Special Report
Student Well-Being Opinion

Mindset Research Is Sound, That’s Not the Problem

Misunderstood, motivation research can be damaging to students
By Lisa Quay — January 10, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

My career has been motivated by two questions: What underlies opportunity gaps in educational outcomes? And how can we use empirical insights to help close them?

My first attempt to use scientific evidence to improve educational practice was with a team of management consultants who were working with a charter-management organization to reduce class sizes from 25 to 23 students in secondary schools. I shared with them the landmark Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, which found that class-size reductions improved academic outcomes for younger children but only when class sizes were reduced to between 13 and 17 students. The team quickly changed course in response.

How easy, my 23-year-old self thought. All you have to do is put up a slide with facts, and people will change their behavior! I learned quickly, however, that “facts” are never straightforward, and data alone are never enough.

My understanding of this disconnect between research and practice has deepened in my work with Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth and the 26 other leading scientists studying individual and structural factors that shape achievement motivation as part of the Mindset Scholars Network.

Millions have read books like Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and popular press on motivation research. This research consistently shows that how people—including students, family members, and educators—make meaning of situations, others, and themselves shapes how they respond, particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty (a difficult task, a new environment). Their response influences how others in the system respond to them in turn. This dynamic interplay between individuals and the systems they inhabit sets off self-reinforcing cycles that affect life outcomes years down the road.

Yet, even with scientists’ best intentions and educators’ widespread interest in this research, misunderstandings of its practical implications are pervasive and potentially harmful. Moreover, many common practices in schools and colleges still run counter to principles from this research. We continue to grade everything from essays to enthusiasm in the face of evidence that grades (even when accompanied by comments) focus students on avoiding looking “dumb” rather than learning. We continue to rank and track students despite the potentially damaging messages this can send about their ability and belonging in school. We continue to treat students differently based on their identities, unaware of how our biases can affect our behaviors and negatively impact students’ motivation and learning.

The big question we’re wrestling with at the network is: How do we change incentives, norms, and communication among researchers and practitioners so that we can systematically—and equitably—create learning environments that nurture the natural curiosity and drive to learn with which people are born?

Fundamentally, this is a question of changing beliefs and behaviors among adults in the system, including researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders. The same motivational research that can help us design educational environments that foster adaptive beliefs and learning behaviors among students should shape how we think about changing adult behavior. People need to feel competent and supported to succeed. They need to feel connected to others and capable of expressing their authentic selves and taking action.

The research is clear: Carrots, sticks, and research briefs aren’t going to yield the change we need. In the work that I lead, I’ve seen that if we want to bring practice and research into alignment, we need to leverage what we know about the conditions that motivate people to rally behind a collective endeavor and persist in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. We need to create communities where scientists and educators feel part of efforts that are bigger than themselves, equipped with the tools to succeed and empowered to take action. We need intermediaries that scaffold opportunities for scientists and educators to engage in regular dialogue and problem-solving on equal footing. And we need to change the incentives and constraints that inhibit practically relevant research from seeing the light of day. This is an engineering problem, and it is my personal mission to minimize the distance between research and practice.

At the Mindset Scholars Network, my colleagues and I have introduced structures to promote scholarship aimed at an inherently practical and interdisciplinary question about social contexts and individual motivation. We convene scientists who want to make a difference, cultivate trusting relationships among them, and provide opportunities to collaborate that are both funded and fun. We continue to experiment with different ways of bringing practitioners into the entirety of the research process. We support researchers in sharing relevant findings before publication and engage practitioners in unpacking the educational implications.

These are challenges that won’t be remedied overnight, but I am profoundly hopeful because above all else, the legacy of motivation research is that human change is possible.

Background: ‘Growth Mindsets’ and the Push for Social-Emotional Learning

By Evie Blad

Interest is snowballing among parents, policymakers, and teachers in a broader view of how children’s sense of self, others, and the learning process affect their success in the classroom and in life.

And that zeal has been stoked by researchers of motivation and belonging who’ve produced work that can seem both intuitive to teachers who understand child development and revolutionary in an education system that has been criticized as focusing too narrowly on testing.

That enthusiasm can be a double-edged sword, however. It’s heartening to see the research resonate with people who spend their days putting it into action, say researchers who are part of the Mindset Scholars Network. But if educators don’t understand the somewhat nuanced findings of that research, their efforts may be fruitless or even harmful to their students, argue the group’s members, who include marquee names like Stanford University professor Carol Dweck. They fear those results may lead schools to abandon their efforts.

So the Mindset Scholars Network is among the groups that have set out to explain their work and to ensure that it actually informs what happens in schools.

Dweck’s concept of the growth mindset—that students learn more effectively when they believe their abilities are malleable rather than fixed—nests within a larger context of research on children’s engagement and development. And the researchers behind that work are increasingly taking a more public face by doing such things as explaining their ideas in venues like digestable web videos for teachers, rather than strictly containing them in academic journals.

To clear up the misconception that encouraging growth mindsets is merely a matter of praising effort, Dweck wrote a Commentary in 2015 that remains one of the most popular that Education Week has published.

“Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing,” she wrote. Students also need a menu of approaches they can try when they are stuck on a problem, she said.

Schools also need to make some structural changes, such as giving students more feedback or giving teachers more time to collaborate, researchers say. And those kinds of changes can be difficult for schools that must respond to local, state, and federal mandates.

Other groups are also increasing communication between researchers and educators. A panel of scientists convened by the Aspen Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development recently held one-on-one calls with educators to learn more about their experiences.

And the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has partnered with a group of large districts to observe the challenges of implementing social-emotional learning in their schools. They hope to connect the worlds of research and practice and make everyone’s work better in the process.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Research Into Action

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