A measured approach to mindset interventions

Posted: September 4, 2020 in mindset, positive psychology, research
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A week or so ago, someone in the Macmillan marketing department took it upon themselves to send out this tweet. What grabbed my attention was the claim that it is ‘a well-known fact’ that teaching students a growth mindset makes them perform better academically over time. The easily demonstrable reality (which I’ll come on to) is that this is not a fact. It’s fake news, being used for marketing purposes. The tweet links to a blog post of over a year ago. In it, Chia Suan Chong offers five tips for developing a growth mindset in students: educating students about neuroplasticity, delving deeper into success stories, celebrating challenges and mistakes, encouraging students to go outside their comfort zones, and giving ‘growth-mindset-feedback’. All of which, she suggests, might help our students. Indeed, it might, and, even if it doesn’t, it might be worth a try anyway. Chia doesn’t make any claims beyond the potential of the suggested strategies, so I wonder where the Macmillan Twitter account person got the ‘well-known fact’.

If you google ‘mindset ELT’, you will find webpage after webpage offering tips about how to promote growth mindset in learners. It’s rare for the writers of these pages to claim that the positive effects of mindset interventions are a ‘fact’, but it’s even rarer to come across anyone who suggests that mindset interventions might be an à la mode waste of time and effort. Even in more serious literature (e.g. Mercer, S. & Ryan, S. (2010). A mindset for EFL: learners’ beliefs about the role of natural talent. ELT Journal, 64 (4): 436 – 444), the approach is fundamentally enthusiastic, with no indication that there might be a problem with mindset theory. Given that this enthusiasm is repeated so often, perhaps we should not blame the Macmillan tweeter for falling victim to the illusory truth effect. After all, it appears that 98% of teachers in the US feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools (Hendrick, 2019).

Chia suggests that we can all have fixed mindsets in certain domains (e.g. I know all about that, there’s nothing more I can learn). One domain where it seems that fixed mindsets are prevalent is mindset theory itself. This post is an attempt to nudge towards more ‘growth’ and, in trying to persuade you to be more sceptical, I will quote as much as possible from Carol Dweck, the founder of mindset theory, and her close associates.

Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ appeared in 2006. In it, she argued that people can be placed on a continuum between those who have ‘a fixed mindset–those who believe that abilities are fixed—[and who] are less likely to flourish [and] those with a growth mindset–those who believe that abilities can be developed’ (from the back cover of the updated (2007) version of the book). There was nothing especially new about the idea. It is very close to Bandura’s (1982) theory of self-efficacy, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Zoltán Dörnyei’s more recent work on motivation in language learning. It’s closely related to Carl Roger’s (1969) ideas about self-concept and it’s not a million miles removed, either, from Maslow’s (1943) theory of self-actualization. The work of Rogers and Maslow was at the heart of the ‘humanistic turn’ in ELT in the latter part of the 20th century (see, for example, Early, 1981), so mindset theory is likely to resonate with anyone who was inspired by the humanistic work of people like Moskowitz, Stevick or Rinvolucri. The appeal of mindset theory is easy to see. Besides its novelty value, it resonates emotionally with the values that many teachers share, writes Tom Bennett: it feels right that you don’t criticise the person, but invite them to believe that, through hard work and persistence, you can achieve.

We might even trace interest in the importance of self-belief back to the Stoics (who, incidentally but not coincidentally, are experiencing a revival of interest), but Carol Dweck introduced a more modern flavour to the old wine and packaged it skilfully and accessibly in shiny new bottles. Her book was a runaway bestseller, with sales in the millions, and her TED Talk has now had over 11 million views. It was in education that mindset theory became particularly popular. As a mini-industry it is now worth millions and millions. Just one research project into the efficacy of one mindset product has received 3.5 million dollars in US federal funding.

But, much like other ideas that have done a roaring trade in popular psychology (Howard Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences theory, for example) which seem to offer simple solutions to complex problems, there was soon pushback. It wasn’t hard for critics to scoff at motivational ‘yes-you-can’ posters in classrooms or accounts of well-meaning but misguided teacher interventions, like this one reported by Carl Hendrick:

One teacher [took] her children out into the pristine snow covering the school playground, she instructed them to walk around, taking note of their footprints. “Look at these paths you’ve been creating,” the teacher said. “In the same way that you’re creating new pathways in the snow, learning creates new pathways in your brain.”

Carol Dweck was sympathetic to the critics. She has described the early reaction to her book as ‘uncontrollable’. She freely admits that she and her colleagues had underestimated the issues around mindset interventions in the classrooms and that such interventions were ‘not yet evidence-based’. She identified two major areas where mindset interventions have gone awry. The first of these is when a teacher teaches the concept of mindsets to students, but does not change other policies and practices in the classroom. The second is that some teachers have focussed too much on praising their learners’ efforts. Teachers have taken mindset recipes and tips, without due consideration. She says:

Teachers have to ask, what exactly is the evidence suggesting? They have to realise it takes deep thought and deep experimentation on their part in the classroom to see how best the concept can be implemented there. This should be a group enterprise, in which they share what worked, what did not work, for whom and when. People need to recognise we are researchers, we have produced a body of evidence that says under these conditions this is what happened. We have not explored all the conditions that are possible. Teacher feedback on what is working and not working is hugely valuable to us to tell us what we have not done and what we need to do.

Critics like Dylan William, Carl Hendrick and Timothy Bates found that it was impossible to replicate Dweck’s findings, and that there were at best weak correlations between growth mindset and academic achievement, and between mindset interventions and academic gains. They were happy to concede that typical mindset interventions would not do any harm, but asked whether the huge amounts of money being spent on mindset would not be better invested elsewhere.

Carol Dweck seems to like the phrase ‘not yet’. She argues, in her TED Talk, that simply using the words ‘not yet’ can build students’ confidence, and her tip is often repeated by others. She also talks about mindset interventions being ‘not yet evidence-based’, which is a way of declaring her confidence that they soon will be. But, with huge financial backing, Dweck and her colleagues have recently been carrying out a lot of research and the results are now coming in. There are a small number of recent investigations that advocates of mindset interventions like to point to. For reasons of space, I’ll refer to two of them.

The first (Outes-Leon, et al., 2020) of these looked at an intervention with children in the first grades in a few hundred Peruvian secondary schools. The intervention consisted of students individually reading a text designed to introduce them to the concept of growth-mindset. This was followed by a group debate about the text, before students had to write individually a reflective letter to a friend/relative describing what they had learned. In total, this amounted to about 90 minutes of activity. Subsequently, teachers made a subjective assessment of the ‘best’ letters and attached these to the classroom wall, along with a growth mindset poster, for the rest of the school year. Teachers were also asked to take a picture of the students alongside the letters and the poster and to share this picture by email.

Academic progress was measured 2 and 14 months after the intervention and compared to a large control group. The short-term (2 months) impact of the intervention was positive for mathematics, but less so for reading comprehension. (Why?) These gains were only visible in regional schools, not at all in metropolitan schools. Similar results were found when looking at the medium-term (14 month) impact. The reasons for this are unclear. It is hypothesized that the lower-achieving students in regional schools might benefit more from the intervention. Smaller class sizes in regional schools might also be a factor. But, of course, many other explanations are possible.

The paper is entitled The Power of Believing You Can Get Smarter. The authors make it clear that they were looking for positive evidence of the intervention and they were supported by mindset advocates (e.g. David Yeager) from the start. It was funded by the World Bank, which is a long-standing advocate of growth mindset interventions. (Rather jumping the gun, the World Bank’s Mindset Team wrote in 2014 that teaching growth mindset is not just another policy fad. It is backed by a burgeoning body of empirical research.) The paper’s authors conclude that ‘the benefits of the intervention were relevant and long-lasting in the Peruvian context’, and they focus strongly on the low costs of the intervention. They acknowledge that the way the tool is introduced (design of the intervention) and the context in which this occurs (i.e., school and teacher characteristics) both matter to understand potential gains. But without understanding the role of the context, we haven’t really learned anything practical that we can take away from the research. Our understanding of the power of believing you can get smarter has not been meaningfully advanced.

The second of these studies (Yeager et al., 2019) took many thousands of lower-achieving American 9th graders from a representative sample of schools. It is a very well-designed and thoroughly reported piece of research. The intervention consisted of two 25-minute online sessions, 20 days apart, which sought to reduce the negative effort beliefs of students (the belief that having to try hard or ask for help means you lack ability), fixed-trait attributions (the attribution that failure stems from low ability) and performance avoidance goals (the goal of never looking stupid). An analysis of academic achievement at the end of the school year indicated clearly that the intervention led to improved performance. These results lead to very clear grounds for optimism about the potential of growth mindset interventions, but the report is careful to avoid overstatement. We have learnt about one particular demographic with one particular intervention, but it would be wrong to generalise beyond that. The researchers had hoped that the intervention would help to compensate for unsupportive school norms, but found that this was not the case. Instead, they found that it was when the peer norm supported the adoption of intellectual challenges that the intervention promoted sustained benefits. Context, as in the Peruvian study, was crucial. The authors write:

We emphasize that not all forms of growth mindset interventions can be expected to increase grades or advanced course-taking, even in the targeted subgroups. New growth mindset interventions that go beyond the module and population tested here will need to be subjected to rigorous development and validation processes.

I think that a reasonable conclusion from reading this research is that it may well be worth experimenting with growth mindset interventions in English language classes, but without any firm expectation of any positive impact. If nothing else, the interventions might provide useful, meaningful practice of the four skills. First, though, it would make sense to read two other pieces of research (Sisk et al., 2018; Burgoyne et al., 2020). Unlike the projects I have just discussed, these were not carried out by researchers with an a priori enthusiasm for growth-mindset interventions. And the results were rather different.

The first of these (Sisk et al., 2018) was a meta-analysis of the literature. It found that there was only a weak correlation between mindset and academic achievement, and only a weak correlation between mindset interventions and academic gains. It did, however, lend support to one of the conclusions of Yeager et al (2019), that such interventions may benefit students who are academically at risk.

The second (Burgoyne et al., 2020) found that the foundations of mind-set theory are not firm and that bold claims about mind-set appear to be overstated. Other constructs such as self-efficacy and need for achievement, [were] found to correlate much more strongly with presumed associates of mind-set.

So, where does this leave us? We are clearly a long way from ‘facts’; mindset interventions are ‘not yet evidence-based’. Carl Hendrick (2019) provides a useful summary:

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. […] Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it.

References

Bandura, Albert (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37 (2): pp. 122–147. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.37.2.122.

Burgoyne, A. P., Hambrick, D. Z., & Macnamara, B. N. (2020). How Firm Are the Foundations of Mind-Set Theory? The Claims Appear Stronger Than the Evidence. Psychological Science, 31(3), 258–267. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619897588

Early, P. (Ed.) ELT Documents 1113 – Humanistic Approaches: An Empirical View. London: The British Council

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

Hendrick, C. (2019). The growth mindset problem. Aeon,11 March 2019.

Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50: pp. 370-396.

Outes-Leon, I., Sanchez, A. & Vakis, R. (2020). The Power of Believing You Can Get Smarter : The Impact of a Growth-Mindset Intervention on Academic Achievement in Peru (English). Policy Research working paper, no. WPS 9141 Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/212351580740956027/The-Power-of-Believing-You-Can-Get-Smarter-The-Impact-of-a-Growth-Mindset-Intervention-on-Academic-Achievement-in-Peru

Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merill

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29, 549–571. doi:10.1177/0956797617739704

Yeager, D.S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G.M. et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

Comments
  1. Henno K says:

    Insightful as ever, thank you. I wonder if, I’m a few years, “growth mindset” will be looked at in the same light as “learning styles”. Time, and further rigorous research, will tell…

    • Henno K says:

      *in a few years

    • philipjkerr says:

      One of the articles that I linked to in the post is called ‘Is growth mindset the new learning styles?’ (from TES). I think there is a lot in common between the two, and I strongly suspect that, some years down the line, we’ll see mindset theory as a useful angle through which to look at things, but very problematic in other ways.

  2. Interesting and provocative as ever, Philip. I wonder if your last sentence should read ‘Paradoxically, however, that aspiration _has ‘not yet’ been proved to be_ well served by direct interventions that try to instil it’ – since they haven’t actually been proved to _not_ work ?? I confess I’m in the line of tradition – well-identified in your piece – that would like to think appropriate interventions might work (engaging students in activity which develops self-efficacy not just telling them about its value in the abstract!)

    • philipjkerr says:

      I can think of a lot of things that have not yet been proved to not work! But I think we often expect too much of the ‘proof / disproof’ kind of research. Simply too many variables that cannot be meaningfully teased apart. I suspect that your position isn’t so far from mine. My beef is really with inflated, unbalanced claims.

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