Mindset (again) and Learning Styles (again)

I just finished teaching my University class yesterday, and one of the focusses this year (by the students) was a focus on mindsets. Several of them wrote about mindsets, and a couple of them drew the link between mindset and learning styles (they were prompted during their presentations by someone). It has reminded me again about how important this aspect of learning is,and how devastatingly damaging it is to children trying to learn (I know, you can’t believe how I am moving slowly from higher education to primary and secondary education – but I have grandchildren in the system).

Mindset theory is an area of study founded and developed by Carol Dweck, and I think it is one of the most important findings in psychology in the last 50 years.

In the early 1980s, Dweck began her academic career looking into the question of why girls consistently score (and still do) lower (in the aggregate) than boys in math. Girls scoring lower than boys in math is as pervasive, and entrenched in our society today as it was when Carol began looking into it 35 years ago. The shame of it is that she found the answer some years ago, and the cause is easily fixed, or would be if it wasn’t something to do with education.

What Dweck found is simple, and has laid the foundation for a whole area of powerful research and understanding around the concept of fixed and growth mindsets. Girls do worse than boys in math because we all know that girls do worse than boys in math. This has become a belief founded on our knowledge acquisition method of tenacity I discussed a couple of months ago. We know it because we know it, and everyone knows it. It is based on nothing in reality, except the fact that girls consistently perform worse than boys in math. So, how does this work.

Because girls do worse than boys at math, when a girl is struggling to understand a math concept, she is usually told (either explicitly or through implicit actions) that girls can’t do as well as boys at math, and so don’t worry is she doesn’t really understand. This is reinforced over and over in her life by teachers, parents and peers until it becomes something that she “is” – a girl who cannot get math.

Now, if you are a girl, and girls don’t really get math, what is the use of trying. It is like asking a fish to climb a tree. They can’t do it – no matter how hard they try, because that is just what hey are. It doesn’t matter if the assertion is founded in reality. That has nothing to do with it. If a monkey were raised to believe it were a fish, and that became its reality, the monkey could no more climb a tree than fly, because it believes it is a fish. If a girl believes that she won’t ever really understand math because she is a girl, she will never understand math – because she believes she will never understand math, so she will never really try. A fixed mindset. She is something, and there is nothing she can do to change that fact, so she learns to live with it.

In a fixed mindset, you become something because you believe it. It is as simple as that.

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. You accomplish what you accomplish because you put forth the effort to try. What you do is not because of what you are, what you do is because you have tried to do it.

The differences Dweck has found in so many domains (IQ, relationships etc) are amazing. If you believe that you are something, your actions fit with your belief, or else, your actions protect that identity (positive or negative).

Unfortunately, children are very susceptible to believing their labels – stupid, smart, emotional, physical etc. They become (or try to become) the labels they are given. Their labels define them, and their identities become their labels.

What does this have to do with learning styles? Firstly learning styles (visual learner, auditory learner etc.) are based on nothing more than a teaching fad. There is no evidence for them, and a recent Nature Neuroscience paper (Nature is one of the two premier science publications in the world) listed learning styles as an educational neuromyth believed by 98% of the teachers studied.

Does it really matter that teachers actively use, promote, label, and conform to something that is a complete myth – after all, it is harmless, right?

Given what we know about mindsets, labeling, and belief systems, what happens when you tell a child that are a visual learner, and carefully explain what being a visual learner entails. That becomes, in the child’s mind, what they are. They are a visual learner. It becomes an entrenched part of their identity. It is a label that they then become. They then have a fixed mindset about this part of their life – they are a visual learner.

When you are a visual learner, that is simply what you are (although I’m talking about children here, the same applies to adults as well). When information is presented to you auditorily, you simply cannot learn it, because you are a visual learner. Being a visual learner is what defines you,and other kinds of learning are not a part of what you are.

A complete myth that has become an educational mainstay is destroying our children’s potential. It is crippling them from the starting gate. Ninety-eight percent of teachers firmly believe this stuff and are actively using and promoting it in their classrooms – measuring the children and labeling them from their earliest formal learning experiences, invoking a fixed mindset and crippling their potential right at the start.

This is not a harmless fad and it needs attention!

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