States of Mind: misplaced faith and the ability to learn

Whether its character-building assault courses or a growth mind-set: agency should sit at the heart of a teacher’s understanding of well-being and learning.

How do a child’s beliefs about learning impact their learning? Whilst this is such a large topic it is hard to know where to begin, I come to this because of a recent debate sparked by some fascinating research coming out the U.S. which a friend sent over to me that suggests that if children believe that hard work will help them get on they are more likely to display negative learning behaviours in later life.

In some ways setting our sights on this goes against much of the focus in schools. We are very adult-centred when it comes to ‘beliefs about learning’. The push for better understanding of teaching and learning, and for a better understanding of leadership and management, has at its heart the belief that what matters is good teaching: with high expectations and well-run schools, surely anything is possible? Performance related pay, national league tables, parental choice, the half-dead-still-twitching-in-their-graves national curriculum levels- all of these in some way depend on the firm belief that if you hold the adults to account, the result will follow.

But here is a board summary of what teachers think a lot of the time: I can teach until I’m blue in the face but if the child isn’t with me in the room (physically or emotionally), you can dock my pay or whatever you want, it won’t make a difference. Let’s talk about how to make students healthy, happy, safe people who want to learn.

The government, schools and the general education world are becoming more and more concerned with this. Rightly so. However, the myriad of approaches can be baffling. The Conservatives typically get excited about building character. Kids need resilience. Grit. Perseverance. (This is a natural conclusion to come to if you aren’t too excited about changing the conditions around them. The problem isn’t the unbelievable daily adversity of your life; the problem is your response to it!) Carol Dweck, the renowned Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has excited the profession about the power of students developing a growth mind set. She argues that students are  held back by a ‘fixed’ concept of their own abilities. If you think you can’t learn and language; or you ‘aren’t musical’, this closes you off to learning. Teachers should address this mind-set, and enjoy the results. Her work, as a result of the repeated need to summarise it in a 10 minute presentation and blogs like this, has been oversimplified and is often critiqued as being too little concerned with the social conditions of learning. Others therefore point to the stark inequality in well-being between students from different groups and rightly see this as a social justice issue. So- what should I be doing? Encouraging students to complete assault courses on the weekend? Instilling in all children the belief that their success is linked to their effort? Marching the streets to secure proper mental health services for all?

The new study points in a different direction all together: belief in the system. Researchers from NYU followed students in the U.S. eligible for free school meals from 6th grade and found that by “the end of the 7th grade, youth who believed the system was fair in 6th grade had lower self-esteem, engaged in more risky behaviours, and were less able to follow directions in the classroom.” Naturally, these behaviours will heavily impact a student’s ability to learn and is quite concerning. This seems to through a cat amongst the growth mind-set pigeons. Should we avoid telling students that effort and perseverance is the key to success? However, coverage on this might lead you to think it is more controversial set of findings than it really is. The definition of fairness has been roughly labelled ‘the belief that if you work hard enough you will get what you want’ by the press. This might lead us to the conclusion that misguided teachers have been painting a rosy picture of the world and this should stop.

I don’t think that is the right conclusion. The researchers aren’t telling teachers to stop telling students to work hard in the classroom. Teachers have been telling students that if they work hard enough they will learn, not that they will be treated fairly by the system as a result.

I think a more exciting thought is this: what happens to a student’s ability to learn when they place a blind faith in something? The problem with students believing that the system is fair is that when you place faith in something that takes away your agency- which is at the heart of effective learning. When students find out that faith was misplaced, I can see why NYU are finding these kinds of effects. We all know that students need to think critically about the world around them. The report argues that students should engage with topics such as discrimination and should learn that the system isn’t fair- or rather; they should adjust their understanding of it. Great stuff, but that doesn’t mean we should be encouraging them to believe there is nothing they can do about it. We should enhance their sense of agency.

At the heart of Dweck’s idea of growth mind-set is the exact same notion of self-efficacy. If you have a strong belief that you cannot change your level of intelligence the agency you hold over your own learning disappears. The broader story of the research is this: a child’s state of mind and conceptualisation of learning (or metacognitive processes in relation to learning) can have a powerful impact on their ability to succeed. A misplaced faith in the system to treat you fairly, a ‘fixed’ mind-set that creates the belief that you shouldn’t try because you aren’t talented; these should be tackled. Agency should sit at the heart of a teacher’s understanding of well-being and learning. Telling students the system isn’t fair is different to training them to think critically about the world around them. I hope this report encourages the latter.

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