Learning Styles and Mindset

Following on from yesterdays post, we need to understand Carol Dweck’s mindset theory.

To understand of where Dweck is coming from, we need to go back decades. In the early 1980’s Dweck started looking into the perplexing question of why girls consistently score lower than boys (in the aggregate, not necessarily individually) in math. There is no genetic or biological reason for this. When it comes to the brain wiring, there are simply not any significant differences that account for why boys consistently outperform girls in math. In looking at the problem, Dweck formulated the concept of mindset, which she then extended (through research) to a variety of observable phenomenon.

I’ll explain mindsets in terms of intelligence, because it is easier to understand that way. Then I’ll come back to the math problem. People can be roughly divided into two groups when it comes to their understanding of how intelligence works. They believe that either intelligence is determined by genetics, or intelligence is determined by our environment. Actually, both are true, but mindset theory is not determined by the real state of the world, but by what a person believes. What Dweck found, is (in my humble opinion) one of those critically important principles that works in a huge number of cases.

If a person believes that intelligence is determined by genetics, then that means that you are born with a certain intellectual capacity. The amount of intelligence that you have is determined by your genetic endowment. If you are born with a small genetic endowment for intelligence, then you will never be able to learn very well. That’s what the DNA dealt you, and that’s all you have got. As a result, when you hit the wall, in terms of what you can learn, you hit the wall. There is no need to keep batting your head against the wall, because, if you haven’t got it, you can’t get it. Your genetic make-up is the limiting factor in learning. You know that, and so you move on to something that you can do.

However, if you believe that intelligence is largely determined by your environment, that you approach learning with a different mindset. If you believe that your intelligence can change with effort, or that if you try, you can figure out pretty well anything, then you’ll try. Depending on how much you want the solution, you will work and work until you figure out how to solve the problem.

Notice, I didn’t say anything about what the real ability is in either case. This is based entirely on what the individuals believe. Dweck calls the two types of mindset either a fixed or growth mindset. Either they believe their ability is fixed (by genetic endowment), or they believe that their ability is a result of their effort. Reality doesn’t matter here, it is what the person believes.

An example I used with my students to illustrate a fixed mindset might be useful here. If you have a cow that believes that butting her head against the concrete wall in a certain place will allow her to escape (you have to assume here that she wants to escape), she will butt her head against the wall incessantly so she can get out. It doesn’t matter that she will never succeed, what matters is what she believes.

The mindset principle has been found in a multitude of observable behaviours. Athletes and their belief in talent or hard work. Singers and their belief in an X factor or hard work. Girls and their belief in math ability or hard work. The list goes on and on.

The cruncher, as far as education goes, is where these beliefs come from. For at least a century now, there has been a belief in teachers (again no evidence) that boys are better at mathematics than girls are. When girls math performance is lower than boys, it is customary to attribute this to the fact that they are girls. And the girls know this. They know they can’t do maths, and, as a result, don’t try (after all, because they are girls, they can’t do it – even if they try). The power of a mindset.

This also works when your child/grandchild/student believes that they are good at math (or talented at sports, intelligent, or can sing etc.). This is illustrated wonderfully by Dweck’s Self-Theories: The Mindset of a Champion article about the baseball player, Billy Beane. Beane was a natural with enough talent to become one of Baseball’s greats. He easily made the major league, but then everything fell apart on him. As a natural, his baseball ability was something that he was born with. When you believe that, what is the use of practise, or learning from mistakes – naturals don’t make mistakes. They just know how to do it. However, when Beane entered the majors, he was playing against some of the best players in the world, and his natural ability wasn’t up to it. Instead of working harder, and improving his ability that way, Beane’s mindset meant that he had reached the limit of his talent. His ability was innate, and so, when he hit the wall, there was nothing more he could do about it. You can’t increase something that you were born with. All you can do is take as much advantage of what you have as you can.

Telling your child that they are clever or smart or intelligent (or stupid etc.), provides them with a fixed mindset. As a result, when they come up against a problem that they can’t deal with, that must be the limit of the intelligence that they have, and they stop trying. It has nothing to do with reality, only what they believe about themselves; their mindset.

I know that education has moved on from the days that children were regularly told how stupid they are (I hope, anyway). I would hope that there aren’t very many teachers out there who tell girls that they can’t do math. However, we all know adults who have grown up believing that they are stupid (because their teacher told them they were). Quite recently, I taught statistics in university, and had to deal with a large number of girls who had been told that they couldn’t do math. The point I’m making is that many educators love to label children. And children believe the labels. In fact, I read recently that teachers are (at least among young people) the most trusted people in society – so why shouldn’t a child believe what their teacher tells them? When your father/sister/grandmother/nephew was told by their teacher that they were stupid, they believed them, and that label became a part of what they are. They believed the label then, and they believe the label now, and the principle of mindsets means that they stopped trying, because they believed that they were truly stupid. Children become their labels. In the modern educational world, there is no room for labels, or is there (I won’t even go into the educational psychologists world of making people label-able).

If we go back to yesterdays post, I told you about learning styles. In that post, I left you with the question “It must be good, when catering to various learning styles, to vary the presentation of material to make lessons more enjoyable, even if there is no evidence that I learn better in my preferred learning style – isn’t it?” I think that varying the presentation of material is good (and there is evidence that this helps learning). However, over 95% of teachers believe in learning styles, and over 90% of the students know what their learning style is as a result of having taken a test to measure it. In other words, all of the students had been labeled as one style or another.

As a result, one of the most popular labeling exercises today occurs when teachers label children with a learning style – making the children believe that their learning style is what they are. They are a visual/auditory/reading/kinaesthetic learner. This is where mindset theory comes in.

Mindset theory tells us that if I believe that I am something, then that is what I am. When I take a test, that my teacher tells me to take, and I come out with a new label (a visual learner), than that is what I am – a visual learner. What that means is that, as a visual learner, I won’t listen to instructions, because I am not an auditory learner, I am a visual learner. Visual learners can’t learn by listening to instructions, they have to be shown, in a visual way, in order to learn. Isn’t that what the test/label/teacher told them?

Learning styles are pretty well ubiquitous in education today, and have been for 20+ years. What started out as a classroom management technique has become a firm theory of learning, with no evidence to support it, but with the evidence clearly showing that it damages and destroys learning opportunities for children (not to mention the added developmental damage) and adults. It destroys children’s motivation for learning, because they believe the labels that they are given.

This is only one example of how labeling in schools can be damaging. We are destroying the potential of our children with an ignorance of how they learn and think (including, but not limited to mindset theory), and when I talk to teachers, at every level, they tune out – because they already know how to teach.

What teachers don’t know is how their students learn – and what teachers don’t know is destroying our future.


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