Fixed Mindset Strikes Again

By now, I’d be willing to bet that every teacher in America has attended at least one professional development session on “Fixed vs Growth Mindset.” In fact, the phrase has become so ubiquitous that it’s been trivialized. Carol Dweck’s work has so much more to offer us than what is often captured in a PowerPoint deck.  Superficial use of the phrase is everywhere, but it seems that her core insights have not really been learned.

Take look at a recent story in The Atlantic, “Teens are Protesting In-Class Presentations.”

Cue chorus of “Kids These Days!!!” tweets in four-part harmony.

But I don’t blame the kids. Read the piece carefully and I think you’ll come across the real culprit (hint, it’s not a person, it’s an assumption):

These students want more options. They say that every student has unique strengths and abilities and that they should be allowed to present their work in ways that speak to those strengths. This might mean presenting alone in front of the teacher, or choosing between several alternatives like producing a piece of art or an essay for private judgment instead of presenting their work orally.

The resounding theory that education is holding on to right now is the idea of multiple intelligences,” says Travis Grandt, a high-school history teacher in Colorado who says he tries to accommodate students with special needs, including anxiety. “There [are] a lot of ways for kids to present information. It doesn’t have to be through a formal presentation.”

Emphasis added, in case it wasn’t obvious.

The real challenge isn’t Kids These Days (I’ll go ahead and follow their lead and abbreviate to KTD).  The real challenge is that in spite of several years now of teachers getting trained ad nauseum on Fixed vs Growth Mindset, many of them do not actually understand/believe its core insight, and cling to a debunked theory of intelligence (even Howard Gardner concedes that it is no longer current).

Imagine the following scenario (reductio ad absurdum ahead):

Susie: “Mrs. Smith, I’m really struggling to learn linear equations.”

Mrs. Smith: “Susie, that’s OK – you just don’t have quantitative intelligence.  I hear you’re a pretty good basketball player, though, so you have kinesthetic intelligence instead.”

Susie: “Sounds good, teach.  I’ll go work on my free throws.  Who needs math in today’s world?”

Talk about the bigotry of low expectations.

Now imagine that the teacher has internalized Dweck’s work and sees an opportunity to encourage a growth mindset (reductio ad sapientiam ahead):

Susie: “Mr. Lopez, I’m really struggling to learn linear equations.”

Mr. Lopez:  “Susie, you’re not alone, but there are now some great resources that might help you.   Have you heard of Learning How to Learn?  It’s this neat little book that shows you how your brain works and how to train it to learn challenging new things.  It’s also available as a free online course.  There are tons of other free resources out there to help, like Khan Academy.  Also, I’m willing to spend time finding or developing lots of practice problems to help you gain mastery.”

Susie: “Thanks, teach.  I look forward to my future life as a woman in a STEM field.”

KTD are OK, as they always have been.  It’s the grown-ups and the toxic stories that they tell that worry me far more.  It’s hard work to learn things, and it’s hard work to help students build the belief that their weaknesses do not have to be permanent characteristics.  But it’s the most important work.

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