Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want my poetry to grow as well, but if the individual poems do not move, intrigue, provoke, or delight, I don’t care a whit about the growth. A person needs a combination of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I have not yet seen this particular question addressed, but everything in my experience and knowledge tells me that mindsets are complex and that the complexity can be productive.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be much more vigorous and hopeful if the professor focuses on the subject.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. But they should also exercise caution in implementing psychological theories that at best approximate the truth or bring out one aspect of it.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.

I do not think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” She does imply, in any case, that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

Principals, Do You Know Your Power Words?

My satirical pieces are often mistaken for true stories. But here’s a true story that I would have mistaken for satire, had I not read it in the Dallas Morning News.

Mike Miles, the new Dallas schools superintendent, has directed principals to use “power words” and “acknowledgment phrases” when speaking with parents and others. The Dallas ISD has even printed a booklet of “power phrases and remarks.”

For instance, a principal might say, “We are all about improving student performance and the quality of instruction; that is the expectation.”

The “acknowledgment phrases” include “It depends,” “That’s true,” or “Actually, I disagree.” Principals are encouraged to use them to preface one of 13 statements, such as “Our work will be professional, equitable, rigorous and student-focused.”

The reporter, Matthew Haag, discovered that the Dallas ISD had paid consultant Merrie Spaeth, of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, Inc., to help craft these words and statements. Spaeth, Miles, and DISD communications chief Jennifer Sprague collaborated on the project.

There’s a catch, though: half-scripted dialogue doesn’t work. It has to be all scripted or not. Spaeth et al. should have come up with power phrases for the parents as well. Then principals and parents could have real meaningless conversations, such as the one that follows.

(The principal’s words below are all taken from the article, except for her last two sentences. The parent’s words are made up.)

Principal: “The superintendent’s plan brings stability and a clear direction to the district.”

Parent: “I agree. The superintendent is proactive and goal-oriented.”

Principal: “That’s true. Destination 2020 will take five to eight years to achieve, but we will make significant progress in one year.”

Parent: “I am proud to be a member of this achievement-centered team. My son will pitch his literacy growth action plan at the next goal-implementation assembly.”

Principal: “We are all a team at the school.”

Parent: “Indeed; the true team player sees accountability as a game-changer.”

Principal: “I have to learn more power phrases before I can continue this conversation. Good day.”

Parent: “We are all lifelong learners here. Good day.”

One could even use the “power word generator” (created by Daniel Lathrop of the Dallas Morning News) to keep the conversation going. When you don’t have to make sense, why stop, ever?