I really wanted to write up something inspired by Andrew Rikard's great piece in edSurge that I saw last week: Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It? And the opportunity to do that crystalized with Alfie Kohn's piece in Salon, which really surprised me: The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system. How a promising but oversimplified idea caught fire, then got coopted by conservative ideology.
Here's the problem: it's my first day of classes, and I am soooo busy. Which means I would implore people to read both of these important articles and see what you think when you juxtapose them! I agree with Rikard, I disagree with Kohn... but I think they are both motivated by the same desire: we have to do something about the mind-numbing curriculum of our schools which promotes obedience instead of student agency and real learning. I have found that thinking about the growth mindset is a great way to re-focus on agency and learning, and here are some quick thoughts for now which I will come back to later... hopefully with some good observations from my students about THEIR perceptions of growth mindset as they blog about that this week and next!
Grading is the great evil IMO. Rikard's article is really excellent on this crucial point. As long as grading is the pseudo-objective locus of teacher/institutional authority in the classroom, it is going to undermine all kinds of pedagogical efforts to encourage student-centered learning, open-ended inquiry, creativity, learner agency, etc. Domain of One's Own is a fantastic opportunity to reimagine class in a new way, but not if the work students do is just more "schooliness" that gets sucked into the grading abyss: "The web is a network for conversations, and if students still see their audience as a teacher with a red pen, then nothing changes."
Get rid of grading, and make room for growth instead. For me, the reason growth mindset resonates so well with my classes is that I have had the chance to slowly shed all vestiges of grading from my classes. Yes, I still have to report a grade for my students, but I don't put grades on anything — the students do their own grading. (More about that here; I wish we could dispense with grading entirely, but my institution requires a final grade.) What made reading Kohn's article so strange was that he was a key person in the process of my giving up grading in order to make room for growth mindset approaches instead! So, I was very surprised to see him lashing out at growth mindset like this.
Growth mindset is NOT just grit. I'll admit that one of the discouraging things about getting engaged in the growth mindset community online this summer (something I really had not done before) is seeing that some people do equate growth mindset with grit. I don't see it that way at all: I see growth mindset as being much more than just persistence; it also needs open-ended inquiry and creativity which, in my opinion, allies it much more closely with the maker movement than it does with the grit movement.
Growth mindset does require slack. Instead of being about grit, I see growth mindset as being about slack — and insofar as slack is a locus of inequity and injustice in our schools, growth mindset makes us ask questions about just how has slack and who does not. One of the ways I create slack for my students is by getting rid of grading, for example. If you are really serious about giving students freedom to fail and the time to practice, you cannot be grading them on a one-size-fits-all/none measure, and you cannot afford to waste their time with meaningless tests. By getting rid of tests and grading, I create some slack in my classes that students don't have in their other classes, and I hope they will use that slack as a space in which to grow. (For more about slack and grit, see Paul Thomas, e.g. The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement).
I have always practiced growth mindset as a design principle for my classes, but this year I got inspired to make it a more explicit part of the class, and I am really curious to see what the students will do with this; I am going to learn a lot from their responses. Here's how I have set that up: Growth Mindset Challenges for Fall 2015. I'll come back and update this post in a couple of weeks when I can share some of the students' thoughts about all this.
Finally, a few words about Kohn's article in particular. Reading it made me feel much like I felt reading articles that dismissed online education entirely because of its bad use in Coursera MOOCs. Online education is far more than what Coursera does with it, and growth mindset is far more than what grit-mongers might be doing with it. You cannot blame the idea of growth mindset for bad curriculum, as Kohn does here: just the opposite, I would say — being aware of growth mindset helps us realize that a rigid, mindless, disinterested, uninteresting curriculum cannot be a space in which people grow as learners.
He blames growth mindset somehow (?) for "cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory." I don't understand: what does bad rote instruction have to do with growth mindset and people who practice it? Growth mindset is not about doing whatever you are told to do, and I'm not sure how Kohn got that impression, except insofar as that kind of unflinching persistence is something I've seen associated with the grit advocates.
He attacks the dispensing of praise, any kind of praise, as a reward system, as patronizing (all praise is patronizing? really?), but what growth mindset actually encourages is SELF-talk; sure, I praise my students for their efforts, but I find it much more important that they can do accurate self-assessments, proactive self-talk, and also praise for their own work and for the work of other students in the class. In fact, the more we can take me out of the equation entirely, the better; growth mindset does not require you to have a teacher at all, which is one of the very appealing things about it.
Most strangely of all, Kohn equates growth mindset with grades, tests, and competition in a way that I do not understand. Where does he get that...? He also claims that Dweck has allied herself with the grit advocates, but he doesn't give details about that either. From what I've read of Dweck, she emphasizes a combination of creativity, experimentation, purposeful practice, and hard work, all of which resonate with me, especially as a teacher of writing.
If Kohn wants to know why so many of us teachers have embraced this approach (he says he is baffled by that), he just needs to ask. I hope I have explained here some of what has motivated me in using the growth mindset approach in designing my classes, and also why I am excited about making it a more explicit part of the class to see in what directions the students will take these ideas. He claims that growth mindset discourages change in school; just speaking for myself (and who else can I speak for?), that is not the case.
I do agree that we need to think systematically about institutions and institutional change — and for me, growth mindset is a big part of how I do that, helping me to challenge and critique my school's grade-driven and test-driven curriculum and the terrible damage that approach can do to students. I wish I saw growth mindset approaches with creativity and curiosity and risk-taking among the administrators at my school; if they could embrace some of these growth mindset principles, we might then be able to have the conversations we need to have about getting rid of testing, getting rid of grading, and finding ways to create more meaningful classes.
For some similar thoughts by someone else who is also baffled by Kohn's article, see this more detailed blog post: WHAT THE WHAT???? WTW. I also agree with the detailed analysis here: My Response to Alfie Kohn's Attack on 'Growth Mindset.'
And for today's growth mindset cat, I picked one that embodies the curiosity and creativity and sheer freedom that is such an important part of the growth mindset approach as I see it, and why cats are a great way to express that philosophy in memes, curious creatures that they are!