Schools and the Mindless Mindset Meritocracy

SDante In Schools Week Carol Dweck writes: “If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would make schools places of growth. I would… give back to students and teachers that zest for learning — the desire for challenges, passion for hard work, embracing of mistakes, and joy in improvement. If some schools can do it, all schools can do it.” Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset is something I buy into but there is a niggling doubt in the back of my mind…

“If some schools can do it, all schools can do it…”

In their book G is for Genes Plomin and Asbury point out that: “We think it is likely that, for genetic as well as environmental reasons, it will be harder for some people to develop a growth mindset than others.” All in our world is not equal, is it not disheartening to think that Mindset might not be an easy fix for all your pupils?

Mindset attracts schools because in a kingdom of the blind the one eyed man would be king. We think: ‘ah our kids can get higher grades if they have a growth mindset; our kids can be ‘kings’ and our school lauded as ‘kingmaker’! But in a kingdom of growth mindset ‘where all school’s do it’ all the iniquities and inequalities remain. If I was to practise as much as Usain Bolt I doubt I would ever be as fast as him, even with the same coaching I would not be his equal. (I think Usain has a fixed mindset, he strikes me as someone who is quite content with being the fastest in the world, quite content with being praised for his speed, I’m sure that his gold medals sustain this impression.) Cyclist Lance Armstrong ‘suggested that doping had been so widespread in the sport a decade ago that only those involved could hope to contend’ in the Tour de France. If we educate all to have a growth mindset what advantage could there possibly be?

Mindset is accompanied by meritocracy, driven by a Governmental desire to compete in PISA tables, our kids have to compete. The impression given is those with a growth mindset get the best results in exams, get the best jobs, get the most money, have the happiest lives and the most ornate funerals. Michael Young, wrote that: “If meritocrats believe… that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get… They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.” Can you imagine a world where those at the top have got there because of their mindset and that is all…? At least with our current system we know it’s unfair and we have cause for anger. Meritocratic man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, and the poor would have nothing to blame but their mindsets: let them eat cake from their self imposed fixed mindset food-banks; our ‘failures’ are but a quintessence of dust.

On Dweck’s Mindset Website it says: ‘Do people with [the growth] mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.’

To Be or Not To Be the Human Becoming?

Toil! Under the tyranny of targets and outcomes and grit and resilience some of us dread every morning as we set up upon our daily trial of Sisyphus, rolling that effing rock up that effing hill. What about a day of idling, lolling and wasting time? Are these now sins in this work-ethic-growth-mindset driven age? Why this focus on the desperate struggle, why not, sometimes, be content just to be content? Education can be a passing fancy in which things awake our interest and give us pause, where learning is for its own ends and not part of an international Tour de Force. Rather than demand we have to become super brain fit for the great competition of life we can be the human forever becoming and be relaxed with that knowledge rather than need to beat everyone at all cost. Lance Armstrong said: “I just took part in the system…” let’s ensure that we don’t over systematise Mindset. images-7 Who are you trying to kid Einstein? You were smart and you stayed with problems for a long time! But there your picture is, accompanied by others all over the walls of our schools: hey kids, work hard and you too can be Einstein! Really??? Do we expect Growth Mindset to solve all our ills? Instead of covering our school walls with ‘mindset’ quotes and pictures of great men and women, let’s just look at the whole picture, literally… quotes and pictures from everyone: let’s look at life in all its shades. Pictures of street cleaners, bus drivers, house-husbands, the unemployed accompanied by their quotes; let’s celebrate their lives! Let us turn outwards and towards each other as fallible human beings sharing more in common than not and celebrate:

What a piece of work is a human! How noble in reason and how infinite in faculty! Schools are not just for the aspirant über-successful, they are for all, even those who are less smart and those without a ‘passion for hard work’.

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11 thoughts on “Schools and the Mindless Mindset Meritocracy

    1. chrismwparsons

      Fascinating study! …So, essentially it is saying that no matter how lousy I am I can’t dampen my pupils’ enjoyment of learning or perception of their competence…?!

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  1. chrismwparsons

    Completely with you on so many levels here – there is certainly a prison-camp mentality waiting in the shadows down the ‘growth mindset’ path.
    I also think that a ‘reality check’ mindset would be quite a useful commodity To go along side it (though I think Usain Bolt knows full well that he’s still had to work to get to where he is and that he can’t afford to be lazy).

    However… It’s true that there shouldn’t be a notion that ‘we can all become the best’ – but we don’t just learn things to get to the top of the pile do we? Wouldn’t a growth mindset world where everybody had accomplished some degree of mastery of a musical instrument for example, still be a better world, even if the relative inequalities still remain…?

    In essence, don’t your arguments work equally well against the notion of ‘ambition’…?

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Schools as workhouses… I wonder if Usain had a different surname he might have been a tad slower…

      I doubt the world would be a better place if everyone played a musical instrument. Ambition, is this a good thing?

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      1. chrismwparsons

        Might we all feel a little bit better though…? If we all mastered more things that we had capabilities to master, such as musical instruments…? Can education not lead to a degree of personal satisfaction which is irrespective of how we end-up comparing to others…?

        I’m happy to sit with you on the fence regarding ambition. Writing a post querying whether we should try to encourage it in children would certainly be worth a read!

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  2. Pete Jones

    Interestingly, we have quite a few quotes around the school about creating work of excellence, but they are all written by students and some teachers. Great post.

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  4. Helen Rogerson

    It’s 10,000 hours that bothers me. There isn’t even 10,000 hours in a year yet schools are telling students they’ll do well in their GCSEs if they spend 10,000 hours learning? Or some such.

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