Any discussion surrounding the creation of some kind of learning identity can often take a backseat in favour of other aspects of the learning process. Certainly, the other aspects are more than suitable topics of discussion and I would never deny the importance of memory and other cognitive processes.
Nevertheless, I also believe that self-building and the creation of individual identities (generally referred to as self-theories) remain a valid area of both research and discussion.
The reason self-theories are so valid is that there is a strong indication that what we believe, in terms of ourselves and of human systems in general, can impact our behaviour and even our physiology. Teachers are perhaps familiar with self-theories through the experience and knowledge of so-called implicit theories of intelligence (or mindset). Implicit theories of intelligence describe the way in which individuals view their intelligence as fixed and unchanging or malleable and changeable. Believing in the latter, claim researchers, leads to higher levels of determination, resilience and (ultimately) improved academic outcomes. Unfortunately for those who have spent time in the classroom attempting to turn those fixed mindsets into growth mindsets, a number of randomised controlled trials have failed to support Dweck’s general hypothesis.
But are the general principles of the theory sound? Does what we believe really change the way we act? Do we need to take a step back and look at the theory in a wider context?
Two recent studies might shed a little light on the process Dweck believes to be involved here, that is, our personal beliefs in our ability and how these beliefs shape us.
The first study found that when young children pretend to be their favourite fictional character, they spend longer on a task that is boring but seemingly important (a phenomenon that has become known as the Batman effect).
Rachel White and her colleagues recruited 108 four to six-year-old children and first administered a number of assessments pertaining to empathy, memory and mental control. All of the children were asked to complete the same boring task that was perceived as important. The children were to watch a computer screen and press the space bar when they saw some cheese, but not to press the space bar when they saw a cat. In addition, they were told that they could take a break at any time and play with a nearby iPad.
One group of participants were required to reflect on how they were doing (the self-immersed group), for example, by saying, I am working hard.
Another group was instructed to reflect from a third person perspective by asking themselves, is [my name] working hard?
The remainder were placed in the Batman group and asked to imagine themselves as Batman, Bob the Builder, Rapunzel or Dora the Explorer, and to ask themselves, is Batman [or whoever] working hard?
Results showed that six-year-olds spent longer on the task than four-year-olds, those in the Batman condition spent the most time on the task, the self-immersed group spent the least, while the third-person group were somewhere in between. These were unrelated to the scores for mental control, memory and empathy.
Why would imagining to be Batman increase persistence?
It’s likely that imagining to be someone else creates a feeling of self-distance from the task. Self-distancing has previously been found to limit the tendency to become distracted and to prioritise long-term goals. However, it could just have been that imagining to be Batman simply made the task less boring.
What is certain, however, is that by changing the way they viewed themselves, the children were able to stay on-task for longer. However, note that the sample only consisted of 108 children so we would need to wait and see if these results can be replicated using more participants before reaching any firm conclusions.
Thinking that you exercise less than others could lead to… death.
The way we think, therefore, appears to impact on other aspects of the self. This perhaps becomes even more obvious when we examine a 2017 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University. Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum were interested to see if the way people think about their levels of physical activity impacted their life expectancy.
The researchers used previously collected data from two sources: The US National Health Interview Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In total, the sample consisted of 61,141 Americans.
Two particular areas were of interest: how much exercise individuals got compared to their peers, and details about their actual physical activity. Individuals were then cross-checked against the National Death Index, 21 years after the questions had been asked.
The results suggested that perceived physical activity relative to peers was closely associated with the risk of dying. More specifically, even after adjusting for actual levels of physical activity, it was discovered that those who thought of themselves as less active were 71% more likely to die within the time period than those who thought they were more active.
How can we explain these results?
There is no single explanation, only a number of suggestions.
First, perceptions are affecting motivation. If we see ourselves as physically fit or more active, we are more likely to exercise. Could we then extrapolate and suggest that pupils who view themselves as more able will work harder (and vice versa)?
Second, our perceptions have emotional consequences. We are bombarded with public health warnings relating to risky lifestyles, for example, lack of exercise can lead to a greater risk of heart attack. If we believe our activity levels are low relative to those of others, we perceive ourselves as being less healthy and are more likely to die before our time – our fear of death increases.
Third, our positive beliefs and expectations can induce a physical response (the placebo effect). Previous research has found that placebo effects still occur even when we know that we taking placebos. It would logically follow that negative expectations and beliefs would have the opposite impact (the nocebo effect).
What does this have to do with Mindset?
Mindset theory is based on the principle that our beliefs shape our actions, and this might include important physical functions like staying alive. These beliefs, however, must be consistent and not contaminated by contradictory information. There is also a larger issue at stake here, one that I won’t spend too much time on. This is that Growth Mindset is an idea that has been around for quite a long time now and most teachers (and even pupils) will probably know something about it. The popularity of the theory, therefore, might also be its biggest weakness, as we are unlikely to discover enough naïve participants to produce a fair test, increasing the likelihood of demand characteristics and confounding variables.
Methodological issues aside, the principles underscoring mindset theory are very similar to those related to studies discussed here and also feed into other self-theories such as academic self-concept. With no replications available yet, we don’t necessarily know how valid these results are, however, related studies into, for example, academic self-concept have produced results consistent to those discussed here.
But it’s not only about how we view our own intelligence. General academic ability beliefs and other assumptions about ourselves (many that can be found beneath the umbrella of global self-esteem) shape various outcomes. Even a belief in the malleability of personality has been tentatively found to improve depression and anxiety in young people. To paraphrase Tim O’Brien, if you don’t believe that your current inner story is useful or helpful, change it.
Is learning, therefore, as much about constructing ourselves as learners as it is about our cognitive abilities? If it is, then teachers and parents play an important role in this construction project; everything we say, our actions, attitudes, biases and prejudices all play their part.