Author: Jenny Terry, Project Officer – University of Brighton
When faced with a room full of the University of Brighton’s notoriously critical social scientists, I will admit to being somewhat apprehensive about trying to sell them the concepts behind the Changing Mindsets project. I was all too aware of the critique that would most likely be levied against the project – that we are trying to fix a structural problem with an individual solution. The project aims to reduce the attainment gap in Higher Education by encouraging students to develop a growth mindset, i.e. the belief that intelligence isn’t fixed and can be developed (Dweck 1999; 2017). The idea being that growth mindsets can reduce the impact of stereotype threat (Good, Aronson, and Harder, 2003; 2008), in turn reducing the tendency of such threats to lower academic performance in minority groups (e.g. Pronin, Steele, & Ross, 2004; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Having been a student of the School of Social Sciences at Brighton, I came to the project also wrangling with the same critique but, before long, I was able to counter it. In this post, I will consider whether, by focussing on mindset change, the intervention places the responsibility for academic achievement and reducing inequality solely within the individual student, ignoring wider societal problems. As will unfold, it is my belief that mindset interventions could actually help address some of the wider structural issues that under-represented groups face in higher education.
Hang on a minute, you may be saying, what is so wrong with an individual taking responsibility for their educational outcomes anyway? Indeed, to some, this may seem unproblematic. In contemporary Western society, we live in the age of ‘self-help’, makeover shows, and the American Dream – we are all projects which must be worked upon (Giddens, 1990). Is it not desirable to see ourselves as free to construct our own paths in life, as curators of our own destinies? Desirable, perhaps, but does it really reflect our reality?
If it does, then why are there so few non-white students at Oxford? Why are white, middle-class students more likely to obtain a First or a 2:1 degree? Are we really saying that if a student wants to go to Oxford, or obtain a good degree, that all they need to do is develop a growth mindset? Of course not. There are, in my opinion, a myriad of structural inequalities that need to be addressed if equality in educational opportunities is to be achieved. To take just one example, evidence suggests that the introduction and subsequent rises in tuition fees, and the scrapping of maintenance grants in the UK has increased inequality (McGettigan, 2013). Although, as Josh Salisbury points out for The Guardian:
More important, the endless focus on tuition fees obscures the bigger issue facing most working-class students. When you’re struggling to pay ever rising rents, or to fork out for your food bill, fees are largely irrelevant. The extortionate cost of living matters much more than the cost of tuition. It’s for this reason that nearly 9% of full-time disadvantaged students didn’t make it past their first year in 2014-15.
A growth mindset alone clearly isn’t going to change the fact that the system can favour demographics other than the one you were born into, and telling students that it will is clearly problematic. However, does this mean that all growth mindset interventions are, at best, a waste of time?
Well, unfortunately, I think some probably do fall short in this way. However, many – including the Changing Mindsets project – seeks to affect change beyond the individual level by delivering to staff as well as students. Staff are being shown how implicit biases can contribute towards stereotype threat which, in turn, lowers performance. This is done with the aim of creating a more equal learning environment at the institutional level. We recognise that minority academic performance in HE is impacted by such things – far away from anything a student’s individual mindset will influence.
Changing Mindsets is also raising awareness, again at an institutional level, that these inequalities exist. This is important because there is often resistance to accepting that there is a problem in the first place – and we all know that admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovery. And, yes, we are also encouraging students to develop a growth mindset in the hope that it may help individuals to overcome some of the issues that minority students face. In my previous blog post, I outlined the ways that a growth mindset helped me as a working-class student. For now, until there is broader change, it could just help others in the same way.
However, it is also my belief that mindset interventions can be criticised in this way without considering the wider implications that growth mindsets can have on society. Can you imagine what a generation of young people with growth mindsets could achieve? I, for one, can already see the impact that my return to university as a mature student has had on those around me. It does not occur to my seven-year-old daughter that university or a professional career isn’t for the likes of us – she wants to work at a university like Mummy does. Several of my friends have since begun their own degree courses, successfully negotiating the challenges of single-parenthood and low incomes. Students from the cohorts behind mine are inspired to persevere with challenges to reap the rewards that I did. They’ve all seen that it can be done. My point? There is a knock-on effect of having a growth mindset that can extend well beyond the individual.
Just because mindset interventions focus upon individual change, it doesn’t mean that it ignores the need for structural change. It is, after all, our overall goal. We’re just working from the bottom up, inspiring people to believe that things can be different for them, but without leading them to believe it is as simple as just having a growth mindset. None of us presume that this project, or any of the other similar schemes out there, are going to solve these issues by themselves. However, I am proud to be working on a project that I can already see is likely to make a strong contribution.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. New York, NY: Random House.
Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645-662.
Good, C., Aronson, J., & Harder, J. A. (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women’s achievement in high-level math courses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 17-28.
McGettigan, A. (2013). The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto.
Pronin, E., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. (2004). Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(2), 152-168.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.