjamin Cardozo

A few weeks ago I posted a brief summary of The Coalition for Psychology for Schools and Education’s reportTop 20 Principles From Psychology For Pre-k–12 Teaching And Learning. Since then I’ve been reading through the research they cite to see how far I agree with their conclusions.

First up for investigation is Principle 1 – Students’ beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functioning and learning.

Much of what the report says will be familiar to anyone who’s come across Carol Dweck’s Mindset. “Students who believe intelligence is malleable and not fixed are more likely to adhere to an “incremental” or “growth” mindset about intelligence,” whereas anyone who see intelligence as a fixed trait will tend to “focus on performance goals and believe they continually need to demonstrate and prove their intelligence, making them more hesitant to take on highly challenging tasks and more vulnerable to negative feedback”. Students with an incremental mind-set generally focus on learning goals and are more willing to take on challenging tasks in an effort to test and expand (as opposed to defensively prove) their intelligence or ability. Hence, they rebound more easily from negative feedback and failure. Accordingly, students who believe that intelligence and ability can be enhanced tend to perform better on a variety of cognitive tasks and in problem-solving situations.

If you believe that your intelligence can increase by increments then you are more likely to be willing to attempt challenging tasks. Why? Because you’re more interested in expanding your intelligence than proving it. This means you are more likely to bounce back from criticism and failure which in turn suggests you will perform better on a wide range of  cognitive and problem-solving tasks.

Whenever we fail at something we look for reasons. If those reasons are seen as within our power to change – “I didn’t try hard enough” – then we can do something about it; why can try harder. But if we find reasons outside of our sphere of control – “I’m not clever enough” – then we’re stuffed. It should go without saying that we will be better able to cope when our failure is attributed to a lack of effort rather than to a lack of ability.

This is uncontroversial. What the report then goes on to suggest is that “Teachers can foster student beliefs that their intelligence and ability can be developed through effort and experiences with applying different strategies”. This, I think, needs a more cautious examination.

The first piece of advice teachers are given is that they should simply tell students “that their failure at any given task is not due to lack of ability but rather that their performance can be enhanced, particularly with added effort or through the use of different strategies.” This sounds lovely, and sometimes this is exactly what students need to hear. But what if a student is trying as hard as they are able? What if they’ve already tried a range of approaches and still failed? Is telling them their performance can be enhanced with even greater effort likely to be motivational? Having a ‘growth mindset’ does not confer magical powers. Maybe we can all be cleverer, but maybe there’s also a limit?

Next, teachers are advised to avoid attributing students’ success to their ability when “tasks are moderately easy.”  It makes sense that if we praise students for completing unchallenging tasks we may end up communicating that it’s desirable to find things easy, but why on earth would we be giving students “moderately easy” tasks in the first place? Providing scaffolding in order to give students a taste of success is certainly a good idea, but ideally, scaffolding should be used to make inaccessible tasks possible rather than moderately easy tasks easier. We over praise in order to protect students’ self-esteem, but this might lead students to infer that being praised for something simple might mean that teachers have low expectations. Better to use what Nick Rose calls ‘tactical grumpiness’ – grudgingly eking out praise so that only the very highest effort results in approval thereby conveying the highest of expectations. Teachers are also advised to be consistent in their offers of support. If only certain students are offered unsolicited help this may well be interpreted as evidence of low ability.

Other advice includes the reminder that often students seek to protect their own fragile egos by not trying as hard as they might. After all, if you try your best and fail then you must really be dumb; at least if you haven’t tried there’s a ready-made excuse for failure.

Avoiding praise, offering support and expressing disappointment should not be seen as certain to result in resilient students. Of course, teachers should exercise their judgment when deciding how to interact with the students in their class. But the report does suggest that an awareness of this principle might “explain how some well-intentioned teacher behaviors may have unexpected, or even negative, effects on students’ beliefs about their own abilities.”

Overall, this principle is based on solid seeming foundations and I agree with much of what the report recommends with the caveat that it seems much easier to undermine a growth mindset than it is to promote one. Although teachers can avoid undermining students’ beliefs and perceptions about ability, simply asking students to try hard and be more resilient is unlikely to meet with success. It’s also worth considering two other points: firstly, in our rush to make students more resilient we might be overlooking some of the positives in having a more fixed view of the world. And secondly, many teachers work in environments which actively work against them adopting a growth mindset.

If we’re serious about changing students’  perceptions about intelligence and ability, my advice echoes that offered by Nick Rose here:

  1. Students are more likely to change their mindset if they first experience success. Interventions which focus on changing attitudes will have less impact than those which result in increased performance.
  2. As students become more successful, make them aware of how their thinking and behaviour are changing.
  3. School culture plays a huge role in how students behave in school. As well as focus on making it ‘cool to be clever’, schools should think carefully about systems like setting and target grades which communicate the message that intelligence is fixed.
  4. Challenge teachers’ beliefs about intelligence; do all staff believe that all children can be successful, even ‘those kids’? Teachers should be encouraged to adopt the belief that all students should struggle, no matter their ability.
  5. Avoid inspirational sloganising and focus on students’ behaviour. As Yeager & Walton say, “Although we believe that social-psychological interventions can be scaled effectively to reach larger numbers of students, how to do so is not simply a matter of handing out a worksheet.” (2011, p.274.) We should evaluate what has actually changed in the way students behave; what are they doing differently?

If you’re interested in unpicking the underlying research, here are the papers the report cites:

I’d also recommend reading these: