Stereotype threat and growth mindset: If we tell students intelligence is malleable, are we lying?
This week at the NCWIT Summit, I heard Joshua Aronson speak on stereotype threat. I’ve read (and even taught) about stereotype threat before, but there’s nothing like hearing the stories and descriptions from the guy who co-coined the term. Stereotype threat is “apprehension arising from the awareness of a negative stereotype or personal reputation in a situation where the stereotype or identity is relevant, and thus comparable.” Aaronson has lots of examples. Remind women of the gender (and implicitly, of the stereotype that says women are worse than men at math) and their scores drop on math tests. Remind African Americans of their race (and implicitly, of the stereotype about African Americans and intelligence) and their scores on IQ tests drop.
I took a picture of one of Aronson’s slides. He observed that most of the tests in the laboratory experiments were, well, laboratory experiments. They weren’t “real,” that is, they didn’t count for anything. So what if we tweaked the AP Calculus test? Typically, the AP Calc asks students their gender just before they start the test, which makes the stereotypes about gender salient. What if you moved that question to the end of the test? Here are the results:
If you ask before, women do much worse than men, as past results have typically shown. If you ask after, the women do better than the men, but the men also do much worse than before! Reminding men of their gender, and the stereotype, improves their performance. Don’t remind them, and they do worse. Which leaves us in a tough position: When should you ask gender?
Now, there is a solution here: Dweck’s fixed vs growth mindset. Many children believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity, so if they do badly at something, they believe that they can’t do better later with more work. What if we emphasize that intelligence is malleable? Writes Dweck in Brainology:
The wonderful thing about research is that you can put questions like this to the test — and we did (Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Mueller and Dweck, 1998). We gave two groups of children problems from an IQ test, and we praised them. We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We praised the children in another group for their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic. We did studies like this with children of different ages and ethnicities from around the country, and the results were the same.
Here is what happened with fifth graders. The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn. When we offered them a challenging task that they could learn from, the majority opted for an easier one, one on which they could avoid making mistakes. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from.
The children praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the problems got more difficult. Now, as a group, they thought they weren’t smart. They also lost their enjoyment, and, as a result, their performance plummeted. On the other hand, those praised for effort maintained their confidence, their motivation, and their performance. Actually, their performance improved over time such that, by the end, they were performing substantially better than the intelligence-praised children on this IQ test.
Aronson and colleagues asked in their Department of Education report: “Does teaching students to see intelligence as malleable or incrementally developed lead to higher motivation and performance relative to not being taught this theory of intelligence?” They did find that teaching a growth mindset really did result in higher motivation and performance. They recommended the strategy, “Reinforce for students the idea that intelligence is expandable and, like a muscle, grows stronger when worked.”
It turns out that, if you teach students about growth mindset, then they are less likely to be influenced by stereotype threat. Dweck writes in her Brainology essay:
Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and their colleagues had similar findings (Aronson, Fried, and Good, 2002; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht, 2003). Their studies and ours also found that negatively stereotyped students (such as girls in math, or African-American and Hispanic students in math and verbal areas) showed substantial benefits from being in a growth-mindset workshop. Stereotypes are typically fixed-mindset labels. They imply that the trait or ability in question is fixed and that some groups have it and others don’t. Much of the harm that stereotypes do comes from the fixed-mindset message they send. The growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences might exist, portrays abilities as acquirable and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped — one that they respond to with renewed motivation and engagement.
Dweck is pretty careful in how she talks about intelligence, but some of the others are not She talks about “while not denying that performance differences might exist” and “portrays abilities as acquirable” (emphasis mine). The Dept of Ed report says we should tell students that “intelligence is expandable.” Is it? Is intelligence actually malleable?
The next workshop I went to after Aronson’s was Christopher Chabris’s on women and the collective intelligence of human groups. Chabris showed fascinating work that the proportion of women in groups raises the collective intelligence of groups. But before he got into his study, he talked about personal and collective intelligence. He quoted Charles Spearman from 1904: “Measurements of cognitive ability tend to correlate positively across individuals.” Virtually all intelligence tests correlate positively, which suggests that they’re measuring the same thing, the same psychological construct. What’s more, Chabris showed us that the variance in intelligence can be explained in terms of physical structures of the brain. Personal intelligence is due to physical brain structures, but we can work collectively to do more and think better.
My Georgia Tech colleague, Randy Engle, was interviewed in the NYTimes a few weeks ago, arguing that intelligence is fixed. It’s due to unchanging physical characteristics of the brain. We can’t change it.
For some, the debate is far from settled. Randall Engle, a leading intelligence researcher at the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, views the proposition that I.Q. can be increased through training with a skepticism verging on disdain. “May I remind you of ‘cold fusion’?” he says, referring to the infamous claim, long since discredited, that nuclear fusion could be achieved at room temperature in a desktop device. “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve solved our energy crisis.’ People were rushing to throw money at that science. Well, not so fast. The military is now preparing to spend millions trying to make soldiers smarter, based on working-memory training. What that one 2008 paper did was to send hundreds of people off on a wild-goose chase, in my opinion.
“Fluid intelligence is not culturally derived,” he continues. “It is almost certainly the biologically driven part of intelligence. We have a real good idea of the parts of the brain that are important for it. The prefrontal cortex is especially important for the control of attention. Do I think you can change fluid intelligence? No, I don’t think you can. There have been hundreds of other attempts to increase intelligence over the years, with little or no — just no — success.”
Is intelligence expandable and malleable, or is it physical and fixed? There is a level where it doesn’t matter. Telling students that intelligence is expandable and malleable does have an effect. It results in higher test scores and better performance. But on the other hand, is it good policy to lie to students, if we’re wrong about the malleability?
Maybe we’re talking about different definitions of “intelligence.” Engle and Chabris may be talking about a core aspect of intelligence that is not malleable, and Dweck and Aronson may be talking about knowledge, skills, and even metacognitive skills that can be grown throughout life. But we say that “intelligence” is malleable, and the work in stereotype threat tells us that the language matters. What words we use, and how (and when) we prompt students impacts performance. If we don’t say “intelligence can be grown like a muscle” and instead say, “knowledge and skills are expandable and malleable,” would we still get the same benefits?
I’m not a psychologist. When I was an education graduate student, I was told to think about education as “psychology engineering.” Educators take the science of psychology into actual practice to create learning systems and structures. I look to the psychology to figure out how to help students learn. While Dweck and Aronson are explicitly giving educators strategies that really work, I worry about the conflict I see between them and other psychologists in terms of the basic science. Is it a good strategy to get positive learning effects by telling students something that may not be true?