Kids Just Need a Simple Adjustment

A couple of years ago, “Mindset” was all the rage here in the overly-large school district. Many principals lead their staff in reading and discussing the book and the author’s concepts started popping up in everything from admin slide shows to professional development planning.

Her thesis, based on “decades of research”, basically claimed that a person’s native talent and abilities were not enough for success, or even the most significant factor. Instead how well we do in life was more determined by whether we had developed a “growth mindset”.

And, as with other pop psychology (think “The Tipping Point”) and business books (“Drive”, “The World is Flat”), many educators quickly tried to apply the concept to kids in school. It’s that application, or more often misapplication, of complex theories to teaching and learning that bothers me.

Alfie Kohn also finds “something disconcerting about how the idea has been used – and about the broader assumption that what students most need is a “mindset” adjustment” and explains it so much better.

The problem with sweeping, generic claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).

That happens a lot in the process of education reform: politicians and ed “experts” call for the application of current popular fad thinking while completely ignoring the fundamental structures of school.

The whole essay is worth a read but I especially like his statement “kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing”, a point that deserves far more emphasis. Kohn goes on to remind us that kids are often aware of manipulations like the one being worked on them with mindset.

The more serious concern, however, is that what’s really problematic is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation. A substantial research literature has shown that the kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise. As I’ve explained in books and articles, the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that our acceptance of a child comes with strings attached: Our approval is conditional on the child’s continuing to impress us or do what we say. What kids actually need from us, along with nonjudgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support – the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops.

Kids also need to be substantially involved in all parts of their education, especially the curriculum and pedagogy.

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