First Reactions to Growth Mindset

My knee-jerk reaction to growth-mindset was that it was promoting cramming. Why did I have this reaction? Because as a teacher I became sick of teachers who applaud students for doing nothing. This culminated in my reaction to a pipsqueak careerist who stumbled into being the headmaster at my last school – he was 33, I was 54, he told me what to do because he decided he would go to the same church as the school-owner. I helped him to begin with (did the school timetable), but then found how shallow he was. He focussed on teacher admin so teachers spent all lessons on their admin, they did not teach. He kept telling me what my department had to do even though he said my approach was better than his – the school conforming to his approach. Then to show his methods were better he went into assembly and told the kids they were doing well. Staff came to me and said the kids weren’t working, I agreed. Trumpet-blowing – all my students passed maths, they failed other subjects literally (below C IGCSE). This was praising for the sake of it – discipline through praise.

Another initial reaction was the avoidance of “smart”. You cannot do the best maths if you are not smart. You can work hard and pass but you cannot get the best grades if you are not smart. A good teacher wants the best out of all the kids. This means all kids have to work even the smart ones – I never worked until I went to uni and then only for cramming (not connected to my comment). If you are smart and don’t work you pass but have no discipline and are not ready for the workplace (like me). Students should always do the best they can (4 agreements 1 and 2). But working hard cannot make up for ability, that is sunnata when I look at this Buddhadasa meme:-

I used the word innate instead of sunnata to begin with. Why? In Buddhism this is connected to Kamma, what are we born with? What is our destiny? Tabula rasa and all that? There is an innate feel to intelligence in some students. A teacher knows some kids are smart, and those same smart kids could be lazy. I have no problem with only rewarding arrogant smart kids by the use of “working hard” when applicable. But smart is smart, some kids are smart, and some kids just are not.

There is also a political dimension to “working hard”. My coasting through the academic system and then cracking up was based on being smart at maths, not having to work at it. In truth I crammed for exams, and in doing that I had to persevere until I understood questions that I had never done during term-time because I was boozing and missed many lectures. People need to have a work discipline for the world of work. In truth they don’t need to work hard if they creep, but working hard is a far better tool than the academic smart-arse that I was before I cracked up. But promoting hard-work is good old wage-slavery.

Finally another bit of Buddhadasa Buddhism. Why are we here? To learn what is what. Why do I write blogs no-one reads? It is part of a learning life-style I am fortunate to be able to live, now I have retired from wage-slavery. I cannot make friends because I am trying to learn, discuss what I have learnt and ask people to think about what they are learning – learning is not something most old people want. If growth-mindset is concerned with learning what-is-what then again I was wrong to criticise it as cramming.

So where does growth-mindset fit in with all this?

I now like “growth mindset” but unfortunately it might simply be a fashion rather than making educational change. Yet at the same time I might be being harsh as it could provide students with motivations.

The first thing it questions is the human model of natural development, and that is good. Education looks at mind and education but it has no model. There is no basic understanding of what mind is, and what we are trying to educate. I suspect the reason for this lies in the power behind education. In the education process there are two forces that can be opposing:-

1%-paradigm – making wage-slaves, enabling students for the world of work or any such euphemism for wage-slavery. There are so many inherent conflicts within this paradigm because in the world of work there can be self-fulfilling situations. But not too much fulfilment in the sweat shops. But education is supposed to help us out of sweat shops.

Within–education – Within education there are many genuine educators, people who understand the meaning of education as “leading out”. They want to educate. This can fit in within the paradigm or it can be fundamentally opposed to the paradigm. Ask Pink Floyd.

As usual with such conflicts there is confusion where confusion need never occur. What is intelligence? Is it different to intellect? What is mind? Every Buddhist has a similar understanding of mind because they investigate it with meditation, the science of meditation produces the same understanding of mind. Does pedagogy teach? Or is it just a horse to water? Can we teach when the mind is not focussed? Can students learn if they are not motivated? These questions are all still being asked. Why are the answers not clear? Conditioning. This is the conditioning that is the conflict between the 1%-paradigm and genuine education; instead of conflict resolution there is the preferred modus operandi of the 1% – confusion.

The discussion within this “growth mindset” fashion revolves around whether the mindset is fixed or growth. Whilst the originators (Carol Dweck et al) might have a clear understanding of mindset – they use the words talents and abilities(play 8.25 – 9.25), others such as The Spectator confuse this with intelligence. When has it been agreed that talents and abilities means intelligence?

Let’s consider the meaning of these words. Talents – football. Ask Mourinho and Luke Shaw if talent is enough or do we need coaching? Could I ever be as good as Luke Shaw? No. Could I be a better footballer with training? Obviously. Growth mindset?

What about my referred ability in maths? Can I improve my achievement in maths through hard work? Obviously. Can I improve my ability in maths? Open for discussion. What about my ability in physics? Could I ever be as good as Brian? No. Could I get the same grades? Possibly if he sits on his arse. Could Brian get the same grades as Matriellez in maths? Possibly if Matriellez sits on his arse. Or if Matriellez hasn’t picked up a maths book since 2006!!!

These are talents and abilities but there has been no discussion of intelligence – maybe later (ability and intelligence must in some way be related – sunnata?).

How does this fit in with my teaching practice? I was a mixed ability teacher. In my classes students had many different abilities for various subjects, and in maths it was my job to take that ability and educate to improve it. That was education for growth – in part growth mindset.

What I never did was to look at how the students saw their abilities, and whether their view of their own abilities was impacting on their ability to improve. Now that is untrue, but to what extent? I never asked the students to question for themselves how they saw their own abilities, and whether their view impacted on their learning. I did however consider their ability to some extent – even if I didn’t reflect on it (reflection-in-action).

To look at this we have to look at achievement measured by tests and exams. A student should know where they stand so they were always tested. I would focus on improvement or not. But the students didn’t, I know; they focussed on the exam process and because they wanted to know I had to give my assessment. But students usually knew how they were doing in terms of exams. At IGCSE you can encourage a student to work from an F to an E and hopefully to a D, but in the end they failed. Whether they were fixed or growth mindset, they were failing the exam.

A mixed ability teacher always worked on growth wherever the student was at. But they didn’t necessarily work on whether the mindset was fixed or growth.

Now motivation was always something I was conscious of, and was always something I worked on. I started work in a Brixton Comprehensive, and was conscious of how low the motivation was amongst black students; there were many systemic reasons (educationally and otherwise) for this low motivation and I tried to work on it – with some success. I knew if the students weren’t motivated they couldn’t learn.

But motivation was tied in with effort and discipline – wherever I worked. If the student didn’t apply themselves in a disciplined manner then there could be no success and this affected motivation. Meetings with parents linked motivation, effort, discipline and success. But always there was the overbearing exam system in which many students in Brixton (black or white) and elsewhere had no look in. So whatever individual growth process I tried to foster, the exam system mostly knocked down.

It is for these sorts of reasons with the Matriellez book I advocated a Quality Portfolio.

However the positive aspect of this discussion so far is that there might be potential for the development of student motivation by investigating how the student view of themselves limits their potential improvement. If their own view is fixed at failure because of the exams, how can that be changed if it is unlikely that with however much work they will not pass.

But students will surprise you – Dweck’s blossoming (End of 8.25 – 9.25). I worked with a student whose maths ability and achievement was low. Against school rules and against my better judgement I agreed to private tuition; the school rule was fair as I set the exam but my private tuition was simply an extension of my class teaching and had integrity. In year 1 the boy worked so hard on his maths he squeezed a pass based on imitation. The father met with me, and said his other subjects were suffering so his son should reduce the amount of maths he was doing; of course I agreed – it was true, I was not sure how much. In his second year he failed maths because he was not doing so much work on maths. The father then reported me to the school for the tuition. Because his son had failed I Was not doing what the father wanted, the father had been paying me to cheat – not teach.

There was a far more recent case. A friend’s step-daughter was not doing well at English, and I agreed to help – less than a year’s teaching. Fortunately the girl responded well in lessons and her confidence in English grew. She did well in her exams, did English at uni, and is now working as a translator – earning!!! Her own view of her ability was low although her ability was not. Although I did not question her about her view of her ability in English, her increasing achievement during our lessons gave her confidence that she could achieve and she did.

Did she re-evaluate her own personal view? I suspect not. But with the increased confidence in her own ability her achievement increased. Did her basic ability change? I would argue not, but her achievement grew because of confidence. Was her view of her ability restricting her? I don’t know because I doubt if she asked herself about her own ability. But she was sufficiently motivated that when she had the opportunity to succeed in our lessons, her confidence grew and she improved.

Did her ability grow? That is an age-old question that is too difficult to answer. In my day what was happening to her was called under-achievement, and was discussed greatly especially in the black comprehensive – my M Ed was on black under-achievement.

So the model I always worked with was mixed-ability, motivation and achievement (under-achievement or otherwise). This is not markedly different from a fixed or growth mindset with mixed ability teaching and encouraging motivation. I never really looked at a child’s talent or ability, I looked at what they were achieving and how I could improve it. From my point of view I see little difference.

But from the student’s point of view maybe there is a difference. A student could have a particularly negative point of view, one that totally undervalues themselves. Evaluating this and putting them straight could have helped. But this would be a natural skill a teacher develops, a teacher would hopefully recognise this. But kids tend to know how good they are, and listening to motivational platitudes from teachers not based on truth but based on misguided motivationalism such as the pipsqueak (see above) is not going to be beneficial. Setting the bar higher than where they are at is OK, but just a bit higher.

So far there is nothing other than an educational fad, other than what could be called good educational practice, in this growth mindset. Unless there is some positive evidence that students have sat and evaluated that they are restricting themselves by adopting a fixed position, and have been able to change themselves once recognising this fixed restriction.

Amongst adults I can see a fixed and growth mindset evaluation as being worthwhile but with students I am not so sure. But the evaluation is student-centred and that is a step forward.

Next Post –>

Books:- Treatise, Wai Zandtao Scifi, Matriellez Education.

Blogs:- Ginsukapaapdee, Mandtao, Zandtao.


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