One of the barriers to opportunities afforded by education is the mindset of our students. There’s a considerable body of evidence supporting the view that implicit theories of intellect can undermine or improve student motivation in school. Whether the student directs their efforts trying not to look ‘dumb’ or actively engages with challenging and difficult work also appears to affect the progress they make in school and their attainment in exams. However, these experimental findings may be trickier to apply effectively within a whole-school context and there are some risks associated with trying to enthusiastically promote a ‘growth’ mindset as some kind of magical solution for the problems of poor motivation.
Learned helplessness and attribution theory
Carol Dweck is synonymous with the terms growth and fixed mindset. She developed her ideas during the 1960s studying the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ in animal motivation.
These animal studies found that when exposed to an aversive stimulus that the animal could not escape, the animal became increasingly passive – and stopped trying to avoid the stimulus even when opportunities for escape became available. No amount of threats, rewards or observed demonstrations appeared to encourage the animals to act independently once an animal adopted this ‘helpless’ behaviour.
In humans, learned helplessness appears much more variable. For some individuals the helplessness remains specific to one situation, but for others it generalises. A group of people can experience a similar negative event, yet how those individuals interpret the event affects whether they respond in a helpless way. This variance in human response appears related to the attributions (the attitudes and beliefs) held by the individual.
In essence, how people attribute the cause of their success or failure influences how much effort they apply in the future. If this cognitive evaluation leads to a positive affect (i.e. a positive emotional outcome) and there is a high expectation of future success, the person typically shows greater willingness to undertake such tasks in the future. Conversely, if the attribution leads to a negative affect and low expectation of success, the person tends to act in a more helpless manner when placed in a similar situation.
“The Effort Effect” (2007) explains Dweck’s contribution to this field:
“Attribution theory, concerned with people’s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term “fundamental attribution error” for our tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped “shift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributions—why it matters what attributions people make.” Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use.”
Dweck helped identify a key attributional variable that affects how students respond to the challenges and obstacles they face when learning in schools. Some students possessed an ‘incremental theory’ of intellect (what has become known as a ‘growth mindset’), they frame the experience of school in terms of learning goals and see ability as something that can be increased with effort and time. Other students possessed an ‘entity theory’ of intellect (a ‘fixed mindset’) and frame school work in terms of performance goals; seeing ability as something that is static and inflexible. These implicit theories don’t just affect children in school; similar effects have been found in range of other contexts, for instance athletics, dieting and leadership.
Using praise to manipulate mindset
Much of the literature on changing mindsets has focused on the feedback that students receive from teachers. I can’t imagine there’s a teacher reading this that doesn’t know by now to avoid personal praise and phrase feedback in terms of the product, the effort involved or the process used instead.
However, there’s a complex picture emerging around the use of praise. It appears that the effect of praise may vary by age and gender. For example:
“While person, product, and process praise all had beneficial effects on motivation for preschool children, process and product praise had particularly beneficial effects, and person praise had potentially harmful effects, for upper-elementary school girls.”
On the other hand, there’s some evidence to suggest that no praise at all may be as effective:
“Our results suggest that, consistent with earlier findings, when students are succeeding they respond equally positively to person, process and no feedback. Participants in both studies were pleased with their performance, showed positive affect and showed intentions to persist. However, we found differences between the feedback conditions when they began to fail. Specifically, praising successes in person terms led to helpless responses to failure more than when the feedback was given in process terms, again replicating previous work (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). However, our results uniquely suggest that the positive effects of process praise may contribute little more than objective performance feedback.”
Given the evidence, it would seem the advice to avoid person praise is a sensible strategy. However, there is still a danger that praising effort might be interpreted by some students as implying they lack ability or that over-praising (for instance, overestimating the effort invested by a student) may communicate low expectations.
Using interventions to manipulate mindset
Other methods for changing mindset have involved encouraging students to perceive the brain as ‘like a muscle’. Given the success of experimental procedures to subtly manipulate mindset and produce apparently strong gains in attainment, there’s considerable interest in developing a social-psychological intervention that could be used at the scale of an education system. However, whilst brief exercises to target students’ attributions about school have had some considerable success, the problems of applying this to benefit large numbers of students across an education system are not trivial.
For example, in two articles Social-Psychological Interventions in Education and Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions, Yeager identifies a number of potential issues in applying the effects found in laboratory studies to a national scale:
“Although we believe that social-psychological interventions can be scaled effectively to reach larger numbers of students, how to do so is not simply a matter of handing out a worksheet. Rather, scaling social-psychological interventions raises important theoretical, practical, and ethical questions that as yet have not been adequately explored.”
One difficulty in scaling up these experiments lies in the subtle nature of the interventions used:
“Each intervention … used a delivery mechanism that, although brief, drew on research on the psychology of persuasion to make the experience maximally impactful for students. …
“Although these delivery mechanisms are psychologically powerful, the interventions are in an important sense ‘stealthy,’ a quality that may increase their effectiveness (Robinson, in press). In none of the interventions were students exposed to a direct persuasive appeal or told that they were receiving ‘an intervention’
“Another way these interventions are ‘stealthy’ is by being brief. … Although these studies did not focus on educational outcomes, they contradict the intuition that ‘bigger’ interventions are necessarily ‘better.’”
There is a danger, these authors suggest, that when schools try to implement these manipulations that will be ineffective or even counter-productive:
“It would be reasonable to think, for example, that training teachers (or parents) to reinforce psychological messages or doubling the length of an in-class growth mind-set workshop from 8 to 16 sessions would amplify an intervention’s benefits. However, if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits to improve their performance.”
We’ve seen problems with this before – most notably AfL – where a fairly successful idea has been eagerly seized by the profession but distorted and rendered ineffective in the process.
One concern is that as schools attempt to exploit mindset manipulations, they scale up the superficial features of the intervention and fail to retain the subtle psychological experience which causes it to work. Indeed, the authors note that even where the essential components are reproduced with care, small changes in the delivery of the intervention can lead to it being ineffective.
The advice would appear to be that, although mindset interventions appear powerful in the laboratory, we should be cautious before launching amateur versions of psychological interventions within schools.
How do mindsets actually influence behaviour?
One question has been why and how implicit theories influence future behaviour. Understanding this may give better insights into how the innovation could be scaled effectively. One suggestion is that implicit theories predict the use of self-regulation strategies. Self-regulation theory is an enormous branch of psychology (and beyond the scope of this blog), but in simple terms, it considers human behaviour as a complex set of goal-directed systems that regulate their actions towards those goals (either approaching or avoiding an outcome). Self-regulation theory has been widely applied several areas of social importance; for example, shaping health behaviour, involvement in crime, financial problems and academic achievement.
The complexity in human behaviour comes from the fact that we often juggle multiple goals which are not always compatible with one another and have to decide how to respond when we encounter difficulties in reaching our goals. Whether people adopt effective or ineffective self-regulation strategies appears to link to attributional styles; for example confident and more optimistic individuals may be more persistent in struggling towards difficult goals.
This potential link between implicit and self-regulation theories is an interesting but a complex one. A meta-analysis by Burnette et al (2012) considers the extent to which self-regulatory processes, such as goal setting, goal operating, goal monitoring and goal achievement (called the ‘SOMA’ model) are influenced by implicit theory.
“We conceptualize these three processes in terms of two distinct constructs that have appeared in the empirical implicit theories literature to date: performance goals and learning goals for goal setting, helpless-oriented strategies and mastery-oriented strategies for goal operating, and negative emotions and expectations for goal monitoring. In addition to investigating the strength of associations between implicit theories and self-regulatory processes (as well as relevant moderators of these links), we also examine which of these self-regulatory processes promote the crucial self-regulatory outcome of goal achievement. ”
What they find appears to dovetail well with Dweck’s research. They found that incremental theories did indeed correlate positively with learning goals and negatively with performance goals, though the correlations were only small to moderate in strength. One explanation for this is that performance goals tend to elicit avoidance strategies (i.e. avoid looking dumb) whereas learning goals tend to elicit approach strategies (i.e. seeking out challenging opportunities).
In terms of goal operating (the strategies people apply to reach their goals), they also found a moderate, negative correlation between incremental theories and help-less orientated strategies and a positive correlation with mastery-orientated strategies. For goal monitoring, they found a moderate negative correlation between possessing an incremental theory and negative emotions (moderate effect size) and positive correlations with expectations for success (small effect size).
As well as identifying a number of interesting theoretical implications arising from their analysis, the authors also look at some practical implications.
“According to empirical findings from the current meta-analysis, across achievement domains and populations, the strongest mediators of the link from implicit theories to achievement are the adoption of mastery-oriented strategies and the avoidance of negative emotions regarding evaluations of goal-pursuits. …
“The other four mediators identified by the SOMA Model—the setting of performance-oriented goals, the setting of learning-oriented goals, the adoption of helpless strategies, and expectations for success regarding one‘s goal pursuit efforts—appear to be weaker because of the relatively weak association of incremental beliefs with the potential mediator or because of the relatively weak association of the potential mediator with achievement (or both).”
Thus, it appears that simply setting learning-orientated goals or trying to manage students’ expectations of success are potentially fairly weak interventions compared to encouraging mastery-orientated strategies and helping students avoid negative emotions associated with goal evaluation.
By teaching students adaptive strategies to use within school and focusing feedback upon the use of those strategies, fostering realistic but challenging goals, de-emphasising social comparisons and the negative consequences of making mistakes, and encouraging students to take personal responsibility for their school work, we may achieve much the same outcomes with fewer potential problems as attempting to manipulate mindset.
Learning lessons from the implementation of assessment for learning
As a profession, we’ve been here before and it would be nice to believe we’ve learned something from the terrible mess we made of scaling an education innovation the last time. Like other forms of psychological intervention in the classroom, mindset interventions appear full of power and promise, but there’s a good case for advising caution.
Firstly, teachers still need to be very careful in the use of praise – even where they avoid person praise, there are still potentially negative effects to praising effort. The fact that some research appears to suggest that simply offering objective feedback has an equally positive effect on outcomes might imply that we should be sparing with praise (a couple of good articles explain more here).
Secondly, whilst it is tempting to deliberately set up mindset manipulations (and I’ve no doubt companies and consultants will readily try to sell this to schools), there are good reasons to be cautious. As well as the ethical issues involved in amateur cognitive therapy, there are some good reasons to believe that interventions delivered at scale may not necessarily be effective and could, at worst, even have a negative influence on our students.
Lastly, it appears possible that mindset is a moderating and mediating factor in self-regulation – and that we may be able to achieve the same positive benefits without explicitly attempting to manipulate the attributions of our students. Focusing students upon the strategies they use, whilst de-emphasising the negative consequences of errors and discouraging social comparisons may be the best way forward until more ethical and reliable mindset interventions that scale can be developed.