Rejecting Growth Mindset and Grit at Three Levels

As the academic year began at my university, I was confronted with how the very worst of K-12 public education reform continues to creep upward, engulfing higher education.

In this case, growth mindset was central to the faculty keynote address, prompting me to resist an outburst in front of my colleagues. I did, however, weigh in on social media, including Facebook—where a few faculty were intrigued and reached out by email.

Last week, then, we held a faculty discussion on growth mindset, and of the three panelist, I was the only one calling for at least a skeptical view if not an outright rejection of the concept (along with grit, which was mentioned in the keynote but not central to the presentation).

For simplicity and clarity, I want to outline here briefly (since I have written extensively about both growth mindset and grit; see the Categories here on the blog) why I call for skepticism and even rejecting the practices associated with the terms.

At the first level, I question the ideological motivation for doing research to find the source of success and failure within individuals—assuming that individual character and behaviors are primarily or solely the source of both success and failure.

As a colleague noted during comments after the keynote, this is a “very American” way of thinking; and I would add, a flawed view of the relationship between human behavior and social forces.

Here, I recommend Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and argue that social forces are primary to human behaviors. I also call into question the rush to characterize what is success and failure—since a tremendous amount of both outcomes are more strongly correlated to a person’s environment of birth than any accomplishments by the person.

At the second level, I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level—both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).

Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.

Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.

The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character—ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.

K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.

All three levels, then, are born in, protected by, and prone to perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Finally, stepping back from these levels, I also remain skeptical of growth mindset and grit because they are very difficult to disentangle from deficit perspectives of students and from monolithic, thus reductive, views of identifiable groups by race, class, gender, or educational outcomes.

Instead I endorsed what Paul Gorski argues about equity literacy principles:

Equity literate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class communities, reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.



Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

From 1984 until 2002, I worked as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina, a relatively impoverished small town where I was born and also attended schools. For many of those years, I also coached (girls volleyball, boys golf, girls and boys soccer) and taught journalism along with sponsoring the school’s newspaper and literary magazine.

Teaching often meant long days from about 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night when I had away soccer matches and had to wait outside the school for every player to be picked up by their parents.

Over my career as a high school English teacher, I kept a record of my work assigning and responding to writing by my students; I averaged reading and responding to about 4000 formal essays (multiple-draft, extended writing) and 6000 journals (one-draft, shorter pieces) per year. Regardless of their level or year in high school, my students completed about 16 essays per year with all of them rewritten at least once (most did many more than one revision), and I typically had a total of about 100-125 students per academic year.

Most K-12 teachers could share something similar to the above, but since this post (as the title suggests) offers a critical look at how high school fails students entering college, I want to start with a clear caveat that K-12 teaching is extremely demanding, and most teachers are asked to do way too much with way too little support or time—and possibly more damning, over the last three decades, most teachers are being held accountable for truly awful teaching and testing.

None the less, I want here to examine what I have witnessed, and continue to witness, in the college students I have been teaching for 16 years now, students in a selective university, and thus ones who can easily be described as extremely successful students.

My fall courses, as is typical, include first-year writing seminars and an introductory education course. From those classes, here are a few examples of why I regularly have to discuss with college students that high school has failed them:

  • In my writing seminar, I start by having students complete a writing exercise in which they mimic the form of a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. When I give the assignment, I clearly identify the passage as a chapter from a novel, but many students submitting their passage identify the text as a poem.
  • My foundations education course includes as a supplemental text The Poverty and Education Reader, edited by Paul C. Gorski and Julie Landsman. Students are required to choose 2-3 chapters from every section of the volume and to write brief reflections for each. A student sent me her reflections; throughout, she began each entry with “in this short story, the narrator”—although the volume is a collection of non-fiction (and scholarly) essays.
  • An early class session with the first-year students examines academic writing at the college level and how the disciplines (often arranged as departments in colleges and separate colleges in universities) have a wide variety of expectations and forms for writing. When I put up a list of disciplines, I ask which of them do the students assume use MLA for the stylesheet and citations—prompting most students to admit they think MLA is the only citation guide that exists.
  • I introduce my foundations education students to critical pedagogy and Marxist scholarly lenses, which leads often to students admitting that they have no real idea what the differences are among socialism and communism (and Marxism) as terms. As we examine these ideas, we also confront that students typically have only a shallow understanding of capitalism and democracy.
  • A few of us teaching first-year writing seminars this semester are sharing an assignment for essay one. To help students try to navigate the complex terms at the center of the assignment, we are using Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” as a model. I also had my students complete diversity awareness quizzes created by Paul Gorski. As I discussed the assignment, I cautioned my students about making sweeping claims such as “most people think” by noting that a significant percentage of the world population (about half) includes Chinese and Indian people who have beliefs and experiences quite unlike what my students know. In one of Gorski’s questions, he notes that only 5% of the world population is in the U.S. (who has 25% of the world’s prisoners). One student, barely able to hold back that she was incredulous about that data, asked how I knew that information.

I want to return now to a point I made quickly above: these examples are from college students who have been extremely successful students. Early and often, then, I ask my students to unpack what being a student means, and then to weigh that against the expectations of college academic behavior.

One way I do that is assigning The Transition to College Writing, by Keith Hjortshoj, and I also have student read Adele Scheele’s “The Good Student Trap.”

Among the examples above, I believe the most significant way that high school fails students is grounded in that teachers and students are far too overwhelmed with accountability and coverage.

One of the odd patterns of advanced education is that we often expose students early to huge and sweeping bodies of knowledge (world history, American literature) and then as they go farther in their education, the course material becomes narrower, and thus deeper. For the English part of my undergraduate degree, I took a British literature survey course in the first two years, but a senior college English course explored only one author, William Butler Yeats.

Both teachers and students in high school, then, are victims of covering far too much way too superficially.

And thus, when I ask my first-year students what novels they read in high school, several often reply with The Crucible or Hamlet, both, of course, are plays, not novels. The blur of assigned books have left them without nuance or clarity in what they have or have not learned.

Yet at the college level, and then in the disciplines, slow and careful are far more important; a successful college student like an effective scholar will confront all material with skepticism, stepping back from assumptions and seeking ways to define and clarify terms before gathering credible evidence in order to make claims.

Being a good student too often is mostly about being dutiful, compliant, and superficial.

Another way to think about the inadequacy of high school is that it fails to help students overcome provincialism (rejecting provincialism is central to progressivism espoused by John Dewey and Lou LaBrant, and then critical pedagogy—all of which argued the foundational importance of literacy in that journey).

Provincialism is sort of an uninformed arrogance—determining Truth and the World based on one’s experiences absent the evidence of history and thought or the variety of experiences beyond one’s immediate geography and tribe.

College and the disciplines value people starting with intellectual humility and skepticism, and then requires behaviors that are slow, purposeful, and careful.

Let me conclude with a couple thoughts.

First, this tension between high school and college, I believe, can be solved by embracing critical pedagogy at all levels of education, inviting and mentoring students to read and then re-read the world, to write and then re-write the world.

These moves require that students have some greater degree of autonomy than they currently do, but it also requires a reimagining of what we think our content entails (not prescribed standards that are codified by the state)—a move away from content as fixed knowledge and toward a greater emphasis on how and why students engage with knowledge.

Finally, as an educator with over thirty years teaching from 9th grade through graduate courses, I readily acknowledge that some of what I am addressing is up for debate in terms of a wide range of mental, psychological, and emotional developments from childhood into adulthood. With that in mind, I am certain that students need and deserve the sorts of experiences and expectations common in college much earlier, at least by 9th grade.

A few falls ago, one of my first-year writing students eventually couldn’t hold back her exasperation any longer and held forth in class about how she was misled by being trained to memorize and use only MLA. Her frustration was warranted, but can and should be avoided.

What continues to guide me as a teacher of any level is that to teach English or any content is to teach students, first and foremost.

In 1961, Lou LaBrant observed: “Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire.”

Too often in 2017, this rings true—failing our students moving from high into college and then beyond.

The Public Responsibilities of Scholars: Furman University, 21 September 2017, 7 pm

I write because I am a writer, and writing, in the course of my life, has come to be more natural to me than speaking.

Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle


My comments will draw on the following:

The Politics of Calling for No Politics

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

My PowerPoint

See Also

Teaching English in the Age of Trump, Kara Voght

This Is America. This Is Who We Are.

In the U.S., politicians, pundits, and the public have a verb problem: using “is,” a false claim that masks ugly truths, when “should” expresses an aspiration worth embracing.

There are millions of examples, but former vice president Joe Biden’s comments about Trump’s seeking to end DACA serves as a representative example:

“These people are all Americans. So let’s be clear: throwing them out is cruel. It is inhumane. And it is not America,” [Biden] added. “Congress and the American people now have an obligation to step up and show our neighbors that they’re welcome here, in the only place they’ve ever called home.”

Mantras that the U.S. is a land of opportunity, that ZIP code is not destiny—these are ideological lies that would be better expressed as the U.S. should be a land of opportunity, that ZIP code should not be destiny.

The U.S. was founded in war, but freedom, equity, and justice for all did not spring forth from the blood-soaked soil of that revolution.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applied only to white males—black slaves were not human and then only 3/5ths human, women had rights only indirectly by association with men, and children were nearly invisible as full humans.

Since 1776, in fact, the slow march toward freedom, equity, and justice for all has been a fight, not some benevolent gift by those who had all those from the beginning.

It is 2017, and partisan politics continues to ignore freedom, equity, and justice for all because the Trump administration seeks to erase former president Obama from the record—simply as crass partisan politics not so subtly awash in racism: efforts to end ACA, the so-called Obamacare, and now announcements that DACA will be suspended.

The list is long, ugly, and ongoing that despite what many, including Biden, claim this is America; this is who we are:

Now, in the U.S., millions of dollars, a Reagan hairdo, a suit that costs more than many people make in weeks, and simply being white, male, and somewhat articulate all allow you to lie with a smile, an apparently a clear conscience:

This is America. This is who we are.

But to be black is another reality all together:

This is America. This is who we are.

Rising Tides and the Ignored Plight of Being Boatless in the U.S.

While dystopian post-Apocalyptic literature, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has gained renewed popularity recently, William Faulkner approached those essential elements differently in his dark and comic As I Lay Dying.

We may be able to imagine now the Bundren family, as ancestors to Trump-supporters, suffering fire and flood as a metaphor for the human condition magnified by poverty and ignorance.

Faulkner offers a double dose of complications through his own garbled and tone-deaf ideology as well as his experimental and multi-layered prose.

As the coast of Texas and the greater Houston area continue to be battered and flooded by Harvey, a re-reading of the flood scene in As I Lay Dying, when the family loses control of Addie Bundren’s coffin and horse-drawn wagon in the flood waters of a river, suggests that Faulkner is not dealing merely with allegory—but with how Nature often intervenes with lessons that should caution humans about the maxims they live by.

Along with traditional commitments to rugged individualism and chastising those who struggle to simply pull themselves up by the bootstrap, “a rising tide lifts all boats” stands as a common refrain in our uncritical hymn to capitalism and the so-called free market.

Harvey is today an ongoing human tragedy—one that could not be avoided but likely could have been lessened by a people less committed to “the myths that deform us.”

The bootstrap and rising tide myths render invisible and willfully ignore those without boots and the boatless.

As Harvey has shown, the media and mainstream responses to the flood are blinded by privilege and assumptions about human agency: How do poor individuals and families evacuate who have no transportation, no emergency funds, nowhere to go?

For the poor in the path of Harvey, the storm and the flood are exponential versions of their daily lives already stressed by a calloused American faith in deforming myths; poverty is the fault of the poor rests just beneath the bootstrap and rising tide myths.

The able-bodied but lazy poor, however, is worse than a myth because it is a lie: “more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell)” [Who Are the Poor? (1987-2013)].

Between the election of Trump and the landfall of Harvey, pundits and the media have spent a great deal of time wrestling with the so-called Trump voter who is white and working class or poor, and often rural.

That debate and myopic focus teach an unintended lesson about how the only the things that matter in the U.S. are those that impact white people (“working class” has become code for “white” as if black and Latinx aren’t working class). This same pattern has developed lately about opioid addiction.

But there is much we can and should learn from the white working-class/poor voters who remain in Trump’s camp despite many having those commitments checked by, for example, realizing that Obamacare is the ACA—and its repeal would have cost them healthcare.

Like the Bundren family, they are self-defeating in their stubbornness and ignorance, but to observe them still raises questions about how much they deserve compassion.

And here is the irony: these “Make America Great Again” legions, driven by white nationalism and racism, deserve the exact compassion and community that they deny the poor because of their indoctrination into the deforming bootstrap and rising tide myths.

When there are rising tides, the boatless always suffer—but in the U.S. we have decided to live as if that is the fault of the boatless.

Harvey’s devastation of Houston exposes once again the fragility of humans against the enormity of Nature, but it also unmasks the emptiness of the American character, unwilling to put community first because the dollar matters more than any person, even a child.

The Great Deforming Myth is the Invisible Hand that may or may not provide for you—unless you hit the birth lottery.

Like the Bundren family—mostly a clan of deeply selfish and bitter humans—standing on the river bank and watching Addie’s coffin tumble and bob in the churn of the flooded river, Americans watch Houston drown on smart phones, tablets, and 24-hour news channels.

The ugly subtext of As I Lay Dying is that Addie’s family members are using her death and burial to cash in on something they have been otherwise denied. Their journey through fire and flood seeks the cover of a grieving family to mask their pettiness, their emptiness.

In the receding waters of Harvey, we should consider that Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, has crafted the Great American Novel, and the characterization is not pretty.

Bonus Pop Culture Scene Refuting of the Rising Tide Myth

School Zones: A Meditation

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

No good route exists for my drive from my house to my university; my commute is a Groundhog Day of the Southernism “Can’t get there form here.”

To avoid the daily morning ritual of accidents on the interstate I could use to make that drive quicker, I tend to snake my way along back roads, and on that journey, I typically pass through two school zones—a high school near my house and then an elementary school closer to the university.

Both school zones bring traffic to a crawl, and then often, to a stop as crossing guards shepherd teens and children across the road to their schools.

These crossing guards are armed only with day-glo vests and matching wands to protect students from 4000-pound automobiles and the increasing reality that drivers are distracted by their smart phones.

The paradox of this cavalier optimism, this nod to the greater decency of people confronted with the frailty of children, is that schools have increasingly become more and more prison-like—police in the hallways, doors locked, intercoms to screen any who try to enter the building, and discipline codes and practices that parallel and even intertwine with law enforcement.

School zones and barricaded schools contrast sharply, however, with the broader disdain for and disregard for the conditions of children’s lives in the U.S. The largest group of people suffering in poverty are children, and this reality is far worse in the U.S. than many other countries.

And despite efforts to control students as well as protect them from the gun violence that the U.S. views as normal beyond the walls of schools, the U.S. also has more school shootings than almost four dozen other countries combined.

Our daily behaviors also reveal that too often our care for our own children, and children who look like us, exposes our disregard for “other people’s children”—in the cruel tolerance for corporal punishment as somehow just parenting and the rush to punishment in grade retention that negatively impacts poor children of color.

In our caustic and calloused political debates about healthcare, school choice, public monuments, and more, the absent voice is always that of children, and they are also rendered invisible as if our policies are not ultimately the world in which these children live.

No child chooses their parents or their places of their birth and living.

It may seem cliche, but there is no doubt that a people should be judged by how they treat their children.

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most powerful country in history. How we spend public funds and the laws as well as policies we implement are who we are.

Crossing guards in day-glo vests raise their orange wands to oncoming traffic all across the U.S. throughout the academic year, and drivers stop their cars while children laugh and even skip across the road to their schools.

It is in those moments mornings and afternoons that who we could be passes right by us.

Who we are remains in the tragedy of Tamir Rice, mostly ignored, mostly forgotten. Just a child who may himself have been shepherded across a road by a crossing guard in a school zone.

Who we are remains to be a truly negligent people unable to put grand ideals into our daily behavior, driven by a nastiness and callousness that in the future will be an ugly monument that tells a story of how we failed despite all the opportunities before us for being good and kind.

Essential Logic Fail of the Right in the US: 9 Seconds of Deadpool

As one example that can be extrapolated to most of the arguments on the Right (think the recent monuments and flags debate), consider the complaints that NFL players are being “political” by protesting peacefully during the national anthem. To wit:

  • Standing for national anthem = POLITICAL ACT
  • NFL playing the national anthem = POLITICAL ACT
  • Telling people not to protest = POLITICAL ACT

The logic flaw is grounded in this: People call “political” anything they dislike, don’t agree with; their own views appear “right” and thus “not political.” This is lazy thinking, and self-contradictory.

And thus, 9 seconds from Deadpool: