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The Fixed Mindset – Catch 22? November 24, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Musings, research.
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When Jo Baker asked:

my interest was immediately piqued. Carole Dweck’s work on Mindsets1 and the implications for learners has been around for a while now and seems to be gaining some traction, however most discussions seem to explore the issues (understandably) in the context of our students. But what about us? With what mindset do we come to work in the morning?

fixed mindset

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Doug Belshaw: http://flickr.com/photos/dougbelshaw/4046412163/

After punting through the backwaters of the Interwebs, it’s clear that this is a much less discussed area. If you want to explore what people are posting about how an awareness of mindsets is working with their students or reflecting on how mindset initiatives are influencing their schools, then you’ve more than enough to shake a couple of sticks at. On the other hand, articles, let alone research, on the effects of teachers employing a particular mindset with respect to their own learning, are much more rare. The most common topics explore the detrimental effects a teacher with a fixed mindset can have on the learning of their students

People with a growth mind-set don’t put people in categories and expect them to stay there, but people with a fixed mind-set do. … For the educator with a fixed mind-set, learning is the students’ responsibility. If students don’t have what it takes, so be it. (Carole Dweck)

I’ve heard so many teachers over the years categorise students in this way, but wonder whether they’re stuck in a fixed mindset themselves, or are simply conferring that misfortune on their students? I’d have to disagree with Carole to some extent and say that surely learning is indeed to some degree the students’ responsibility? However it is of course incumbent on us to ensure that we provide conditions within which learning is valued and enjoyable; we need to support, guide, stimulate and encourage that learning. I wonder if that’s not possible if you have a fixed mindset?

Mike Goldstein spotted another area where teacher mindset often becomes manifest; that of performance management and the review process:

 … faced with critical feedback, we all sometimes become defensive, and revert to fixed mindset. … Our teacher residency half-jokingly describes these defensive reactions as “The Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset.” These are “types of reactions” that the skilled teachers (coaches) sometimes get from trainees (on the receiving end of feedback).

It’s tough listening to feedback, especially where that feedback, however well-phrased, is critical … at least it is when you have a fixed mindset. Approaching a review with a growth mindset is a much less intimidating prospect since you will be viewing it as an opportunity to learn about your performance with a view to improving. As ‘The Contextual Curriculum‘ puts it:

People with fixed minds don’t react well to failure and don’t see the point of practice, studying, or attempts at self-improvement.

Here we begin to see a richer seam on which a mindset view can shed some light; that of professional development. Jackie Gerstein outlined some of the typical responses from teachers asked to engage in a process of growth: “not enough time, insufficient resources, need training, have a curriculum to deliver,” and recognised:

But these are external obstacles whereby the educator places blame for resisting change or engaging in a growth mindset outside of one’s own responsibility. The result is a fixed mindset of learned helplessness, “I cannot change because the system won’t let me change.” (Jackie Gerstein)

And Jackie goes on to explore this further as arising from a sense in which teachers feel a loss of agency and autonomy, but that adopting a growth mindset can begin the process of renewal.

Given my role in school, it will come as no surprise to learn that I share Ewan McIntosh’s view:

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).

When we begin to dig a little deeper in people’s attitudes to the use of technology, perhaps their mindset reveals itself. Are those who we would traditionally label as ‘resistant to change,’ simply encumbered with a fixed mindset, whereas those who are continually seeking new approaches doing so from a growth standpoint? Are those who claim to be ‘no good with computers’ stuck in a fixed mindset which prevents them taking responsibility for their own progress? It’s out of their hands; they just don’t have that aptitude. Contrast that with someone with a growth mindset who is constantly ferreting around for new ways to do things, resilient in the face of setbacks and adept at finding solutions to the problems they face. That said, perhaps we who work with teachers don’t always help, especially if there are people with a fixed mindset in the room. I’m grateful to Kelly Etheridge for bringing one of my shortcomings to the surface:

I was the “Pollyanna cheerleader” who often began sessions by saying, “This is going to be super easy, and you are going to get the hang of this in no time!” While I was trying to be encouraging, the fixed mindset teacher heard, “If you don’t get this quickly, you aren’t smart and you’ll never be able to do things like this.” … My words of encouragement were actually disheartening to anyone in the room with a fixed mindset. Thanks to Mindset, I reframed my discussions when I work with teachers. Now, when introducing a new concept, skill, or program, I explain, “The more we practice this skill (concept, program) the better we will get at it. Trying and messing up is part of the process, …

Guilty as charged your honour, but hopefully I can bring a growth mindset to bear, accept that I have some improving to do and ensure that I don’t make that mistake next time. I wonder how often in trying to encourage a student who had come for help with their Physics, I said something along the lines of “Don’t worry, this is easy …?” Hopefully the damage wasn’t too severe; if they had made the decision to come and seek help, their growth mindset might have shielded them from my ignorance (I hope!).

In conclusion and to return to teacher mindsets rather than students, I have a worry about those with fixed mindsets, especially where their personal development is concerned. When confronted by some of the fixed mindset traits outlined in the blog posts and articles referenced here, would a fixed mindset teacher be in a position to recognise any shortcomings and set about rectifying them, or does their fixed mindset constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy?

1Dweck, C.S., 2006. Mindset: the new psychology of success. Random House, New York


1. The Fixed Mindset – Catch 22? | In the pICTure | Learning Curve - November 25, 2013
2. physicsteacher - November 25, 2013

Thanks Ian.
It doesn’t help when we as teachers go back to the staffroom and exchange anecdotes which reinforce our ideas of how silly (‘stupid’) student X is. I also have no reason to doubt the research of Carole Dweck but am wary of this becoming the ‘buzz’ research of these times, only for it to go out of fashion when something else (possibly even contradictory) comes along.

ianinsheffield - November 25, 2013

You’re right Noel and once more I have to confess to guilt in that respect, with only naivety as my defence.

I think Dweck’s work has more validity than some of the snake oil being bandied around currently, based if nothing else on personal experience and observations made during my career. Having said that, I’m keen to see other studies which support or extend research in this area.

3. The Fixed Mindset – Catch 22? | Coaching ... - November 25, 2013

[…] When Jo Baker asked: has anyone looked at the Growth or Fixed mindset of teachers? Everything I have found is based on students in the classroom.Please RT thanks — Jo Baker (@Jobaker9) November 18,…  […]

4. aarondavis1 - July 22, 2014

Finally got around to reading Dwerk’s work over the holidays. Really left me thinking. For example, I presented today about being a connected educator to a great of teachers a part of a 21st learning course. http://readingwritingresponding.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/becoming-connected-educator-tl21c-reboot.html Got some push back in regards to why it is ok to just lurk. Provided a range of reasons and was blocked at each pass. Can you really be a connected educator is you have a fixed mindset?

ianinsheffield - July 25, 2014

Interesting Aaron. From where did the pushback arise? What were the underlying reasons for it?
I can’t see a problem with lurking, but with two caveats:
1. Lurking should be a step in a progression to becoming more connected, more proactive, more involved and an active contributor.
2. That the lurking is for positive reasons – exploring a new environment to establish its norms and behaviours.
“Can you be connected with a fixed mindset?” Maybe. But surely there would be limits to what you might be prepared to learn, to the depth to which you seek to be connected and in the scope or range of areas you might choose to become involved with. So for example, a teacher of English in a secondary school might be well connected within networks appropriate to those specific needs, but may choose not to explore beyond those boundaries – in primary education or with other subject specialists. Could mindset play a part here? Possibly.

aarondavis1 - July 28, 2014

Thanks for the reply Ian. The push back came from an attendee who had started her connected journey a year ago, but had barely moved beyond lurking because she both felt it was too confusing what to share and that it wasn’t important. Reality is, she is on a journey, she just doesn’t quite realise it I guess.

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