Mindset & Cognitive Biases: what teachers can learn from Dweck and Kahneman

[by Roger Loxley]

Following both Phil’s and Bernard’s blogs about research I thought it would be good to highlight another example of ideas for discussion. Bernard had already mentioned the idea of picking the good bits out of research and had referenced the RSA paper published last month. It’s actually quite a good read with some thought-provoking ideas and suggestions drawn from recognised papers and authors. In particular the paper uses the ideas of Carol Dweck focussed on mindsets and the work of Daniel Kahneman on cognitive bias. These two areas have been combined into some interesting ideas for teachers to discuss and try out.

Fixed v Growth Mindset

Basically, the mindset ideas build on the contrasting beliefs that academic ability is a stable and innate trait (a ‘fixed mindset’) or can be expanded through effort and practice (a ‘growth mindset’). This, the paper argues, has implications for pupils’ learning, their resilience to setbacks, and ultimately their educational attainment. The way in which educators and parents give feedback to pupils can reinforce or weaken a given mindset and it is this feedback issue that caught my eye. For students in a fixed mindset, expending effort seems like a signal that they are not innately intelligent enough. Work should be hard enough to be done with relative ease. If it’s difficult, then I’m not clever enough to do it. Additionally, students may use lack of hard work or effort to shield themselves; if they try hard and fail, they have no excuses and cannot save the reputation of their intelligence by attributing it to lack of effort. I’m sure we can all recognise this in some of our students. Conversely, those with a growth mindset find challenging work and effort good because it allows them to improve and develop their intelligence. By understanding the importance of mindset, teachers are able to not only model ‘growth’ attitudes for their students, but also to consider more carefully the type of praise they give to their pupils when providing feedback. To quote the paper: Praise that teachers give to their pupils, and parents give to their children, can be hugely influential in shaping a pupil’s mindset. However, it is not the case that all praise has the same effect: the type of praise is incredibly important, as praising the person, praising the process, or giving objective feedback all have different effects on a pupil’s mindset, persistence with and enjoyment of the task, and overall performance. So, praising the person simply serves to reinforce the idea that their ability and performance is down to an attribute. Thus, “well done, you’re very clever” praises the person for being clever. Praising the process, on the other hand, creates an association with outcome and effort. So, “well done, you’ve worked really hard to achieve this” reinforces the role of effort which suggests that improvement can be made with hard work.


Thinking Fast and Slow

Kahneman’s wonderful book Thinking, fast and slow is excellent and really makes you think about the way you operate (see my earlier house assembly!), he develops and discusses the ideas of cognitive bias. In brief, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking such as: seeking out information to support pre-existing beliefs (so-called confirmation bias), over-valuing information presented to us early on in an evaluation (anchoring with under-adjustment and the halo effect), and feeling the pain of a loss more acutely than the pleasure of a similar gain (loss aversion). These quirks can affect pupil’s learning of subject content, influence the amount of effort exerted on academic performance, and shape teacher and pupil expectations and evaluation of pupil ability. Again, to quote the paper: here the word ‘bias’ refers to a systematic deviation from a purely balanced judgment. We systematically over-value an initial piece of information over subsequent information, we systematically interpret information in such a way as to support our pre-existing beliefs, and we systematically are more motivated to avoid a loss than to acquire a gain of an equal amount. Susceptibility to these cognitive biases is not an indication of low intelligence or lack of education; rather these are fairly universal thinking tendencies, pervasive in many areas of life with implications beyond educational policy and practice. These ideas are significant in encouraging teachers to think about how they can influence a student’s view of themselves and develop a student’s understanding and performance. So, teachers might want to counteract the confirmation bias by trying to see students in a different way by challenging preconceptions and past history. The idea might be to undertake an exercise that gets the teachers and the students to see things from a different perspective, through role play, for example. Also, trying not to judge students in the first few weeks of knowing them, keeping an open mind can help teachers not to stereotype students too early which may well affect the expectations in the future and counteract the halo effect (first impressions count, as we all know). Loss aversion is where the paper comes up with its most challenging idea, which gives the paper its title. According to Kahneman we value the incentive to avoid a loss more than the incentive to achieve the same gain. So, the idea goes, if a student stands to lose marks from 100%, say, for their performance if they get aspects wrong or don’t do enough they have more of an incentive than if they are to be rewarded with marks if they start from zero. I’d like to test this idea out to see if it really would make a difference. Another bias discussed is that of priming; in other words, establishing an expectation at the start of a process (however subtle this might be). The idea is that people use this primed idea and act/react accordingly. So, in the classroom, setting the idea that everyone can get an A in a particular test might be a sufficient prime to set students off on the right track. Again, only working with this in the classroom will show whether it works or not.

kahneman summary

There are other ideas in the paper (it’s a full 72 pages, here ) but in a blog I just wanted to pick out a few that might be thought-provoking. The paper ends with a teacher handout of which I have reproduced two parts above. Have a look and a think and let’s talk about the ideas.

Further Reading: this SecEd article on Mindset is highly recommended


6 responses to “Mindset & Cognitive Biases: what teachers can learn from Dweck and Kahneman

  1. There is an excellent chapter about the different mind-sets and the effectiveness of appraisal too in “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice” by Matthew Syed, a highly recommendable book in my opinion!


  2. In reference to Kahneman’s work (which I only know indirectly because he was frequently quoted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his insightful “Fool by Randomness” that I translated into Spanish), I already challenge my students’ expectations every year by asking them, in the very first lesson of the year: what do they expect to get in their final Economics exam? Invariably, especially in this school, after the first two or three students have replied A*, one student will give a lower grade as an answer. At that point I ask him/her “Why?” “Why would you not expect from yourself a higher or the maximum grade?” Students laugh and giggle, but from then on I’ve set the expectation for the whole set, and each and every other student then only dares to answer “A*”. I’ve got them where I wanted! From that very first day onwards, my expectation and my students’ expectation is that they should all get an A* in Economics. I also sweeten the task by making it into a personal challenge, both for them as for myself: we, as a set, have the challenge of achieving 100% A* in the set. Not that I’ve managed to achieve it yet, but I keep on trying! 😉

    For next year I have planned a slightly different approach:

    I will print the picture of every student in my set before the first lesson. Then I will draw a target in the whiteboard, with A* in the middle and E and U in the outer rings. Next I will ask each student to stick his/her picture with blue tag inside the ring of the grade that they think they will get in their final exam. I will then take a picture of that target with all the pictures of the students blue tagged, and print it out for future reference. To challenge the students preconceived expectations, I will make those students who did not put their picture in the inner ring of A* stand up, go back to the whiteboard, remove their picture from wherever they put it and stick it back but, this time, in the inner A* ring. Then I will ask them to take a picture of it. I will take another picture and this one I will print in A3, laminate it and post it in my classroom, thus setting graphically the expectation for the whole set during each and every lesson.

    Hope it works!


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