Mindsets and set minds

Mindsets have been around for a while. I heard about them when I studied psychology in the late 1960s and was told about the lost stair effect; you’re walking downstairs in the dark, you lose track of the steps and think there is still one to go when you have actually already arrived at the bottom and you experience that jarring thump as your body attempts to step through the level floor to somewhere eight inches below it. The bodily memory is called a learning set. But it’s fixable. The next time if you remember to count the steps correctly you’ll have a smooth landing. If you don’t you won’t, it’s habit.

Set minds have been around even longer – probably as long as there have been minds to set. It’s an amazing feature of being human that we make assumptions and then stick to them as if they were truths, through thick and thin, even in the face of a great deal of falsifying evidence. It’s a huge step towards efficiency to be able to treat most of the world as if it’s entirely predictable – this-causes-that – and forgettable in the sense that there are fewer active problems to use valuable thinking power in solving minute to minute.

Dweck via Beck and hard work

Mindsets are very useful and very famous now that Dweck’s assembly of ideas has brought them cult status. Schools are going flat out to make sure they are GM organisations, the other kind of GMO, so they can put the GM Quality mark alongside their Investors in People and other campaign badges. Deep in Dweck’s model is the key to their current popularity – we used to call it hope. It’s the teachers’ touchstone, the hope that we can switch on students’ creativity to enable them to climb ever higher up the evolutionary ladder. All it takes is character and the Victorian virtues of perspiration and aspiration to force change on a fixed nearly-broke-my-leg-coming-down-my-own-stairs mindset to be able to move from the comfortable world ruled by assumptions where nothing new and exciting happens to the uncomfortable world where everything is open to change and anything can be achieved.

One view of the brain is that it exists in splendid isolation, a massive information processor controlling the body machine. Feedback from faulty components leads to error correction, sufficient feedback drives changes to the central core processor itself as it acts to eliminate the fault, or cut out the malfunctioning component altogether.

A mindset is a programmed operation carried out by the processor and once established it runs automatically in response to information input. Because the processor is mechanical it can be mechanically altered, provided that the correct spanner is used to adjust the correct nut and has a long enough handle to provide enough leverage. Dweck talks about this from her own experience, about how much force she has to apply to her own automatic fixed mindset to reconfigure it. She calls it hard work. I don’t see it as being hard, it’s just work.

So here we have it; the brain is a processor with established programmes automatically handling the huge flow of information coming in from the brain’s environment, the inside world of the body and the outside world detected by the five or six senses and interpreted by means of the fixed programmes. Adaptability is a core driver of individual and species survival and the brain can adapt to change and change itself, given sufficient energy being applied, enough hard work being put in to the project. Mindsets can be modified or even terminated and replaced by others.

Born to be wild

Is this just a re-run of the nature/nuture contest?

It seems to me more like a compromise argument; the makeup of the brain is genetically determined, some automatic routines are present at birth and others are learnt and established through experience. The whole assembly develops to run automatically and efficiently, leaving enough free processing capacity to deal with the changeables, the new information coming in, that has to be assigned to its correct operational path. While the whole system is very stable and resistant to change, it can be altered given a sufficiently strong push and having been altered will return to full automaticity in its new configuration. In this way new ideas only briefly tie up the free processing capacity, until they themselves are assigned to a set and drop off the radar.

Plastics and gymnastics

But there is another way of looking at this, that the brain/body complex is fully integrated and adaptive. It’s a wet, living biological organism always fully responsive to the information surrounding and flowing into it and to what will give it the best chance of survival. Via its senses it is continuously scanning its environment for information, and the information representing regular events is handled by distributed neural nets that are constantly checking and confirming. In the absence of anything new they remain unchanged. The potential of the brain is encoded in the genome, which also acts in the most efficient least engaged way by checking information coming in and it is adaptive in that protein synthesis, the output of the genome, can be switched on and off in response to input information.

This is a surprising and relatively recent discovery, that the expression of the genome which was thought to be fixed and to give rise to fixed characteristics like IQ and EQ, academic and emotional intelligence, is in fact highly plastic, meaning it can take a new shape and retain it. The evolution of flowering plants gives direct evidence of this mechanism, called epigenetics, where adaptive change or evolution happens instantaneously in individual organisms and can be passed to subsequent generations. Most modern flowering plants are polyploids with multiple genomes and this multiplying function can be switched on in response to environmental stress and it confers adaptive advantage. Evidence from animals is coming along too. Maybe Lamarck did have the glimmerings of a good idea, in the case of the blacksmith’s arms. Darwinian theory specifies the passage of geological time for evolutionary change to take place, but in epigentics change is instantaneous. It’s interesting to note that cutting edge cancer treatment is based on epigenetic thinking, intentionally switching gene expression on and off.

So here’s a conundrum. Some educationalists have taken on Dweck’s mindset ideas based on thinking about brain structure and function as plastic and in the knowledge that we can change our behaviour by changing our thinking. At the same time other educationalists support the setting up of new grammar schools basing their thinking on the idea that IQ, an imaginary concept that has no scientific basis, is fixed and measurable. The scientific evidence is showing us that the brain/body complex is plastic and yet we are in danger of delivering growth mindset teaching from a fixed mindset position.

We have a behaviour management system that treats student brains as fixed objects that have to be removed from school, usually together with their associated body, if they cannot be mechanically reconditioned. We don’t grant agency to the person of the student. And at the same time we say that respect and care are essentials in making children good, we call it the importance of relationship and expect the student to respond to our caring as an active agent with the ability to make choices .

Silence in court

The jury has come back into the room.

The automaticity of habits is possible and advantageous and we need to break these bad children’s habits by force and if we can’t we have to exclude them.

Finding: The Brain is fixed.

The genome/environmental communication means that the system is plastic and adaptive and as educators we can always promote change. All ways.

Finding: The brain/body complex is plastic.

The verdict; it is both/and and not either/or.

Oh. Dear. Both/and eh?

What are we supposed to do with that knowledge?

Know that there’s more than one kind of science I suppose, either/or science that we all know about and both/and science that people with a thinking habit won’t and don’t acknowledge.





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