Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Growth Mindset – Revisited

When a new idea comes along, educators can be just as guilty as any group of people for seeing it simplistically and as a holy grail. In recent years there have been few concepts that have made more waves (or been more abused) than Dr Carol Dweck’s concept of Mindsets.

So, it’s great to see a video presentation like this where she sets the record straight on some of the key issues. She also does an excellent job of reminding all how potentially significant this research is when treated with proper sense and in the full understanding that anything concerned with human nature will be inherently complex.

Firstly, this was never about a new way of putting labels on people, children or teachers. Whenever this has been done, it’s caused more harm than good. Too many teachers have felt the need to be very phony and workplace pressure has, at times, led teachers to pretend they matched up to the growth mindset, instead of really reflecting and thinking about what they could change in their teaching practice and communication with children to reflect more of a growth mindset approach. The plain, simple, honest reality as Dr Dweck makes clear – is that we’re all a mixture of the two mindsets and each one can be prevalent in different circumstances. I loved the idea that she’d picked up from a colleague of naming our fixed mindset part, making it easier to acknowledge, to own up and be honest about it (and when it tends to emerge or get stronger).

Second big issue – Mindset was never just simply about a simple equation with effort, grit, rigour or whatever other label we choose. This was very clear to me from reading Dr Dweck’s book. However, she acknowledges that too many teachers have made a simplistic connection and simply latched on to the idea that if they praise effort then they are “doing mindset”.

I loved her emphasis in the video on teachers and adults ‘walking their talk’ on growth mindset, especially when communicating with children and how this needs to reflect that this is not some simple, short term project, but a lifelong journey that’s never complete. She goes out of her way to emphasise that it should not be seen as a simplistic tool for ‘fixing’ children, or for boosting their scores in standardised tests.

The final thing that stood out for me was her ideas about using mindset as a perspective to look at whole school culture. This was an aspect that had occurred to me and that I had discussed off and on with colleagues over the last couple of years. I think it is a topic worthy of action research and closer, deeper exploration for how it can be used to strengthen whole schools and make them more empathic, shared learning spaces in which children don’t fear failure or experimentation – in fact where all community members celebrate and support efforts to innovate and try different strategies towards effective learning.

Here’s an article that reflects on Dr Dweck’s presentation and key thoughts;

Education Week – Nurturing Growth Mindsets – Six Tips From Carol Dweck – Rules For Engagement

Amazon Dives in to Maths Education

It's intriguing to see one of the giants of online business diving in to the online Maths market

The Seattle Times - Amazon Launches Math Education Movement

The article suggests a particular aim to overcome fear of Maths which can pose such a very real challenge for some children. Interestingly, they have latched on to the concept of the Growth Mindset of Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University.

They are promising resources to support teachers, so this is going to be a very interesting initiative to follow.

Ability Grouping and the Fixed Mindset

Here is an excellent scholarly article, a bit longer than some, but well worth the 10 minutes or so to read. It explores the issues of ability grouping so prevalent in British schools and sometimes elsewhere, especially in relation to Maths.

Jo Boaler Professor of Maths Education Stanford University – Ability and Mathematics
(Click on the link above to open the file as a pdf)

The article is very interesting from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it draws on Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset to explain why ability grouping doesn’t work and in fact why it causes poorer performance for lower and average achieving students.

I also found it really interesting when talking about neuro-plasticity and the implications for learning Maths, especially when it comes to how mistakes are treated. I was reminded of a classmate when I was in school. He was a high achiever in Maths and it tended to come quite easily and naturally to him. However, he was so traumatised by the sight of a cross on the page in his exercise book if he got a question wrong that he would carefully remove the page from his book with a knife and reproduce all the sums on the page on a fresh page with the error corrected (and all on the reverse side of the page if necessary). Then, after some time, he even took to asking the teacher to re-mark the work so that it would be seen to have only ticks and no crosses or evidence of failure (in his mind). I’m sure that teacher loved him!

I believe the article has lessons for those teachers practicing differentiation, especially in the ways that it has been encouraged by KHDA in Dubai. Here, vast numbers of schools are not physically segregating the students, but the teachers are confidentially categorizing them in to one of four categories (High, mid, low and SEN). Whilst they stay physically in the same classroom they are given different work, especially in the form of different levels of complexity and challenge in worksheets. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the UK OfSTED (Office of Standards in Education – responsible for UK school inspections) has had a strong influence on KHDA. My suspicion is that most of the time, consciously or unconsciously, the children know what’s going on and understand it as a form of ability segregation – in other words, they’re buying in to a fixed mindset as a point of principle.

So, the three big takeaways for me – we need to create classroom setups where every student can strive to achieve at high levels. Secondly, we need to inculcate a mindset that emphasises rigour, effort, practice and thoughtful experimentation so as to develop the growth mindset in a bigger proportion of the pupils (and teachers). Finally, we need a cultural change with regard to how success and failure are defined and treated in the classroom, especially as regards the handling of mistakes.

Growth Mindset Revisited

The Growth mindset, the research on it and the book that came out of that research is unusual for academic research in the education field in that it found its way very much in to the public domain. This brought it to the attention of a lot of teachers worldwide, as well as parents and others interested in how children can learn most effectively.

I’ve written a few times in the past about the book, the concept of growth and Fixed Mindsets and the work of Dr carol Dweck. So, I was especially pleased to come across this recent article in which she revisits the concepts, flags up a couple of the myths that have grown up around it and refocuses attention where she believes it should be:

Education Week – Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset

To me there were a few interesting and informative ‘take aways’ from the article;

a) Growth Mindset isn’t just about effort. Mistakes have certainly been made where it’s simply been equated to grit, perseverance and simple effort. Rather, the ideas can be more equated from the concept i learned many years ago from the field of NLP – namely, the person with more tools and versatility has the greater chance of arriving at the best solutions to a challenge. So, effort and resilience need to be accompanied by flexibility and creativity to try different alternatives. We are not out to reward the stubborn mule who keeps trying to bash away with the same wrong solution to a problem in the hope that eventually the nature of the problem will change to match their solution!

b) Like most things in education, we’re not dealing with a simple binary equation, or a new way of putting labels on children. it serves little purpose to start labelling children as either a growth or fixed mindset student. Nobody is ever all of one or the other.

c) When management/ leaders in schools start to say they want growth mindset in teachers (as well as pupils) we shouldn’t be surprised when we get outbreaks of false or pseudo-growth mindset. As in b) above, if that’s what my Principal wants, then I know how to adopt the language, the nomenclature etc. to claim that I fit the bill (especially if it figures in assessments!)

Whether with teachers or pupils we’re dealing with complex human beings with enormous varieties of shades of grey within the individual. We always do a disservice when we grab hold of a new idea and seek to apply it in brutalist and simplistic ways. Let’s instead embrace human complexity.

Mindset

I’ve written a few times before about the work of Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University on Mindset. However, as time goes on and I come across more of the evidence, i become even more convinced that Dweck’s research conclusions are not only right, but have far-reaching implications we are yet to fully explore in education.

I was really happy to come across this great article and wanted to share it. Not only does it have a great summary of the ideas behind Mindset, but also this superb visual representation with a great infographic:

Taschen book: mindsets

News – Mic Article on Mindset

In the simplest terms, my awareness of Dweck’s work has made me very alive to how and when I use praise and the uses of praise that I hear around me. The evidence appears solid enough as to make it clear that educators (and parents) have to focus on praising effort, grit and determination (including praising failure when appropriate) and certainly avoid praising intelligence as though it was an innate attribute of the child. If we can even bring that improvement, other benefits of this research can follow.

Carol Dweck and Mindset

In recent weeks I’ve been asked a few times for direction to more materials about the work of Carol Dweck at Stanford University on Fixed and Growth Mindsets.

To help on this, I’ve pulled together here a few of the best videos I could find on the internet where she talks about her research and the conclusions from it (and especially the implications for us as parents or educators when it comes to helping children develop the growth mindset).

I also strongly recommend Carol’s book, Mindset that gives deeper insights in to the fascinating topic of motivation and learning.