A defence of the fixed mindset
The growth mindset has been so universally heralded as ‘a good thing’ that it’s in danger of becoming one of those memes we think with rather than about. A number of commentators have been critical of the way mindset theory has been uncritical adopted and unthinkingly applied, but what if growth isn’t always good? What if sometime we might be better off to be ‘fixed’ in our attitudes and beliefs?
This is something that has been simmering away on my back burner for months, but then I encountered the following passage in the philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s magnificent (and very witty) treatise on the human mind, Consciousness Explained:
[T]here are a range of possibilities , settled by evolutionary processes: some elements of the system of representation can be – indeed must be – innately fixed, and the rest must be ‘learned’. While some of the categories of life that matter (like hunger and thirst) are no doubt ‘given’ to us in the way we are wired at birth, others we have to develop on our own.
What he’s saying is that certain ways in which we think are innate, fixed in consciousness and that others are acquired through a process of growth. Although growth is being equated with learning, at least this is a positive representation of things being fixed in our minds.
Our minds are essentially plastic – subject to change – and, as Dennett says,
Plasticity makes learning possible, but it is all the better if somewhere out there in the environment there is something to learn that is already the product of a prior design process, so each of us does not have to reinvent the wheel.
That is to say, if nothing is settled – or fixed – growing is so much more troublesome. Dennett goes further suggesting that through a process of cultural transmission, “We somehow install an already invented and largely ‘debugged’ system of habits in the partly unstructured brain.” This sounds a bit mysterious but perhaps explains our apparently innate capacity for learning language.
Well, so what? None of this means all that much, but reading a thinker who was writing way before mindset theory was a gleam in Carol Dweck’s eye allowed me to see what might be possible if we freed ourselves of the ubiquitous negativity with which the fixed mindset is framed. (The Star Wars poster above is, I think, a particularly pernicious framing of mindset theory.)
On reflection I think the truth may be a little more complicated than that. We all have an enormous capacity for growth. This capacity – plasticity – is how we acquire new skills and incorporate new knowledge into pre-existing schema; without it we wouldn’t change at all. We also have a biological predisposition to fix new learning in place and make it part of us. If we didn’t have a fixed view of multiplication, or conjugating the French verb avoir then we’d never be able to make use of our capacity to grow and change.
Regardless of our mindset, we have evolved to both grow and to fix new learning in place. In fact it could be said that the process of growing our web of knowledge and then fixing this new understanding of the world in place is the very essence of learning.
When we talk about fixed mindsets in education perhaps we concerned that some pupils have an over-developed propensity to hold on to ideas and are afraid in some way to let go of their concepts of themselves. Maybe they have a fixed view of things about which they feel content? Could it be that those possessing the much vaunted growth mindset are too ready to let go of potentially valuable ideas? Might they be more easily swayed or gulled than their fixed mindset peers? Could those with a fixed mindset be more likely to express dissatisfaction with the status quo – if we’re not at fault then it must be the environment – viva la revolución! And might an individual with a growth mindset too readily accept adverse conditions as their lot? Either way, I think labelling students as either fixed or growth is too simplistic, especially if we think of one of the labels in essentially pejorative terms.
I’m not arguing that giving up or sneering at effort is desirable, I’m suggesting we think a little more about the consequences of labels we apply.