Mindset Research Is Sound, That’s Not the Problem

Originally posted on Education Week’s 10 Big Ideas column on January 10, 2018.

My career has been motivated by two questions: What underlies opportunity gaps in educational outcomes? And how can we use empirical insights to help close them?

My first attempt to use scientific evidence to improve educational practice was with a team of management consultants who were working with a charter-management organization to reduce class sizes from 25 to 23 students in secondary schools. I shared with them the landmark Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, which found that class-size reductions improved academic outcomes for younger children but only when class sizes were reduced to between 13 and 17 students. The team quickly changed course in response.

How easy, my 23-year-old self thought. All you have to do is put up a slide with facts, and people will change their behavior! I learned quickly, however, that “facts” are never straightforward, and data alone are never enough.

My understanding of this disconnect between research and practice has deepened in my work with Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth and the 26 other leading scientists studying individual and structural factors that shape achievement motivation as part of the Mindset Scholars Network.

Millions have read books like Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and popular press on motivation research. This research consistently shows that how people—including students, family members, and educators—make meaning of situations, others, and themselves shapes how they respond, particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty (a difficult task, a new environment). Their response influences how others in the system respond to them in turn. This dynamic interplay between individuals and the systems they inhabit sets off self-reinforcing cycles that affect life outcomes years down the road.

Yet, even with scientists’ best intentions and educators’ widespread interest in this research, misunderstandings of its practical implications are pervasive and potentially harmful. Moreover, many common practices in schools and colleges still run counter to principles from this research. We continue to grade everything from essays to enthusiasm in the face of evidence that grades (even when accompanied by comments) focus students on avoiding looking “dumb” rather than learning. We continue to rank and track students despite the potentially damaging messages this can send about their ability and belonging in school. We continue to treat students differently based on their identities, unaware of how our biases can affect our behaviors and negatively impact students’ motivation and learning.

The big question we’re wrestling with at the network is: How do we change incentives, norms, and communication among researchers and practitioners so that we can systematically—and equitably—create learning environments that nurture the natural curiosity and drive to learn with which people are born?

Fundamentally, this is a question of changing beliefs and behaviors among adults in the system, including researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders. The same motivational research that can help us design educational environments that foster adaptive beliefs and learning behaviors among students should shape how we think about changing adult behavior. People need to feel competent and supported to succeed. They need to feel connected to others and capable of expressing their authentic selves and taking action.

The research is clear: Carrots, sticks, and research briefs aren’t going to yield the change we need.

The research is clear: Carrots, sticks, and research briefs aren’t going to yield the change we need. In the work that I lead, I’ve seen that if we want to bring practice and research into alignment, we need to leverage what we know about the conditions that motivate people to rally behind a collective endeavor and persist in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. We need to create communities where scientists and educators feel part of efforts that are bigger than themselves, equipped with the tools to succeed and empowered to take action. We need intermediaries that scaffold opportunities for scientists and educators to engage in regular dialogue and problem-solving on equal footing. And we need to change the incentives and constraints that inhibit practically relevant research from seeing the light of day. This is an engineering problem, and it is my personal mission to minimize the distance between research and practice.

At the Mindset Scholars Network, my colleagues and I have introduced structures to promote scholarship aimed at an inherently practical and interdisciplinary question about social contexts and individual motivation. We convene scientists who want to make a difference, cultivate trusting relationships among them, and provide opportunities to collaborate that are both funded and fun. We continue to experiment with different ways of bringing practitioners into the entirety of the research process. We support researchers in sharing relevant findings before publication and engage practitioners in unpacking the educational implications.

These are challenges that won’t be remedied overnight, but I am profoundly hopeful because above all else, the legacy of motivation research is that human change is possible.

Lisa Quay is the executive director of Mindset Scholars Network. Based in Los Angeles, she previously worked at the Stupski Foundation, Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the Berkeley School of Law, and the Bridgespan Group.

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