Posts Tagged ‘humanism’

Whenever a word is frequently used in arguments trying to persuade people to believe some opinion or other, our mental twists and turns to make the opinion plausible involve shifting from meaning to meaning without realizing it. This has happened to creativity on a grand scale.’ (Perry, L. (1987). The Educational Value of Creativity. Journal of Art and Design Education 6 (3) ) quoted in Pugliese, 2010: 8)

If you take a look at the word ‘creativity’ in Google’s Ngram viewer, you’ll notice that use of the word really took off around 1950, the year when J. P. Guilford published an article entitled ‘Creativity’ in American Psychologist. Guilford’s background was in the US military. His research was part funded by the US Navy and his subjects were US Air Force personnel. His interest was in the classification and training of military recruits.

With the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union hotting up, Guilford’s interests increasingly became a matter of national security. In 1954, Carl Rogers, argued that education tended to turn out ‘conformists […] rather than freely creative and original thinkers’ (Rogers, 1954: 249) and that there was a ‘desperate need’ for the latter. He warned that ‘international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity’. When Sputnik scared the shit out of the American military, creativity became more important still. It ‘could no longer be left to the chance occurrence of genius; neither could it be left in the realm of the wholly mysterious and the untouchable. Men had to be able to do something about it; creativity had to be a property in many men; it had to be something identifiable; it had to be subject to efforts to gain more of it’ (Razik, 1967).

It wasn’t long before creativity moved beyond purely military concerns to more generally corporate ones. Creativity became one of the motors driving the economy. This process is tracked in a fascinating article by Steven Shapin (2020), who quotes the director of research at General Electric as saying in 1959: ‘I think we can agree at once that we are all in favour of creativity’. Since then, the idea of creativity has rarely looked back.

By the end of the century, the UK government had set up a National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, chaired by Ken Robinson. Creativity was seen as a ‘vital investment in human capital for the twenty-first century’ (National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, 1999). Quoting the prime minister, Blair, the report stated that ‘our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century — where we compete on brains, not brawn’.

A few years later, in the US, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills was founded, supported primarily by the corporate community with companies like AOL Time Warner, Apple and Microsoft providing financial backing. The ‘21st century skills’ required by global employers (or more specifically that global employers wanted national governments to pay for) could be catchily boiled down to the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical reflection and creativity. What was meant by creativity is made clearer in Trilling and Fadel’s bible of 21st century skills (2009: 56):

Given the 21st century demands to continuously innovate new services, better processes, and improved products for the world’s global economy, and for the creative knowledge required in more and more of the world’s better-paying jobs, it should come as no surprise that creativity and innovation are very high on the list of 21st century skills. In fact, many believe that our current Knowledge Age is quickly giving way to an Innovation Age, where the ability to solve problems in new ways (like the greening of energy use), to invent new technologies (like bio- and nanotechnology) or create the new killer application of existing technologies (like efficient and affordable electric cars and solar panels, or even to discover new branches of knowledge and invent entirely new industries, will all be highly prized.

In this line of thought, creativity is blurred with ‘innovation skills’ and inextricably linked to business (and employee) performance. It involves creative thinking techniques (such as brainstorming), the ability to work collaboratively and creatively with others, openness to new ideas and perspectives, originality and inventiveness in work, and understanding real-world limits to adopting new ideas (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). Although never defined very precisely, the purpose of creativity in education (as well as 21st skills more generally) is crystal-clear:

A fundamental role of education is to equip students with the competences they need – and will need – in order to succeed in society. Creative thinking is a necessary competence for today’s young people to develop. It can help them adapt to a constantly and rapidly changing world, and one that demands flexible workers equipped with ‘21st century’ skills that go beyond core literacy and numeracy. After all, children today will likely be employed in sectors or roles that do not yet exist’. (OECD, 2019: 6)

Creativity, then, has become first and foremost about the development of human capital and, by extension, the health of financial capital. In the World Economic Forum’s list of ‘5 Things You Need To Know About Creativity’, #1 on the list is ‘Creativity is good for the Economy’, #4 is ‘It’s important for leadership’, and #5 is ‘It’s crucial for the future of work’. For the World Bank, creativity is more or less synonymous with entrepreneurship (World Bank, 2010).

Given the importance that the OECD attaches to creativity, it was inevitable that they should seek to measure it. The next round of PISA tests, postponed to 2022 because of Covid-19, will incorporate evaluation of creative thinking. As the OECD itself recognises (OECD, 2019), this will be no easy task. There are problems in establishing a valid and agreed construct of creative thinking / creativity. There is debate about the extent to which creative thinking is domain-specific (does creative thinking in science different to creative thinking in the arts?). Previous attempts to measure creativity have been less than satisfactory. But none of this will stop the OECD juggernaut, and shortcomings in the first round of evaluations can be taken, creatively, as ‘an opportunity to learn’ (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). There will be a washback effect, but this is all to the good in the eyes of the OECD. One of their most significant objectives in measuring creativity is to encourage ‘changes in education policies and pedagogies’ (OECD, 2019: 5): ‘the results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education’. To a large extent, it is an agenda-setting exercise.

Creativity’s most well-known cheerleader is the late Ken Robinson. His advocacy of creativity in education for the purposes of developing human capital is clear from his contribution to the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (1999) report. Subsequently, he changed his tune a little, and was careful to expand on his reasons for promoting creativity. Creativity, for Robinson, became something of broader importance than it was for those with a 21st century skills agenda. ‘There’s a lot of talk these days about 21st century skills,’ he said, ‘and I go along with a great deal of it, my only reservation about the idea of 21st century skills is that when they’re listed, they often include skills that were relevant at any time, in any century, it’s not that they’re a completely brand new set of things that people need to learn now that they didn’t have to learn before, but the context is very different’. In another interview, when pushed about creativity as an ‘essential 21st century skill’ – ‘why is creativity especially important right now?’ – Robinson again avoided going too far down the 21st century skills path. In reply, he offered a number of reasons, but the economy was the last that he mentioned. Human capital mattered to Robinson (‘any conversation about education that doesn’t take account of the economy is really, in some respects, detached and naïve from the world that we live in’ he said in another interview), but he made a point of downplaying it. As a highly accomplished rhetorician, Robinson knew how to tailor his messages for his audiences. His success and fame were due in large part to his ability to craft messages for everybody, and his readiness to allow the significance of creativity to shift from one meaning to another played, in my view, a large role in his appeal.

In ELT, there is no doubt that creativity is, as Maley and Kiss (2018: v) put it, ‘a fashionable concept’. In addition to Maley & Kiss’s ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’ (2018), recent publications have included ‘The Creative Teacher’s Compendium’ (Clare & Marsh, 2020), ‘Hacking Creativity’ (Peachey, 2019), ‘50 Creative Activities’ (Maley, 2018), ‘Creativity in English Language Teaching’ (Xerri & Vassallo, 2016), ‘Creativity in the English language classroom’ (Maley & Peachey, 2015) and ‘Being Creative’ (Pugliese, 2010). In addition, there have been chapters on creativity in recent books about 21st century skills in ELT, such as ‘21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers’ (Graham, 2020) and ‘English for 21st Century Skills’ (Mavridi & Xerri, 2020). Robinson is regularly cited.

What is striking about all these publications is that the kind of creativity that is promoted has virtually nothing to do with the kind of creativity that has been discussed in the first part of this article. The notion of language learners as human capital is absent, the purpose of creativity teaching is entirely different, and the creativity of the 4 Cs of 21st century skills has transformed into something else altogether. Even in the edited collections with ‘21st century skills’ in their titles, creativity has little or nothing to do with the creativity of the OECD. In most of these titles, ‘21st century skills’ are not mentioned at all, or only briefly in passing. In the 330 pages of Maley and Kiss (2018), for example, there are only three mentions of the term.

Instead, we have something that is not very ‘21st century’ at all. Definitions of creativity in these ELT books are very broad, and acknowledge the problems in even providing a definition. Recognising these difficulties, Nik Peachey (2019: iv) doesn’t even attempt to provide a definition. Instead, he offers a selection of ideas and activities which have something to do with the concept. Maley (in Xerri & Vassallo, 2016: 10) takes a similar approach, offering a list of attributes, including things like newness / originality, immediacy, wonder, curiosity / play, inspiration, finding / making connections, unpredictability, relevance and flow. Pugliese (2010: 114) asks teachers how they interpret creativity and this list includes problem-solving, the teacher’s aesthetic drive, a combination of the previous two, and a search for Rogerian self-actualization. Both writers focus heavily on the teacher’s own commitment to creativity. For Pugliese (2010: 12), ‘creativity is about wanting to be creative’.

In practice, the classroom ideas that are on offer can usually be put into one or more of the following categories:

  • Activities that involve the arts: drama, stories, music, song, chants, poetry and dance, etc. Maley (2018) is especially interested in poetry, and Pugliese (2010) explores music and the visual arts in more detail.
  • Activities that involves the learners in personalized self-expression, with emotional responses prioritized.
  • Activities which are in some way exploratory, unpredictable or ‘different’. The work of John Fanselow (e.g. 1987) is an important inspiration here.

The overall result is a relabelled mash-up of ideas that have been around for some time: exploitation of literature, music and art; humanistic approaches inspired by Stevick, Rinvolucri and others; a sprinkling of positive psychology; and, sometimes, suggestions for using digital technology to facilitate creative expression of some kind. I hope I am not being unfair if I suggest that the problem of definition arises because the 21st century label of creativity has been stuck on bottles of vintage wine.

Most of these writers seem content to ignore 21st century OECD-style creativity, to pretend that it is not the driver of the ‘fashionable concept’ they are writing about. However, the reason for this silence surfaces from time to time: most of these ELT writers disapprove of, even dislike, the OECD version of creativity. Here, for example, is Chris Kennedy in the foreword to Maley & Peachey (2015: 2):

It is worrying in our market-driven world that […] certain concepts, and the words used to express them, lose their value through over-use or ill-definition. […] The danger is that such terms may be hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours. ‘Creativity’ is one such term, and UK government reports on the subject in the last few years show the concept of creativity being used to support a particular instrumental political view as a means of promoting the economy, rather than as a focus for developing individual skills and talents.’

And here’s David Nunan (in Mavridi & Xerri, 2020: 6) dishing out some vitriol:

I have been unable to find any evidence that the ability to solve such [problem-solving 21st century-style creativity tasks] transfers to the ability to solve such problems in real life. This has not stopped some people building their careers out of the concept and amassing considerable compensation in the process. Robinson even garnered a knighthood’.

This is all rather strange. It is creativity as a 21st century skill that has made the topic a ‘fashionable concept’. The ideas of Alan Maley et al about creativity become more plausible because the meaning of the key term can shift around. His book (with Nik Peachey) was commissioned by the British Council, an organisation that is profoundly committed to the idea that 21st century skills, including creativity, are essential for young people ‘to be fully prepared for life and work in a global economy’. In this light, Maley & Peachey (2015), which kicks off with a Maley poem before the Chris Kennedy foreword, may almost be seen as a subversive hijacking, a détournement of British Council discourse. But détourneurs can be détourné in their turn …

Maley’s co-author, Tamas Kiss, on ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’, a book which so strenuously avoided the discourse of 21st century creativity, chose to discuss this work in the following way for a webpage for his university:

‘Dr Kiss explained that creativity has been the subject of investigation in several fields including psychology and business, as well as language teaching, and is one of the ‘core skills’ of most 21st century educational frameworks:

“People have realised that traditional knowledge transfer systems are not necessarily preparing students for 21st century jobs,” said Tamas, “New educational frameworks, for example those developed by the Council of Europe, emphasize cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, and creativity.”’

The university in question is Xi’an Jiaotong University, to the west of Shanghai. In the same year as the publication of the book that Kiss co-authored with Maley, Barbara Schulte gave a conference presentation entitled ‘Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China’ (Schulte, 2018). She noted the increasing importance accorded to creativity in China’s educational reforms, the country’s increasing engagement with OECD benchmarks, and the way in which creative approaches ‘originally intended to empower learners are turned into their exact opposites, constraining learners’ spaces even more than with conventional approaches’.

Creativity is a classic weasel word. Its use should come accompanied with a hazard warning.


Clare, A. & Marsh, A. (2020). The Creative Teacher’s Compendium. Teddington, Middx.: Pavilion

Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking Rules. Harlow: Longman

Graham, C. (Ed.) (2020). 21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers. Reading: Granet

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5 (9): pp.444–454

Maley, A. (2018). Alan Maley’s 50 Creative Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Maley, A. & Kiss, T. (2018). Creativity and English Language Teaching. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) (2015). Creativity in the English language classroom. London: British Council

Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing

National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education

OECD (2019). PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework (Third Draft). Paris: OECD.

Peachey, N. (2019). Hacking Creativity. PeacheyPublications.

Pugliese, C. (2010). Being Creative. Peaslake: DELTA

Razik, T. A. (1967). Psychometric measurement of creativity. In Mooney, R. L. & Razik, T. A. (Eds.) Explorations in Creativity. New York: Harper & Row

Rogers, C. (1954). Toward a Theory of Creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 11: pp. 249-260

Schulte, B. (2018). Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China. Abstract from Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference 2018, Sydney, Australia.

Shapin, S. (2020). The rise and rise of creativity. Aeon 12 October 2020

Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

World Bank (2010). Stepping Up Skills. Washington: The World Bank

Xerri, D. & Vassallo, O. (Eds.) (2016). Creativity in English Language Teaching. Floriana: ELT Council

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.


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.

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.

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.

In my last post, I looked at the way that, in the absence of a clear, shared understanding of what ‘personalization’ means, it has come to be used as a slogan for the promoters of edtech. In this post, I want to look a little more closely at the constellation of meanings that are associated with the term, suggest a way of evaluating just how ‘personalized’ an instructional method might be, and look at recent research into ‘personalized learning’.

In English language teaching, ‘personalization’ often carries a rather different meaning than it does in broader educational discourse. Jeremy Harmer (Harmer, 2012: 276) defines it as ‘when students use language to talk about themselves and things which interest them’. Most commonly, this is in the context of ‘freer’ language practice of grammar or vocabulary of the following kind: ‘Complete the sentences so that they are true for you’. It is this meaning that Scott Thornbury refers to first in his entry for ‘Personalization’ in his ‘An A-Z of ELT’ (Thornbury, 2006: 160). He goes on, however, to expand his definition of the term to include humanistic approaches such as Community Language Learning / Counseling learning (CLL), where learners decide the content of a lesson, where they have agency. I imagine that no one would disagree that an approach such as this is more ‘personalized’ than a ‘complete-the-sentences-so-they-are-true-for you’ exercise to practise the present perfect.

Outside of ELT, ‘personalization’ has been used to refer to everything from ‘from customized interfaces to adaptive tutors, from student-centered classrooms to learning management systems’ (Bulger, 2016: 3). The graphic below (from Bulger, 2016: 3) illustrates just how wide the definitional reach of ‘personalization’ is.


As with Thornbury’s entry in his ‘A – Z of ELT’, it seems uncontentious to say that some things are more ‘personalized’ than others.

Given the current and historical problems with defining the term, it’s not surprising that a number of people have attempted to develop frameworks that can help us to get to grips with the thorny question of ‘personalization’. In the context of language teaching / learning, Renée Disick (Disick, 1975: 58) offered the following categorisation:


In a similar vein, a few years later, Howard Altman (Altman, 1980) suggested that teaching activities can differ in four main ways: the time allocated for learning, the curricular goal, the mode of learning and instructional expectations (personalized goal setting). He then offered eight permutations of these variables (see below, Altman, 1980: 9), although many more are imaginable.

Altman 1980 chart

Altman and Disick were writing, of course, long before our current technology-oriented view of ‘personalization’ became commonplace. The recent classification of technologically-enabled personalized learning systems by Monica Bulger (see below, Bulger, 2016: 6) reflects how times have changed.


Bulger’s classification focusses on the technology more than the learning, but her continuum is very much in keeping with the views of Disick and Altman. Some approaches are more personalized than others.

The extent to which choices are offered determines the degree of individualization in a particular program. (Disick, 1975: 5)

It is important to remember that learner-centered language teaching is not a point, but rather a continuum. (Altman, 1980: 6)

Larry Cuban has also recently begun to use a continuum as a way of understanding the practices of ‘personalization’ that he observes as part of his research. The overall goals of schooling at both ends of the curriculum are not dissimilar: helping ‘children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults’.

Cubans curriculum

As Cuban and others before him (e.g. Januszewski, 2001: 57) make clear, the two perspectives are not completely independent of each other. Nevertheless, we can see that one end of this continuum is likely to be materials-centred with the other learner-centred (Dickinson, 1987: 57). At one end, teachers (or their LMS replacements) are more likely to be content-providers and enact traditional roles. At the other, teachers’ roles are ‘more like those of coaches or facilitators’ (Cavanagh, 2014). In short, one end of the continuum is personalization for the learner; the other end is personalization by the learner.

It makes little sense, therefore, to talk about personalized learning as being a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing. We might perceive one form of personalized learning to be more personalized than another, but that does not mean it is any ‘better’ or more effective. The only possible approach is to consider and evaluate the different elements of personalization in an attempt to establish, first, from a theoretical point of view whether they are likely to lead to learning gains, and, second, from an evidence-based perspective whether any learning gains are measurable. In recent posts on this blog, I have been attempting to do that with elements such as learning styles , self-pacing and goal-setting.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, none of the elements that we associate with ‘personalization’ will lead to clear, demonstrable learning gains. A report commissioned by the Gates Foundation (Pane et al, 2015) to find evidence of the efficacy of personalized learning did not, despite its subtitle (‘Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning’), manage to come up with any firm and unequivocal evidence (see Riley, 2017). ‘No single element of personalized learning was able to discriminate between the schools with the largest achievement effects and the others in the sample; however, we did identify groups of elements that, when present together, distinguished the success cases from others’, wrote the authors (Pane et al., 2015: 28). Undeterred, another report (Pane et al., 2017) was commissioned: in this the authors were unable to do better than a very hedged conclusion: ‘There is suggestive evidence that greater implementation of PL practices may be related to more positive effects on achievement; however, this finding requires confirmation through further research’ (my emphases). Don’t hold your breath!

In commissioning the reports, the Gates Foundation were probably asking the wrong question. The conceptual elasticity of the term ‘personalization’ makes its operationalization in any empirical study highly problematic. Meaningful comparison of empirical findings would, as David Hartley notes, be hard because ‘it is unlikely that any conceptual consistency would emerge across studies’ (Hartley, 2008: 378). The question of what works is unlikely to provide a useful (in the sense of actionable) response.

In a new white paper out this week, “A blueprint for breakthroughs,” Michael Horn and I argue that simply asking what works stops short of the real question at the heart of a truly personalized system: what works, for which students, in what circumstances? Without this level of specificity and understanding of contextual factors, we’ll be stuck understanding only what works on average despite aspirations to reach each individual student (not to mention mounting evidence that “average” itself is a flawed construct). Moreover, we’ll fail to unearth theories of why certain interventions work in certain circumstances. And without that theoretical underpinning, scaling personalized learning approaches with predictable quality will remain challenging. Otherwise, as more schools embrace personalized learning, at best each school will have to go at it alone and figure out by trial and error what works for each student. Worse still, if we don’t support better research, “personalized” schools could end up looking radically different but yielding similar results to our traditional system. In other words, we risk rushing ahead with promising structural changes inherent to personalized learning—reorganizing space, integrating technology tools, freeing up seat-time—without arming educators with reliable and specific information about how to personalize to their particular students or what to do, for which students, in what circumstances. (Freeland Fisher, 2016)


Altman, H.B. 1980. ‘Foreign language teaching: focus on the learner’ in Altman, H.B. & James, C.V. (eds.) 1980. Foreign Language Teaching: Meeting Individual Needs. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp.1 – 16

Bulger, M. 2016. Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having. New York: Data and Society Research Institute.

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Freeland Fisher, J. 2016. ‘The inconvenient truth about personalized learning’ [Blog post] retrieved from (May 4, 2016)

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hartley, D. 2008. ‘Education, Markets and the Pedagogy of Personalisation’ British Journal of Educational Studies 56 / 4: 365 – 381

Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation retrieved from

Pane, J.F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., Hamilton, L. S. & Pane, J.D. 2017. Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects. Seattle: Rand Corporation retrieved from

Riley, B. 2017. ‘Personalization vs. How People Learn’ Educational Leadership 74 / 6: 68-73

Thornbury, S. 2006. An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education





In the last post, I looked at issues concerning self-pacing in personalized language learning programmes. This time, I turn to personalized goal-setting. Most definitions of personalized learning, such as that offered by Next Generation Learning Challenges (a non-profit supported by Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among others), argue that ‘the default perspective [should be] the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher, and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.’ It’s a perspective shared by the United States National Education Technology Plan 2017 , which promotes the idea that learning objectives should vary based on learner needs, and should often be self-initiated. It’s shared by the massively funded Facebook initiative that is developing software that ‘puts students in charge of their lesson plans’, as the New York Times put it. How, precisely, personalized goal-setting can be squared with standardized, high-stakes testing is less than clear. Are they incompatible by any chance?

In language learning, the idea that learners should have some say in what they are learning is not new, going back, at least, to the humanistic turn in the 1970s. Wilga Rivers advocated ‘giving the students opportunity to choose what they want to learn’ (Rivers, 1971: 165). A few years later, Renee Disick argued that the extent to which a learning programme can be called personalized (although she used the term ‘individualized’) depends on the extent to which learners have a say in the choice of learning objectives and the content of learning (Disick, 1975). Coming more up to date, Penny Ur advocated giving learners ‘a measure of freedom to choose how and what to learn’ (Ur, 1996: 233).

The benefits of personalized goal-setting

Personalized goal-setting is closely related to learner autonomy and learner agency. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful sense of learner autonomy or agency without some control of learning objectives. Without this control, it will be harder for learners to develop an L2 self. This matters because ‘ultimate attainment in second-language learning relies on one’s agency … [it] is crucial at the point where the individuals must not just start memorizing a dozen new words and expressions but have to decide on whether to initiate a long, painful, inexhaustive, and, for some, never-ending process of self-translation. (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000: 169 – 170). Put bluntly, if learners ‘have some responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to be engaged than if they are just doing what the teacher tells them to’ (Harmer, 2012: 90). A degree of autonomy should lead to increased motivation which, in turn, should lead to increased achievement (Dickinson, 1987: 32; Cordova & Lepper, 1996: 726).

Strong evidence for these claims is not easy to provide, not least since autonomy and agency cannot be measured. However, ‘negative evidence clearly shows that a lack of agency can stifle learning by denying learners control over aspects of the language-learning process’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 91). Most language teachers (especially in compulsory education) have witnessed the negative effects that a lack of agency can generate in some students. Irrespective of the extent to which students are allowed to influence learning objectives, the desirability of agency / autonomy appears to be ‘deeply embedded in the professional consciousness of the ELT community’ (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012; Benson, 2016: 341). Personalized goal-setting may not, for a host of reasons, be possible in a particular learning / teaching context, but in principle it would seem to be a ‘good thing’.

Goal-setting and technology

The idea that learners might learn more and better if allowed to set their own learning objectives is hardly new, dating back at least one hundred years to the establishment of Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini. In language teaching, the interest in personalized learning that developed in the 1970s (see my previous post) led to numerous classroom experiments in personalized goal-setting. These did not result in lasting changes, not least because the workload of teachers became ‘overwhelming’ (Disick, 1975: 128).

Closely related was the establishment of ‘self-access centres’. It was clear to anyone, like myself, who was involved in the setting-up and maintenance of a self-access centre, that they cost a lot, in terms of both money and work (Ur, 2012: 236). But there were also nagging questions about how effective they were (Morrison, 2005). Even more problematic was a bigger question: did they actually promote the learner autonomy that was their main goal?

Post-2000, online technology rendered self-access centres redundant: who needs the ‘walled garden’ of a self-access centre when ‘learners are able to connect with multiple resources and communities via the World Wide Web in entirely individual ways’ (Reinders, 2012)? The cost problem of self-access centres was solved by the web. Readily available now were ‘myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs’ (Cavanagh, 2014). Not only that … online technology promised to grant agency, to ‘empower language learners to take charge of their own learning’ and ‘to provide opportunities for learners to develop their L2 voice’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 32). The dream of personalized learning has become inseparable from the affordances of educational technologies.

It is, however, striking just how few online modes of language learning offer any degree of personalized goal-setting. Take a look at some of the big providers – Voxy, Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel, for example – and you will find only the most token nods to personalized learning objectives. Course providers appear to be more interested in claiming their products are personalized (‘You decide what you want to learn and when!’) than in developing a sufficient amount of content to permit personalized goal-setting. We are left with the ELT equivalent of personalized cans of Coke: a marketing tool.


The problems with personalized goal-setting

Would language learning products, such as those mentioned above, be measurably any better if they did facilitate the personalization of learning objectives in a significant way? Would they be able to promote learner autonomy and agency in a way that self-access centres apparently failed to achieve? It’s time to consider the square quotes that I put around ‘good thing’.

Researchers have identified a number of potential problems with goal-setting. I have already mentioned the problem of reconciling personalized goals and standardized testing. In most learning contexts, educational authorities (usually the state) regulate the curriculum and determine assessment practices. It is difficult to see, as Campbell et al. (Campbell et al., 2007: 138) point out, how such regulation ‘could allow individual interpretations of the goals and values of education’. Most assessment systems ‘aim at convergent outcomes and homogeneity’ (Benson, 2016: 345) and this is especially true of online platforms, irrespective of their claims to ‘personalization’. In weak (typically internal) assessment systems, the potential for autonomy is strongest, but these are rare.

In all contexts, it is likely that personalized goal-setting will only lead to learning gains when a number of conditions are met. The goals that are chosen need to be both specific, measurable, challenging and non-conflicting (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2-3). They need to be realistic: if not, it is unlikely that self-efficacy (a person’s belief about their own capability to achieve or perform to a certain level) will be promoted (Koda-Dallow & Hobbs, 2005), and without self-efficacy, improved performance is also unlikely (Bandura, 1997). The problem is that many learners lack self-efficacy and are poor self-regulators. These things are teachable / learnable, but require time and support. Many learners need help in ‘becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). If they do not get it, the potential advantages of personalized goal-setting will be negated. As learners become better self-regulators, they will want and need to redefine their learning goals: goal-setting should be an iterative process (Hussey & Smith, 2003: 358). Again, support will be needed. In online learning, such support is not common.

A further problem that has been identified is that goal-setting can discourage a focus on non-goal areas (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2) and can lead to ‘a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it’ (Locke & Latham, 2006: 266). We know that much language learning is messy and incidental. Students do not only learn the particular thing that they are studying at the time (the belief that they do was described by Dewey as ‘the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies’). Goal-setting, even when personalized, runs the risk of promoting tunnel-vision.

The incorporation of personalized goal-setting in online language learning programmes is, in so many ways, a far from straightforward matter. Simply tacking it onto existing programmes is unlikely to result in anything positive: it is not an ‘over-the-counter treatment for motivation’ (Ordóñez et al.:2). Course developers will need to look at ‘the complex interplay between goal-setting and organizational contexts’ (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 16). Motivating students is not simply ‘a matter of the teacher deploying the correct strategies […] it is an intensely interactive process’ (Lamb, M. 2017). More generally, developers need to move away from a positivist and linear view of learning as a technical process where teaching interventions (such as the incorporation of goal-setting, the deployment of gamification elements or the use of a particular algorithm) will lead to predictable student outcomes. As Larry Cuban reminds us, ‘no persuasive body of evidence exists yet to confirm that belief (Cuban, 1986: 88). The most recent research into personalized learning has failed to identify any single element of personalization that can be clearly correlated with improved outcomes (Pane et al., 2015: 28).

In previous posts, I considered learning styles and self-pacing, two aspects of personalized learning that are highly problematic. Personalized goal-setting is no less so.


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