August 15, 2010

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?


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Nice review. Although some of the research makes sense, I'm not a Dweck fan. She's much more psychologist than she is teacher, yet she likes to write and speak like she knows what classroom teachers experience daily.

Her ideas basically underscore concepts that are much more clearly defined by Dan Pink in his book, Drive. Any teacher would benefit far more by reading him than by reading Dweck.

Great post Ewan.

I have a lot of time for Dweck and her ideas, and have tried some of them out on myself and some of my pupils. I wrote the efforts I made with my pupils up as part of my work towards my MEd/CTeach and as such went beyond the book and into her journal papers.

I would agree that while her ideas resonate, the way they're delivered in her book are not very palatable to our European tastes. The original research is a totally different ball game and well worth a look if you ever have spare five minutes on ERIC.

I agree with you that too often it's the teachers who are locked into a fixed mindset - when I first heard of this I thought of myself before the kids. But I feel that we pass this mindset onto our pupils through our daily interactions.

I was blown away by the impact on some of my pupils when I began to discuss these ideas with them and as a result would recommend any teacher to check it out. It could benefit themselves, and their pupils.

Hey Ewan,

Thanks for reading, I think. ;0) Throughout the last few years on my blog I've been saying basically the same thing you say here, that it has to start with the individual teacher as a learner first. I really don't have a fixed mindset on this, as much as it may appear in my posts. But I do think it's more complex than just changing the minds of teachers, which, btw, is what we've been doing with PLP for the last three years.

Teaching in it's current iteration is not a growth mindset profession. I read an essay by Seymour Papert recently where he referred to teaching as a "technical act" in that we carry out a "technically specified syllabus following a technically specified teaching method." We raise test scores and "student achievement" with technically better teaching, better methods to get across the knowledge that we test for. Does that sound like a growth mindset profession to you?

So yes, it's about one teacher at a time, but it's also about moving to a culture that allows, in fact encourages teachers to be learners first, in fact labels them as learners in the best growth mindset way. I'm not sure it's age or gender or anything else as much as it is a culture that takes even young teachers and inculcates them in the profession in some very fixed mindset ways.


I wonder if the "culture or one-at-a-time" argument is a chicken and egg discussion we don't need to get into. How many teachers does it take to change a culture? Does changing culture first mean that teachers, magically, conform to the new culture? Of course, not, and that's not what either of us are saying.

In my experience it's been changing teachers one at a time that has, by dint of experiments, individual efforts stretching out into collaborations and some time, changed the cultural norms: that's what we spent several years doing in East Lothian, meeting what we felt was success. We now have over 2000 classes, teachers, managers and parents sharing what they think education is, and what they are learning, in a small education district of 1500 staff and 15,000 students (i.e. most of our learners and staff reflect publicly about what they have learnt and help each other develop their learning).

But, in a more systemic way, I loved the example from St George's that I blogged about just a moment ago:

Here you have a cultural change being invited by a process, not handed out to staff and learners. It's this way of leading, even if it's just a score or two of teachers, that creates huge change.

With this in mind, that's why I think the change is not going to be some seismic shift in thinking towards growth. I think it's going to be a mix of small TEAMS of teachers at a time seeing students, not the institution of school, as the core reason for their existence doing whatever they can to help students achieve the learning the students set for themselves.

Core to this being a movement, and not just a random selection of choices made by 'mavericks', is this notion of a TEAM making a move towards change. The natural unit for such a team in education is not some amorphous blob of teachers - it's a school. Maybe the unit of advancement is not one teacher at a time, or systemic change in a whole system. Maybe it's one school at a time?

When I reflect on East Lothian's experience and that of my colleagues' success in gaming for learning in Scotland that's exactly what's happened.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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