If you walk around a lot of schools these days and absorb the MESSAGE that emanates from the walls, you are likely to find yourself saturated by an oozing motivational cheeze-fest. (That’s a typo but it seems appropriate to keep it.).
- FAIL: first attempt in learning
- Don’t give up until you are proud.
- I can’t do this…. YET! = Perseverance
- Instead of ‘I messed up’ say ‘mistakes make me learn’.
- Hard work + Dreams + Dedication = Success.
Get these slogans blown up and laminated and plaster your corridors and walls in them… Bingo! Go Growth Mindset.
What’s it all for? Here’s my hunch: You could replace all of these posters and slogans with pictures of cute cats or Harry Styles and it would have the same effect: No effect.
There are a few problems that I see with all this.
- There’s no evidence that posters lead to changed behaviours. A good rule of thumb is ‘Live it; don’t laminate it’. Too often all the effort goes into signposting the intention to change behaviours or a culture – and not into actually securing the change. I’m convinced that growth mindset is highly susceptible to this: the delusion that talking about mindsets is the same as changing them.
- There’s a risk that the saturation leads to a wallpaper effect. The cheezefest is so relentless that students are desensitised to it. It’s just part of the blah blah blah of what teachers go on about – without really having much effect.
- There’s the fundamental issue that a growth mindset is not a generic, general state: it is entirely specific to situations, domains, contexts …. General urgings to embrace failure or mistakes as part of learning don’t change behaviours unless they are located in the context of a specific challenge.
An example I often use is that of the process of coaching a javelin thrower. It’s not much good to simply urge them to fail better; to dream big or to never give up. Trying harder and not giving up might never lead to any improvement unless they do something different. A good coach would analyse their whole motion: the run-up, the throw release, their basic speed and arm strength, the release angle – and how each step flows from one to the other. A javelin thrower will only throw further if they apply their effort and perseverance to specific strategies that will lead to longer throws.
Unless the javelin thrower sees rewards from their efforts, then there is a significant risk that they will be demotivated by applying more effort – because ‘trying harder’ isn’t enough. Misdirected effort can be counterproductive in terms of the task but also the athlete’s mindset; their self-belief.
I think this is very true of learning in various areas. Vulnerable learners in maths are simply not helped by the generic cheese-fest. They need to practise specific routines that yield success with effort and persistence; it’s only by seeing that a strategy works that anyone’s mindset about possible future success will change. This issue is explored in the excellent article on psychological interventions by Yeager et al PDK-Yeager-Walton-Cohen-2013. Achieving an impact through psychological interventions is actually quite a precarious, sensitive process. There are huge risks that talk of growth mindsets that is not supported by the reality of institutional culture and in-class practice is actually damaging; this is also true where interventions are implemented in the absence of the adoption of more effective learning strategies.
My feeling is that schools would do well to give the laminator a rest, to clean up the cheese and just focus on discussing effective learning strategies with students. This is how you can better at adding fractions; this is how you can add depth to your writing; this is how you can improve your recall and understanding in science – and so on. Work hard on this; persevere with this; keep trying by doing more of this…. it’s all got to be specific and focused.
Live it. Don’t laminate it. Stick that on a poster.