Book Review: Changing fixed mindsets (one by one)
Will Richardson's blog, of late, has featured dozens of posts pointing out the impending doom one might feel as we realise learners (and tomorrow's workers) need to be self-starting, entrepreneurial people with passions they know how to exploit, but our education systems seem largely incapable of teeing them up for this way of thinking and learning. It's getting harder to see how we can motivate DIY learners. I'm always slightly disappointed that the posts finish just as the thought process should kick into action. There's never an easy path to beat out (or blog out) in changing our systems, it seems. But what if we consider that the problem is not systemic: it's just a challenge with individual teachers.
The notion that the world cannot change, and that we can't change within it, is more widespread than any of us can imagine. This is the fixed mindset, according to Carol Dweck, and it's not just stultifying if you work in an environment where questioning the present and changing things for the future is rare. It's fatal.
Colleagues who had heard Carol Dweck speak at the Scottish Learning Festival raved. They all said to buy the book and get my Dweck fix. If I wanted to understand why any stubborn students, teachers, parents and business colleagues were the way they were, then Carole Dweck's 'discovery' of the fixed mindset and growth mindset would explain all.First of all, let me get the negative out of the way - this drug was a little too sickly sweet for more than a brief encounter - the writing style is indeed intended to be relaxed, accessible for a parent, coach, business person or teacher - and I think it is - but for me comes across a little too much like a self-referential "our theory will cure your life of all ills" bible.
That said, the assertion is a useful one, a handy framework for beginning to think about how as a teacher you might handle a particular group, or as a dad you might handle the Terrible Twos.
For Dweck and her research team a fixed mindset is about non-learning, taking delight easy unchallenging tasks. It's about having at least once proven that you are great at something (the degree, the gold medal, the "we did this first… ten years ago"), but then not taking the risk to show that your knowledge has grown, evolved to keep apace of the times, your competition or your peers. This is the very mindset I see more than a few times each week when highly successful teachers who have, say, twenty years of experience are loathe to create changes in the way they work for fear that they'll shake out all the reputation they've built. What Dweck's mindset research reveals is that twenty years doing the same thing twenty times over is a fixed mindset approach to work.
I recognise bits of this fixed mindset in myself and in plenty of my peers. To have it spread over a few chapters really makes you realise the elements of thinking on which it's worth taking a moment of reflection in the future.
She points out that the ultimate in modern day fixed mindset benchmarking - Alfred Binet's IQ test - was designed to be a summative tool, to help show what work needed done to improve the learner's aptitude. I also began to wonder how many of those curating examination systems around the world also intend their examinations to act as summative tools, as assessment as learning or for learning, only to see their devices in the hands of policymakers and politicians turned into yet another Binetesque test.
The reason, Dweck asserts, that this fixed mindset is plain wrong, is that humans have for long shown that, with effort and desire, we can turn our hands to pretty much anything. Take a look, for example, at Betty Edwards' Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, to see how people with about as much artistic ability as, well, me at the moment, were able to produce what I would call semi-pro work after merely five days of effort and tuition:
We also know that negative labels harm children (e.g. calling a child 'stupid' will generally reinforce their self-image as being stupid. That is why, in the long term, and certainly in the short term, it's not a great idea for an educator to do this.) Yet teachers use these 'stupid', 'incapable' labels on themselves all the time. I hear teachers call themselves stupid or incapable almost weekly, without a thought in the world that this may be causing harm to their own chances of learning a new skill or approach to learning and teaching.
The professional non-learner
Since 2005 I've spent most of my time not looking at how young people learn, but at how teachers and parents learn. Or don't learn. Dweck cites one of her professors Seymour Sarason (p.201) -
"There's an assumption that schools are for students' learning. Well, why aren't they just as much for teachers' learning?"
I often feel this way about educational conferences and seminars, especially those where, at some point, we see a group of impeccably dressed and rehearsed coathanger-smile students share with us their "learner voice", so well briefed by the teacher beforehand. This form of learner voice can end up being more of a distraction away from the deficiencies in the teachers' learning of the subject in hand than a genuine effort to take students' views and bake them into teachers' actions. Notable exceptions, by the way, are the Be Very Afraids, Becta X (disclosure - I helped bring that together) and, by word of mouth, Lehman's Educons - must get myself there next year.
This fixed mindset mentality is, I believe, probably at its most unashamedly visible in the teaching population in one specific area: understanding technology, both in terms of the clicks (how to) and the smarts (why to). The moment someone utters the phrase "digital natives and digital immigrants" they are simultaneously putting themselves into a position that runs contrary to their job description (teacher as learner, continually developing professional) and unwittingly tarring their profession with the same static, fixed mindset.
"Digital immigrants" as a phrase seems to come straight out of the "fixed mindset" - the inability to become fluent in something. But likewise, calling anyone under 35, 30, 25… a "digital native" is also forcing the fixed mindset on them. If anyone were to believe that an expert web programmer in 2000 were today of the same standing they'd be laughed out of the room. Likewise, a 10 year old in 2005 did not have the skills they require aged 15 to cope with the technologies they face today (from a pre-YouTube era to a Facebook and 3D television era), and unless they operate within a rapid growth mindset they will be unable to cope in 2011 when one in five British television sets alone will be internet and web browser enabled.
Might it just be that young people tend to be more likely to be of more of a growth mindset than over 30s, over-35s? Are we more likely to find teachers that are non-learners than those who pride themselves as being the Learners In Chief?