fixed versus growth mindset

Lately I’ve been obsessing about meta-cognition, the way we think about our own thinking. In some quarters this is called an “intra-personal” skill, grouped with things like controlling your own attention, switching intentionally among tasks, and regulating your emotional responses to stress.

microscope analogy

Such mindfulness, the cultivated awareness of our own neuro-cognitive activity, has a couple of benefits. For one, understanding the quirks of our own intelligence makes it easier to learn the next new thing. For another, people who know themselves well are often easier to be around and work with. In this sense, the intra-personal facilitates the interpersonal.

It’s become my recent obsession as the impacts of computing and robotics get clearer. We used to tout the benefits of college in terms of knowledge acquisition – major in x, then master the details of x, then go sell yourself as an x-ist until you retire.

The tacit assumption was that any other positive results of your time in college – for example, a fuller engagement with the civic life around you – was a kind of collateral benefit, determined largely by things beyond the curriculum, like your personality.

But as the content knowledge of particular subjects becomes ubiquitous and free, and as we automate the routine parts of most careers, the different learning outcomes of college are getting reordered. These days the highly valued outcomes have more to do with creativity, drive, and getting along.

So then isn’t that what we should be focusing on?

But before we scuttle all our 100-level Intro courses, we may want to distinguish carefully between “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” The whole enterprise of formal education, from daycare to doctorate, is based on the latter. We assume people can learn, so we educate them.

In the student success mainstream where I swim, growth mindset is all the rage. Assuming anything is fixed strikes my peers and me as backward, invidious, and even harmful.

Yet whether we like it or not, we have to make useful distinctions among the different styles and rates of learning we can reasonably expect from our students. Some things will forever be out of reach, just as the NBA will never go recruiting for short people. The story of our potential is mixed.


The assumptions behind our criminal justice system are similarly tangled and contradictory, as our reasons for punishment hold people individually accountable, but then disproportionately incarcerate the impoverished and insane, conditions over which the convicted have little control.

Our departments of “correction” – a name that implies a growth mindset – administer life sentences and capital punishment, tip-offs to an underlying fatalism.

unfairMuch of the U.S. legal system dates to the 13th century, interestingly around the time the west founded its universities. For an absorbing account of how those structures have slipped out of step with what we now believe about human conduct, potential, and accountability, see Adam Bonfornado’s Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.

So which one is it? Can we learn to get along, to better direct our conduct toward ourselves and others, or can’t we? Where should we draw the new line dividing the things we can teach from those we can’t?

However appealing we find the tenets of growth mindset, I know firsthand that there are limits. In my case, I have a catastrophically weak sense of direction. I know of only two people whose inability is as bad as mine, and it’s more serious than it sounds.

To Walk A Confusing Path

My wife gets frustrated when I can’t find my way back to a room we were just in, or don’t know how to get to a road she drives us down every weekend. She thinks it’s a question of attentiveness or effort (growth mindset), and of course she’s right. But I also know it’s more complicated, because for me that minimum effort is a lot greater than it is for others. I simply lack the internal magnets and gyroscopes the rest of you take for granted.

I can work around this limitation – I’m better than most people at reading mall directories and roadmaps, for example – but I also know I will never be a good field botanist, or hiker. To deny that would be foolhardy, and possibly fatal.

microscope analogy 1What we don’t yet know is how much we already rely on such workarounds in other walks of life, and how many disabilities we hide even from ourselves.

In other words, we’re still figuring out where to draw the new line.

If college learning is going to catch up to societal need with a new emphasis on the explicit development of intra-personal and inter-personal skill, then we’ll need a better idea of what’s even possible.

learningTo figure that out, I think it’s helpful to look at very long term learning outcomes from college. The Gallup Purdue Index is one early stab at this, aiming to get beyond starting salaries to look instead at long-term measures of well-being like health, happiness, and satisfaction with life, across very large populations of graduates, to ask what college is getting right.

Another early example of this new approach is in a recent book from researchers at California State University Northridge. A team of faculty and staff spent ten years – incredible in our context of administrative turnover and instability – soliciting the views of four cohorts of freshmen about what helped them succeed at various stages of their college careers.

A surprising number of the respondents named the research project itself, and the routine of regular interviews each semester where they could think about their own learning, and how they organize it. In the words of one:

It would help me think about, okay, who really made an impact on me in terms of the professors, and how did it kind of sculpt how I see things and how I can move forward.

I think it’s likely that very long-term and large-scale datasets, like those in use at Purdue and Northridge, will help us understand which neurocognitive capacities can grow, and which ones defy the tools of education.

Image credit: Daily Mail; Wes Hardaker, Captured on Earth Photography


HIPs and the New Learning Infrastructure

HIPs and the New Learning InfrastructureThis is today’s presentation to a group that’s convening in Los Angeles for Taking Student Success to Scale.

Four states – Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – are using their system offices and a subset of their public colleges and universities to jump-start adoption of High-Impact Practices at very large scale. The object is to make them available systematically and equitably, by using new tools of the emerging higher education infrastructure.

You can download a copy of the PowerPoint by right-clicking (or tapping and holding) the image here. The animations are visible in Slide Show, the narration in Page View, and there’s no need for attribution.

dispatch from the trenches

pancakeSince leaving CSU headquarters for a job on one of our campuses, I’ve been attuned to the differences of working not with policy makers, but actual educators. A few insights, still in progress:

This is way more fun. My stint away from campus was a little over nine years, and even though I missed it constantly, I’d forgotten how really wonderful it is. A college campus is a microcosm of the world, with facilities for food, housing, work, play, and interaction, but oriented toward a noble purpose, the personal and intellectual development of ourselves and each other, even strangers. It’s life, but with more of the good parts, and less of the rest. Every day I go to work puts me in a good mood. No kidding. I take random walks across the campus just to be in it; last week the student government president noticed my third lap through the pancake breakfast and co-curricular tables, and called me on it.

The strains are different. There is something counterintuitive about work at a place like the Office of the Chancellor, which you would expect to mix the flabby ineffectiveness of the public sector with the flabby ineffectiveness of academic administration. Yet visitors are always struck by the sight of people doing work. They even comment on it. “Everyone here seems to be working all the time.” Well, yes. And as state support dwindles there are fewer of them in the office, to perform the same work or more.

Yet the relentless tilling on the cubicle farm didn’t prepare me for the qualitatively different strain of campus life. At my new job there are many signs of overworked colleagues well past their breaking point; two from this week will show you what I mean.

The first involved money, and the accidental transfer of a moderate sum into the wrong account. It’s no big deal, and we will fix it. But the shriek of protest was immediate and heartfelt, and not from the one whose money went missing, but from the one who got the windfall. She works ungodly hours at full tilt, and the prospect of taking on one more task, even a funded one, nearly prompted her resignation.

The second sign of materially different strain involved an invitation to lunch. My new campus home employs dozens of academic department chairs, and early assays of their inner stuff suggest remarkable quality in about a third of the cases: brilliant, dedicated, and almost eerily suited to edifying and motivating a very wide range of students. They are driven people.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, when my invitation to a lunch meeting was met in one case with protest. I mean, I was just asking for an hour, and I will provide the sandwich. It even comes with an apple and a cookie. But the response was a mix of tension and suspicion – what is this “lunch” going to evolve into? – and a plaintive close to the email: “I just can’t take on any more.”

That depth of emotion can mean only one thing: he wishes he could.

earth-day-2014And that’s what makes the strain here so different. In the system office I often had to appeal to the intrinsic motivation of my colleagues, and remember it in myself: the executive orders and coded memoranda and bar graphs represent real people trying to improve their lives, and we are charged by the public with helping them.

Here such appeals are unnecessary, because the real people are standing in front of us. We know them individually, we root for them. A lot of the time we even like them. And so for a significant number of my colleagues, the motivation is already keen, bottomless, and merciless. Coordinating their work is something I need to do differently than I used to, with fewer naked appeals to altruism and purpose. The colleagues whose help will make a difference already feel these things acutely, even painfully.

They don’t need our reminders, they just need our help.

Money isn’t always money. Most organizations, including the Office of the Chancellor, keep track of baseline or recurring dollars in one category, and one-time dollars in another. The one-time money could come from a grant, or a vacant salaried position, or residue from year before.

Campuses make this distinction too, but – at least on mine – the difference between them is a whole lot wider. Onetime money is a sinkhole of attention, effort, and coordination, consuming resources that won’t go to that precise use ever again. By contrast recurring dollars mean infrastructure, and staff support, and more full-time faculty to teach and govern the university before we burn out the handful who survived the recession. Recurring dollars are lifeblood.

mad-at-csu-live-performanceMy last few months at the system office included a tense, lengthy negotiation with the State of California for the support of our student success initiatives. They offered us millions of dollars above the typical enrollment budget, but it was onetime funding. We tried so hard and so often to explain why that wasn’t helpful, and why we really needed a baseline commitment, that the governor’s staff finally told us point blank to stop saying so. They were sick of hearing about it, and by then so was I.

But now that I’m on a campus, I think if anything we should have been more insistent. You don’t improve graduation rates and eliminate achievement gaps in temporary earmarks one year at a time. Instead you have to build it into your way of life. And the money to do that is so materially different from other money, it practically needs a different word.

That’s what I’m learning so far.

More field notes to follow.

Image credits: Union University, CSU Dominguez Hills

news from Bowling Green, KY


Western Kentucky University has a lot in common with the California State Universities that have employed me for around ten years. It’s an access-oriented, regional comprehensive university, it’s proud of its continuing academic quality in the face of unpredictable challenges, and it would like to improve its graduation rates.

To that end, the university leaders are looking at educational practices that engage their students personally in their learning, making them less likely to drop out.

On Friday I paid WKU a visit to learn more, and share what we’re doing in California. Our discussions focused on high-impact practices, and making them work for a greater share of WKU students by identifying a handful that can be offered consistently, equitably, and campus-wide.

For example, like some CSU campuses, WKU may decide to focus on service learning, undergraduate research, and internships in particular. Those few would then be systematically offered, coded into student records, and regularly assessed for impact.

The links in this sentence will take you to my slides from the morning presentation and the afternoon workshop.

For my part, these are points I want to remember from Friday’s meetings:

  1. Everyone is an educator. Although faculty are authors of WKU’s educational programs, I was struck that our meetings were attended in equal parts by advisers, staff, student leaders, administrators – pretty much everyone who interacts with students. I think one value of high-impact practices is that they take advantage of all the ways humans learn; to that end, this full-spectrum participation seems especially important.
  2. Intentional work requires ongoing professional development. WKU’s efforts in this area are led by Jerry Daday, Executive Director of its Center for Faculty Development. His involvement will be crucial: during a closing discussion of the resources needed for scale-up, people said they needed dedicated training for staff and faculty even more than they needed money.
  3. Colleges will want a role. This was the biggest surprise of my visit, that deans and associate deans need to see themselves in the emerging approach, and will be unhappy if they can’t. Because high-impact practices are often connected to the student’s choice of major, departments won’t feel their identities threatened. And at the large scale of the whole university, picking a handful of signature high-impact practices for everyone will strengthen the institution’s identity. But what about the layer in between the campus and its departments – say, the College of Arts and Letters, or the College of Nursing?

I’m not sure what to do about that. A good answer may lie in integrated approaches to curriculum, like the AAC&U GEMs project, or in “meta-majors,” broad clusters of related subjects that students pursue before they know exactly what to major in. Such integrated pathways may reside in a single college, and lend themselves to a distinct set of high-impact practices.

(References to meta-majors are getting more common, but the field doesn’t have a single authority I can link you to. One example I like is from Complete College America, which describes meta-majors in its “Guided Pathways to Success” toolkit. See the PowerPoint here, and especially slide 22.)

Or maybe, as some in the meetings believed, bringing along the colleges just isn’t a problem: we need those administrative units behind the scenes, and not because our students should know where they are on the org chart.

I get it, but I’m not so sure. We may find that more should be done at the college level with high-impact practices, and how they bring students in, and support their decision to stay.