The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I do not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose it.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.

Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

Gibberish Not Too Long Ago

A recent Onion piece begins, “BROOKLYN, NY—Staring in trembling awe at her suddenly blank desktop, local woman Chelsea Greene was reportedly presented a rare chance at a new life Tuesday after accidentally closing her browser window with 23 open tabs.”

It occurred to me, as I read this, that it would have been lost on me if I had  read it in high school. In particular, my ignorance of three words–or, rather, their  particular meanings here–would have thrown off the sentence so badly that I would not have been able to make head, tail, or middle of it.

Moreover, I would have thought I knew the meanings of the words. Desktop, browser, tab–they wouldn’t have seemed obscure.

  1. “desktop”–At the time, this meant nothing other to me than the top or surface of a desk. A “suddenly blank desktop” probably meant a desk that had just been cleaned, or whose “toppings” had been swept off. (Desktop computers existed but were not well known–and the word “desktop” as a computer descriptor had not entered general vocabulary.)
  2. “browser”–I would have thought of this as someone who browses. Perhaps a “browser window” was a window near a desk, for those who wished to look either into their own library (in an adjoining room) or out onto the street. Maybe a “browser” was someone who stopped working now and then to observe the goings-on.
  3. “tabs”–I suppose those are the little clamps that hold a window shut. Why on earth would a window have 23 of them? Maybe it’s a window that springs open unless clamped tight shut; so, since the tabs were open, it must have taken an act of extreme clumsiness to fling the window shut by accident.

So here’s what I picture: Someone, maybe a parent or spouse, is mad at Chelsea Greene for keeping a messy desk–and, in a fit of indignation, flings everything off the desktop. Stunned, Chelsea looks out the window, only to find that she has somehow flung it shut, maybe in the heat of anger or revenge, fling for flang. But this very emotion reminds her that she is still alive–that although she has “closed” the window, life has in fact “opened” itself to her, showing her, once again, that other people’s judgments need not dictate how she lives, and that her desk matters to her, even if things pile up upon it. If Chelsea had known of the Big Five, she might have said, “So, I scored low on your conscientiousness test, but not on my own; after all, I am here at my desk.”

Note: I added a little to this piece after posting it.

Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.

Proponent of Teacher Obsolescence Theory Becomes Obsolete

Renart_illuminationExbox, SD—Nicole Intendo, professor of education at Avante University, received notice on Wednesday that she would no longer be needed in the classroom. Instead of taking her classes, students would spend the the time playing video games.

Intendo works relentlessly to propagate the theory that traditional classroom teaching (narrowly defined) has become obsolete in the wake of educational technologies. According to sources, Avante University has enthusiastically decided to apply her ideas.

“That is insulting, preposterous, and un-research-based,” said Intendo. “Research has shown that classroom teachers in kindergarten through high school have become relics of the past. But in college and graduate school, it’s an entirely different matter. We need to shape the wants of aspiring professionals. Too many young people enter our education program with fantasies of standing in front of the room and presenting something fascinating about a subject. We have to combat their outdated sense of purpose.”

According to Intendo, research has shown that all aspiring teachers are essentially “industrial and hierarchical” in motivation. They want to teach the students something they don’t already know.  Video games, by contrast, are entirely interactive; you can’t get through the game unless you are actively playing. Therefore, says Intendo, it is essential that she disseminate the research as often and as widely as possible—through classroom lectures, TED talks, radio interviews, and pocket-size bullet points—so that the American public at large will be exposed to the facts.

“If I lose my position,” she said, fighting back tears, “there will still be kids in Boston or Dallas who have to sit and listen to a teacher talk about how to solve an algebraic equation or how a sonnet is structured or how World War II came about. Why should they have to suffer through that? All that information is on Wikipedia. What they really need is a screen, keyboard, and challenge, all tailored to them. It’s so obvious, once you look at the research—but it takes me about two years to get this across to any given student.”

Asked how teachers could possibly be evaluated accurately in a class driven by video games, Intendo pointed at a bar chart on the wall. “Teachers are all-important,” she said. “Everything they do impacts a student’s future outcomes. See that graph? It shows a teacher’s direct effect on future earnings, down to the dollar. This is why they have to accept their new roles and step out of the way.”

Intendo’s students have questioned her conclusions. “I think she’s comparing apples to Apples,” said one, who requested anonymity. “I enjoy video games, but they don’t belong everywhere. I’m taking a great class on Chaucer and Cervantes right now. Is there a video game for this?” He quoted from the text:

This Chauntecleer his winges gan to bete,
As man that coude his tresoun nat espye,
So was he ravissed with his flaterye.

“What are we supposed to do—play a game where we’re the rooster trying not to be killed by the fox?” he taunted. “Oh, and maybe sprinkle in some word challenges, like ‘ravissed’ and ‘Chauntecleer’?  I’d rather take the course, thanks, and play my favorite games in my own time.”

“My favorite high school classes had teachers who actually taught us stuff,” said another. “In music theory class, the teacher taught us harmony and counterpoint.  She made it really interesting, with examples from different kinds of music. She got us to notice things. Then for homework she had us do exercises and compose pieces. That’s the kind of teacher I hoped to be.”

“That just proves my point,” said Intendo. “As you can see from these comments, new teachers imagine themselves at the front of the room. They have some favorite teacher who set the example for them in that way. But they have to get weaned off their own experiences and start looking at data. They absolutely need me for that.”

Intendo, who gave a TEDTalk about the future of education, believes that education professors, when they lecture, should do so in TED style. “I don’t lecture all the time,” she said, “but when I do, I practice every move in advance, so that I project total confidence. I make my multimedia effects really grabbing. I keep the ideas simple so the students have a takeaway. I bring emotions into the picture. I even share a little about myself. My point is not to fill their heads with useless information but to convey the most essential data in about 20 minutes.” The rest of the time, she said, was devoted to “turn-and-talk” activities, where students would come to a “scholarly consensus” about what had been said. At the end of the lesson, they would fill out a two-column chart with the headings “I used to think” and “But now I know.”

“My classes are revolutionary, if I may say so myself,” she said. “It occurred to me the other day that I am changing the face of teaching and learning. I have to keep this up. If Avante gets its way, we will slide right back into the status quo.”

District Gives Students Teacher-Rating Gadgets

Benchmark, OH—In order to facilitate the accumulation of teacher data and to entice students into 21st-century technology use, Benchmark Unified School District has given out 35,000 teacher evaluation gadgets, equipped with skin conductance bracelets, to students in grades K-12. The leveled, adaptive software provides a user-friendly interface for real-time evaluation of teachers while the lesson is in progress.

“Nothing could be a greater boon for us right now,” said Superintendent Bret Elony, who recently signed a multi-million-dollar contract with Quicker Data, Inc., the creator of the software. “We need to know what kids think, but a great deal of the time, they’ve forgotten the lesson as soon as it’s over. So what could be better than to have a way for them to rate it on the spot?”

The software provides students with a series of animated “prompts” followed by multiple-choice (usually yes-or-no) answers. For instance, at the start of the lesson, a young character of adjustable race pops up and asks, “Is the aim on the board?” After the student responds with “yes” or “no,” a tiger or other animal (adapted to the student’s preferences) appears and asks: “Do you understand exactly what you are expected to learn today?” and then: “How close is this to what you want to be learning?”

The next questions pertain to the teacher’s appearance and organization: “Does the teacher have her papers in order? Does she have efficient routines for collection and distribution of student work?” The next questions have to do with the minilesson: “Are you happy with the length of the minilesson? Were you bored or confused at any point? Did the teacher provide you with enough information for your group work task?” (If there is no group work task, the student must select “n/a,” which will automatically trigger an administrator visit.

Over the course of the lesson, the skin conductance bracelet sends signals to the software, which translates them into “engagement” levels. “We didn’t want students to have to rate their own engagement while they were being engaged, or not,” said Elony. “That could get confusing.” If the overall engagement goes below a certain level, a red light goes on at the front of the room; if the engagement level is high, a green light goes on. An administrator passing by can easily spot these lights.

During the group work portion of the lesson, the animated characters (now butterflies and birds) ask questions such as, “Is the teacher moving around the room to help the various groups? Do you have the materials you need to complete your task? If you want to change your grouping, do you feel comfortable taking the initiative?

“I find this incredibly distracting,” complained Hecate Loomis, an eighth grader. “How am I supposed to get anything out of the lesson if I have to rate it every few seconds?” She was swiftly booed by a few others, who said they liked the software precisely for that reason.

“Class is a lot less boring now,” said her classmate Bob Tull. “Plus, for every three evaluations we complete, we get a free video game. I have better video games at home, but this is cool because I can play it during lunch.”

“And we’re generating data,” piped in Abby Lombardo. “We’ve been told that the more data we generate, the more we’ll be able to customize our own world.”

“That’s exactly the spirit,” affirmed a representative of Quicker Data, Inc. “While the main goal is to rate teachers swiftly, we’re all about customization. We’re helping to build a world where kids like everything they’re doing, all the time, where adults like their jobs, and where work gets done efficiently and pleasantly, with the help of pleasant cartoons.” Of course, he added, some teachers, students, and workers do not fit in with such a world; the software helps identify and remove them.

A few teachers have tried in vain to outwit the gadgets. One teacher rewired the lights at the front of the room so that the green light would always shine. A hidden camera filmed her in the act. Another teacher told her students to turn off the devices; she was fined (over ten thousand dollars, according to rumor) by both the school district and Quicker Data, Inc. Still others wrote letters of protest to the district; the superintendent’s reply reminded them that they needed to be open to change.

“This really is all about change, basically speaking” said Elony proudly. “We’re moving into a world where there isn’t time to think, where studies of the humanities and liberal arts are merely holding us back. We can’t keep holding onto the slow stuff. We need to get with it. Speaking of which, I know you have a lot of questions, but I’ve resolved ahead of time not to answer them. I have too much to do. Another contract is waiting to be signed.” He strode out of the room. Our questions (impostor ghosts) stayed behind; even after we left, they hung in waiting for a more inquisitive era.