Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. – Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

In the same way that I learned nothing from listening to the polished performance of Ken Robinson at yesterday’s Education Festival at Wellington College, I found myself surprised at just how challenging Carol Dweck’s slightly awkward delivery and clunky slides turned out to be. And to think I nearly didn’t bother staying. After reading Self Theories and Mindset I thought I knew as much about Dweck’s theories as anyone could ever reasonably want to know, but it turned out I was dead wrong. (A recurrent theme in my life!)

She began her presentation with a rehash of the same old same old: you tell students about the growth mindset and hey presto! their test performance improves. This has always seemed a little magical; how on earth can simply telling students about the way in which persisting in challenging tasks makes us form and strengthen synaptic connections (and therefore make us cleverer) possibly have such a profound effect? Through long and bitter experience, I’ve found that when an idea seems too good to be true, it usually is. And I’m not alone. Scott Alexander, author of Slate Star Codex, is also sceptical. On the universal love and acclaim of Dweck’s work he writes,

It’s unnatural, is what it is. A popular psychological finding that doesn’t have gruff people dismissing it as a fad? That doesn’t have politicians condemning it as a feel-good justification for everything wrong with society? That doesn’t have a host of smarmy researchers saying that what, you still believe that, didn’t you know it failed to replicate and has since been entirely superseded by a new study out of Belarus? I’m not saying Carol Dweck has definitely made a pact with the Devil, I’m just saying I don’t have a good alternative explanation.

Alexander has looked in vain for evidence of falsification of research findings and publication bias and has come up if not empty handed then at least with very little in the way of pocket change, despite having looked really hard. He ends with this:

But I remain agnostic. There are some really good – diabolically good? – studies showing that it works in certain lab situations. There’s a lot of excellent research behind it and a lot of brilliant people giving it their support. But there are also other studies showing that it has no long-term real-world effects that we can measure, and others that might (or might not?) contradict its predictions in other ways.

Back to Dweck’s presentation. After her intro, she began talking about the development of growth mindsets as a journey. It really isn’t enough to simply be told about mindset theory, you have to believe it. At first glance, this sounds a little like religious faith – it only ‘works’ if you’re a true believer. But then I started thinking about my recent experience of attending a speed awareness course. Attending a 4-hour workshop on the faulty thinking inherent in the belief that it’s ever worth breaking the speed limit seems to have had a permanent effect on the way I drive. The change was immediate, durable and flexible: no matter the conditions, I now deliberately and intentionally keep below the legal limit. When I’ve explained this to friends they’ve tended to express scepticism but maybe that’s because they’ve not been on the same journey as me? Maybe they’re only able to intellectually appreciate the message without it really having any emotional resonance?

Dweck then dropped a bombshell. She’s identified a phenomenon she calls the ‘false growth mindset’. Because we’ve unanimously agreed that having a fixed mindset is egregious and a growth mindset makes you a better all-round human being, no one wants to fess up to being ‘fixed’. When asked, we tend to say, “Yes of course I have a growth mindset,” because the alternative is to say, “No, I’m afraid I’m a terrible person.” It seems reasonable to suggest teachers are at least as prone to this as anyone; we tend to know more about the perceived benefits of growth mindset than most other people and so there’s a huge social pressure to fall into line. But just saying you have a growth mindset does not (quelle surprise!) mean you actually have one. What you actually have is a false growth mindset. This goes some way to explaining why schools are so bad at allowing teachers to behave in a way consistent with the growth mindset. And it may well explain some of the rather flimsy findings in the EEF’s recent report, Changing Mindsets.

So what should we do? Dweck suggests the first step is to validate and explore the fixed mindset and admit that we probably all have fixed and inflexible beliefs about something. A while back I wrote a defence of the fixed mindset and it’s gratifying to find out this kind of thinking is useful. I didn’t manage to write down all of Carol’s advice for acknowledging our fixed beliefs but it seems probable that by honestly exploring our prejudices and biases that we’re much more likely to embark on the kind of journey necessary to genuinely changing our beliefs about intelligence and ability.

There are two ways to take this. One, we could shrug cynically and point out that all snake oil peddlers say we need to be true believers before we’ll feel the benefit. Or we could, if we were open minded enough, really try to interrogate our prejudices and reservations to find out why we don’t believe developing a growth mindset might work with ‘kids like these’.

The other point that seems worth making is that there’s almost certainly an element of heritability in our capacity to take on a growth mindset. On Thursday, I listened to Robert Plomin explaining that all human characteristics seems to have a high degree of genetic heritability and why would this be any different. In a follow-up post, Alexander writes;

If fixed mindset = smart people, than might the reason they react poorly to challenges and failure be that they have no experience with them? Might it be that the more challenges and failures you’ve encountered before, the better you are at dealing with them?

Maybe because teachers are, on the whole, academically successful, we’ve experienced less in the way of academic struggle and therefore are not so good at overcoming struggle? Perhaps it’s harder for some of us to take on new beliefs? Perhaps you don’t have the same capacity for suspending doubt as others? Or maybe you just don’t have a growth mindset… yet.