Category Archives: Psychology

Talking to the family within

I recently attended a highly intriguing talk given by Matthew Harwood about Internal Family Systems Therapy. If that sounds like therapy for dysfunctional families, then that’s what I assumed at first too, but the ‘family’ is internal and consists in the different voices within ourselves. The assumption is that we can engage in an integrative process by careful negotiation with those voices. Harwood showed a moving video showing how the technique could be used to help someone with post-traumatic stress from the Vietnam War, but the method seemed to me to have huge potential going beyond formal therapy, and to potentially have a very strong relationship to the Middle Way.

To begin with, the voices were identified using a technique with elements of active imagination and focusing. You look for something in your experience that represents a particular feeling or perspective within you, which could be something you can imaginatively see, hear, feel or intuit. For example, you might have a feeling of anxiety, but also another voice within you that says you shouldn’t really have this anxiety and have nothing to be afraid of. To get closer to the source of such fear, a process of negotiation is needed with the different parts of yourself that may, with the best of intentions, be guarding you from it. The assumption is always that the parts of yourself have your best interests at heart, and should always be negotiated with, never forced. When asked they may well be willing to step aside, if they are in the way. If they’re associated with overpowering emotions, they may even tone them down a bit to avoid overpowering you.

One thing that I found very striking about this approach, and that reflects Middle Way Philosophy, is its assumption that there are no ‘bad’ desires or beliefs, only conflicts and polarisations between them. If one reflects that the different polarised parts of oneself are likely to make use of absolutisations (“You can’t do that!”, “Fear is inevitable”, “God ordained it” and so on) the widespread potential for this approach to help us work with absolutisations becomes obvious. By imagining the absolute belief as a person, or something like a person, that is attached to our desires and thus is not only made up of the absolute belief, we also give it the kind of respect it craves, and we then cease to dismiss it or idealise it in the way we might a mere abstraction.

The therapy talks, in the Jungian sense, about a ‘self’, which I take to be the integrative experience of ourselves beyond these polarising elements. This ‘self’ could be interpreted in an entirely provisional way, as the self that we have so far not identified any absolutisations or polarisations in. As soon as we identify something further within us that appears to be conflicting, we split it off from the ‘self’ and give it a separate identity and a separate respect.

This kind of inner dialogue will be familiar to any reader of Jung’s Red Book, which is full of such dialogues with archetypal characters. Broadly speaking I think we can interpret the Red Book as a similar integrative journey, though obviously one that is more complex than the example I watched on video of a therapeutic intervention with a Vietnam veteran. It seems to me that if we meet archetypal characters like Jung’s (for example, ones that feel like a hero, or a Shadow, or an anima/us, or a wise old man or woman) a very similar approach could be taken to that used in the therapy. If the archetypes are polarising or absolute, then they are obviously projections, and we’ll need to negotiate with them to try to avoid that projection.

The idea of ‘internal family systems’ can perhaps offer a reminder that whatever we do internally also has an impact on our external families, and anyone else we interact with. All of these external people will also have their internal parts, and we can interact with those parts as we do with our own, though of course less directly. So it is no coincidence that the developer of Internal Family Systems Therapy, Richard Schwartz, started off with external families. Surely not only the conflicts between family members, but also all those between people, depend basically on responding to each other in recognition that we are not just single entities?

For further information on Internal Family Systems Therapy see this page.

Picture: Dialogue by Mikhail Gorbhunov CCSA3.0

Second class practitioners? Kegan’s stages, Eternalism, and Secular Buddhism

In recent months I’ve been stimulated into a lot of new thoughts by reading Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. Kegan draws on the tradition of psychology that goes back to Jean Piaget, who first studied the cognitive and moral development of children and was able to isolate distinct stages in that development. But Kegan continues that development model into adulthood, isolating 5 relatively clear (though of course not totally distinct) stages. In each of these stages, it is a new level of awareness that makes the difference from the previous stage, by making what was previously taken for granted a new object of awareness. Using Kegan’s labels, the stages are as follows:

Infancy:  Objects not clearly differentiated

Stage 1: Impulsive Stage: Objects differentiated from each other, but not from self (early childhood)

Stage 2: Imperial Stage: Self recognised as acting in the world, and others as like me. Peer relations are bargains (late childhood, plus 6% of adults).

Stage 3: Interpersonal Stage: Others recognised as having perspectives different from oneself, and view of oneself is dependent on their acknowledgement (usually reached in adolescence). According to Natalie Morad, 58% of the adult population stay at this stage.

Stage 4: Institutional Stage: Truth believed to be formed by the self through reason, and to lie beyond the limitations of relationships, but nevertheless dependent on certain limited sources of knowledge (usually reached in adulthood – by about 36% of the population, often through university education or career demands).

Stage 5: Interindividual Stage: A recognition of differing sources of justification whilst recognising one’s own role in using them. ‘Genuine intimacy’ reached in relationships where independent judgement of each is secure (only reached by about 1% of the population, usually in later adulthood).

What is wonderful about this theoretical model is that it combines psychology, epistemology and ethics in a thoroughly convincing way. It is based on plenty of psychological evidence, and takes into account the complexity and vagueness of our transitions between stages, but nevertheless is able to identify the points of developmental stability that create each of the stages. It’s an immensely rich model, and I expect to be writing a lot more about it in the future. I will put links to some more resources about Kegan’s model at the bottom of this article.

What I’m interested in exploring here, though, is some thoughts about the relationship between the stages in this model, the Middle Way, and Buddhism. The relationship between stage 5 and the Middle Way should be obvious to anyone who explores them both. The Middle Way avoids absolutisations, and absolutisations usually mean taking for granted a particular source of information and its assumptions, whether those assumptions are positive or negative and whether they are found in a religious, political, philosophical, scientific, or whatever other context. At the same time, the Middle Way is not relativistic or nihilistic: it doesn’t assume that all sources of information are equally true. Rather, it’s the responsibility of each of us to make our own judgements about the justification of differing beliefs from different sources. At stage 5, people will start looking beyond the specific set of assumptions that are taken for granted in their starting culture, and look for value in very different approaches. They are thus more likely to be able to break down polarising assumptions (e.g. those of a specific religious tradition or scientific training) and move beyond the limitations of over-specialised experience. Nevertheless, if they’re securely in stage 5, that won’t make them feel hopelessly adrift. Their sense of confidence will be based on bodily experience rather than the absolute authority of particular sources.

Kegan’s stages make it clear why the Middle Way is valuable, and why its use is such an important element of the general human capacity to operate adequately in our changing environments, but also why so relatively few people seem ready to engage with it. If the figure of 1% at stage 5 is correct (which I have taken from Natalie Morad – she does not give a source), then we should not be surprised that most people are simply puzzled by the Middle Way and cannot see the point of it. For those not ready to move on from stage 4, it may seem flakey and over-vague, too reminiscent of the lack of rigour they associate with stage 3. For those still in stage 3, it will probably seem cold and impersonal, just a further puzzling stage 4 phenomenon.

I have recently been thinking about the role these stages play in the Buddhist tradition, where the idea of Middle Way has been preserved and passed down, even if it’s also been mixed with other assumptions. One of the things that’s always puzzled me in the Buddhist presentation of the Middle Way is the lack of even-handedness between the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ that Buddhism identifies as the absolutes to be avoided. Eternalism is considered better, because it is closely associated with the role of lay as opposed to monastic Buddhism. The lay Buddhist, traditionally, aims not to practice the Middle Way but rather to conform to the absolutes of the law of karma, working to achieve merit within the just world-view created by belief in karma and rebirth, so as to gain a better rebirth in the future. Lay Buddhists are second-class practitioners, not generally considered capable of working towards nirvana just yet. But do Kegan’s stages provide a practical justification for this? Is it just that lay-people, caught up at levels 3 and 4, are simply not ready for the subtleties and insecurities of the Middle Way?

Only to some limited extent, I think. For one thing, we cannot assume that most monks or nuns are at level 5: many of them will have similar limitations. Nor can we assume that all lay people are not at level 5: there may be many reasons why they cannot ordain. For another, ordination can offer at best a very crude and discontinuous reflection of psychological stages. If one was to devise a social system that was optimally geared to helping people develop best at the stage they are at, it would not be one that separates people into first and second class practitioners for life, but something much more continuous, more flexible and less subject to potential abuses of power.

These thoughts about eternalism and the division between monastic and lay Buddhism have also led me onto another area of puzzlement in recent years – Secular Buddhism. The Middle Way Society originally arose from a group of people who met in a Secular Buddhist context, but Secular Buddhism is only sometimes, and somewhat incidentally, about the Middle Way (even though there are practical overlaps such as the use of meditation).  For a long time I used to engage in rather fruitless online debates with Secular Buddhists (at least those from the US-based Secular Buddhist Association) in continuing disbelief that they weren’t interested in the Middle Way, which seems to me such an obvious way of combining the strengths of both scientific/ secular and traditional Buddhist outlooks. But I’ve gradually been getting the message that most Secular Buddhists just aren’t interested, and usually won’t even get into discussion about what the Middle Way means, despite its prominence in Buddhist scriptures.

Kegan is beginning to give me a bit more of a general psychological explanation as to why this might be the case. With a few exceptions, most Secular Buddhists seem to be very much in a stage 4 way of thinking. In this case, it is stage 4, not based on traditional Buddhist ideology, but on naturalistic thinking that appeals to the results (rather than the methods) of science.  Many of them also seem to be trained in STEM subjects (sciences, maths, computing) where the basis of education often seems to be heavy on rigorous ways of proving presumed facts but light on imagining other possible perspectives. The chief intellectual publicist of the Secular Buddhist Association, Douglas Smith, is an analytic philosopher, with no evident interest in the ways that Buddhism might offer resources for questioning naturalism. The parallels with lay Buddhism are thus clear. Instead of karma and rebirth, Secular Buddhists of this kind rely on scientific results: but these provide a similar level of relatable security, and thus a basis of mass participation, for the latest generation of Westerners who do not want to accept supernatural beliefs but want an acceptable version of Buddhism.

So, if one concentrates instead on the Middle Way, is this hopelessly limiting oneself to a tiny elite? Well, I don’t think so, for several reasons – even though I can also see why people find the Middle Way a difficult concept to engage with. One reason is that the Middle Way provides a universality of perspective that is missing for those concentrating on stage 4. Stage 4 thinking is typically coherent, but polarised. Stage 4 religious thinkers are polarised against stage 4 secular ones, socialist or ‘liberal’ ones against conservative ones, and so on. It’s vital to encourage as many people as possible to move on to stage 5 for that reason, because it creates the conditions for a dialectical process in which people are able to reconsider their assumptions more profoundly. It’s not about being elitist, because it’s not about aggregating or using power, but rather about encouraging wider awareness. That’s where the critical universalism offered by the Middle Way becomes vital.

Another reason that I’m not too discouraged is that, even if Morad’s figures are correct, I can’t accept that the proportion of stage 5 thinkers is fixed, nor that the boundaries are particularly clear. I would imagine (but can’t demonstrate) that the numbers of stage 5 people are probably on an upward trend, due to rising levels of education, cultural diversity, religious experimentation etc. in the world as a whole. There may be many more stage 4 people around who can be coaxed on to stage 5 than 1% of the population.

A third reason why I think the Middle Way is not simply an idea for an elite is that it also forms a necessary part of our transition from any of Kegan’s stages to the next one. In the tricky transition stage, we cannot absolutise either the previous stage or the next one, but have to remain content with a messy in-between state for a while in order to actually make the transition. We have to let go of an old view of ourselves and others without grasping too hastily at the new one. In a wider sense, the Middle Way is simply a description of how people make progress and address conditions better, whether morally, epistemologically, scientifically, politically, artistically or psychologically. I suspect, then, that there are also ways of communicating it helpfully to people who are transitioning between earlier stages, even if they are not ready to engage with it so fully.

 

Some sources of further information on Robert Kegan’s psychological stages:

Natalie Morad’s article in Medium, part 1 and part 2

A very useful paper by Karen Eriksen giving more detail than Morad

David Chapman’s summary of Kegan’s model (it was from Chapman that I was first alerted to Kegan)

Video of Robert Kegan’s talk to the RSA (highly recommended):

 

Pictures: (1) Robert Kegan by US Navy (public domain). (2) Newari girls (lay Buddhists) by Krish Dulal CCBYSA3.0

The MWS Podcast 130: Daniel P Keating on Epigenetics, Anxiety and Social Inequality

Our guest today is Daniel P Keating, a professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Paediatrics at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of several books including ‘Developmental Health and the Wealth of Nations’, ‘Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development’ and he’s here to talk to us today about his latest book ‘Born Anxious: The lifelong impact of Early Life Adversity and how to break the cycle.



MWS Podcast 130: Daniel P Keating as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_130_Daniel_P_Keating
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When we were very Jung

It was about 2 years ago now when I first read Jung’s Red Book, which had been published in 2009 after sitting unpublished for nearly a century. Although I previously had a long-standing interest in Jung, reading that extraordinary text brought me to a new level of engagement with Jungian ideas, in recognition of their potential strength of connection with the Middle Way. The first fruit of that engagement was a series of blogs (1,2,3 & 4), but then there were also new reflections on Christian symbols that contributed to The Christian Middle Way, the giving of a talk at the Bristol Jung Lectures, and also the writing of a book on the interpretation of the Red Book which I am currently trying to find a publisher for (The Jungian Middle Way). The other aspect of this engagement that I want to reflect on here, though, has been increasing engagement with Jungians. Who are the Jungians? How do they understand themselves? I’m not sure I can really answer that question, but can only give you some impressions. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so baffled by a group of people who in any way shelter under the same label.

There does seem to be a Jungian community – one that gathers in major cities across the Western world for talks or therapeutic training, but that also has a significant online presence. There are a number of Jungian groups on Facebook, and one of their distinguishing features is often how vast they are. The core of that community seems to consist in therapists, but there is obviously also a wider audience from a public that has been grabbed, as I was, by the Red Book, or by earlier popular Jungian writings such as ‘Man and his Symbols’ or the autobiographical ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. Anyone with an imagination can be readily intrigued by Jung.

What I have found most baffling is the range of people and the range of their attitudes. This probably reflects the ambiguities in Jung himself. At his most clear and reflective, Jung is committed to writing only on the basis of experience, whether that takes the form of psychological evidence from patients or from his personal experience. He is unsurpassed, in my view, in his understanding of the meaning of that experience. At his best, he clearly separates archetypal meaning from projections of that meaning onto the world – so, for example, the Shadow is clearly an archetypal form representing our own hatred and rejection, which we should avoid projecting onto people or other entities, but rather symbolise in its own right as Satan or another evil figure (see my earlier blog on evil). In other places, however, Jung relaxes this distinction and drifts into metaphysical assertions (for example in the Gnostic Seven Sermons, near the end of the Red Book), or into groundless empirical assertions – famously including the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, and also including some very dodgy generalisations about gender, nationality and race.

Jungians, I’ve found, are similarly very varied. Some Jungians are balanced, sane, wise, thoughtful, pragmatic people whom I’ve been grateful and honoured to meet. Others are not so wise or discriminating. I am not going to mention any specific names, but here are some of the less balanced types I’ve encountered: the New Age intuitive who takes astrology seriously as a guide to the future; the spiritual intuitive who claims to just KNOW God; the obsessively rigorous scholar who won’t accept anything not clearly proved in the text of Jung’s writings; the pseudo-historian who has a detailed account of a past matriarchal civilisation that he believes could teach us all peace; and the self-appointed online authority who insists that I must be ‘overthinking’ and not using my feeling and intuition if I dare to criticise anything Jung said. Sometimes the Jungian community seems like the nearest we have to a substantial Middle Way community, but at other times it seems like a bunch of credulous hippies, and at other times a rather sinister cult.

It seems to me that perhaps the biggest issue creating this diversity, apart from the inconsistency of Jung’s own writings (and the tendency of some Jungians to absolutise them as a necessary source of truth), is the question of the status of intuition. Intuition is the means by which most of us are able to deal with complex experience readily. We ‘get the gist’ of a situation, or a perspective, or a person through a holistic overview that unconsciously draws on lots of previous experience of similar situations. Those of us who are more inclined to rely on our intuitions may thereby gain an advantage in understanding and preparedness, when compared to someone who tries to work everything out by laboriously matching concepts to what they sense. Intuition also gives us archetypal meaning by unconsciously formatting what we experience. So intuition is not flakey – it’s necessary and everyone uses it. Jung and Jungians, though, perhaps rely on it more than most as a source of insight into psychological forms and relationships.

The crucial issue is that of what intuition can justifiably tell us. On the one hand it can provide a ready access of meaning with which we can understand our experience. However, the problem with Jungianism at its flakiest is the way in which people feel they’re justified in deriving absolute facts directly from intuitions. The meaning gets translated directly into beliefs about the world without going through an intervening process of critical reflection. So that’s why we get people who believe in astrology, think they ‘just know’ God, or know the essential characteristics of, say, Germans, or women, through the operation of intuition. In the terms of Middle Way Philosophy, they are absolutising.

The research on intuition discussed by Daniel Kahneman also shows how unjustified this is. Kahneman compares studies done on the intuition of firefighters and stock traders. Experienced firefighters had excellent intuitions about when a burning building was about to collapse, because the conditions in burning buildings follow a predictable enough pattern to make unconsciously processed information reliable. However, stock traders performed worse than random when they followed their intuitions about which stocks would do best. In the past I’ve written a story about this contrast. The more complex the thing you have intuitions about, the less reliable they are, and the more important it is to slow down and actually think about it and consider the evidence.

Jungianism unfortunately has a bad reputation amongst many people who are scientifically or philosophically trained, because of this unjustifiable use of intuition to draw absolute conclusions. These hard STEM types are missing out on a good deal of very helpful material in Jungian thought. I would urge them to reconsider. But I also really wish that respect for empirical evidence was a more widespread and consistent feature of Jungian thinking than it is. You really don’t have to give up on the riches of Jungian meaning to expect adequate justification for your beliefs. You really can have your cake and eat it here. So perhaps we should all grow up.

 

Some other resources on Jung on this site:

Jung: Middle Way Thinkers Series

Podcast Interview with Stephen Farah: Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Applied Jungian Studies, Johannesburg

Podcast Interview with Helena Bassil-Morozow on Jungian Film Studies

Jung and Nazism

 

Picture: Carl Jung by Charles-Henri Favrod (CCBYSA 3.0)

 

Mindsets and the Middle Way in education

In my job teaching physics to young people from ages 11-18, I often encounter unhelpful absolutisations that act as barriers to the students being able to address conditions. For example, if a student is finding it hard to do the work that I expect them to be able to do, they may say things like “But I am no good at physics!” (absolutising the subject) or “But physics is impossible to understand!” (absolutising the object). Either way, the student who holds these kinds of beliefs has their judgement clouded by the delusions created by conceiving things in absolute terms. If instead, the student can understand the situation incrementally then they’re more likely to be able to follow the most basic imperative in Middle Way philosophy by making judgements about their learning on the basis of beliefs that are as free from delusion as possible. In this article, I explore the connection between the Middle Way practice of incrementality and the ‘mindset’ model in teaching practice.

Two mindsets

The mindset model in education was first proposed by Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett in their 1998 paper A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. In the formulation of this model that is well known in modern educational circles, absolutising one’s self (e.g. “But I am no good at physics!”) is a judgement made by a student with a ‘fixed mindset’. The graphic by Nigel Holmes (below) sums up this belief using the phrase “Intelligence is static”. In my example, the student believes that their intelligence with regards to physics problems is static and cannot be further developed. This maintains a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where the student – in order to save face – avoids challenges, gives up easily when encountering obstacles, sees effort as fruitless and thus ignores useful criticism. They feel threatened by the success of others (whom the student regards as innately and absolutely “Good at physics”) and through a lack of engagement they fail to make the kind of progress with learning physics that they would otherwise make.

The second, more productive mindset is referred to as a ‘growth mindset’. It does not represent the opposite absolutisation (i.e. believing that “I am good at physics!” or “Physics is easy!” – which are really just another kind of fixed but positive mindset) but a middle way which recognises that intelligence can be developed, but only if the subject is willing to allow it to develop. Avoiding the fixed mindset means that a student will embrace (appropriate) challenges, persist in the face of setbacks (to a reasonable extent), and to see effort as the path to mastery. A more adequate self-correcting feedback loop is established because the student is open to learning from useful criticism, and they can find lessons and inspiration from the success of others. By experiencing progress in their study of physics they have a greater sense of being responsible for their ability to learn, avoiding the absolute of determinism.

Why do students believe in a fixed mindset?

As usual, the reasons for the entrenchment of a fixed mindset are complex. However, one really obvious factor is the attitude of influential members of earlier generations: parents, teachers, voices in the media. When some people first discover that I am employed as a physics teacher they seem to be quite happy to immediately tell me that they “were never any good at physics” or that they “dropped physics as soon as they could when they were at school”. I don’t get the impression they’re doing this to avoid feeling intimidated by the knowledge and understanding that I have that presumably they don’t. It appears acceptable to them to believe that people either ‘get’ physics or they don’t – and this sidesteps having to consider whether they were taught in a competent way, or whether they made the necessary effort to learn physics when they were being taught. It may be that they never saw the relevance of understanding physics (which, up to some age, they were compelled to study) and that they’ve never noticed any adverse effects of a lack of physics in their lives so far.

There are also the gender-related expectations communicated (wittingly, or unwittingly) to young people, which vary in their precise details but seem to be well represented in the stereotype of physics and engineering as being “boys’ subjects”. There have been studies of the factors behind gender-imbalance in the take-up of certain A-level subjects in schools in England and Wales, and I’ve been involved in a minor way with the Institute of Physics’ Improving gender balance project which is investigating the effectiveness of different strategies which aim to improve the balance in subjects with a disproportionate number of boys (or girls!). I’ve not done any formal analysis of the numbers of boys and girls who tell me that they’re “No good at physics!” or they think that “Physics is too difficult.” but I certainly hear it from both boys and girls, although perhaps slightly more often from girls.

A third thing that encourages the fixed mindset is the way that famous physicists are presented to students as ‘geniuses’, both in popular culture and perhaps unwittingly also within school education, where we should perhaps know better. Albert Einstein is the classic example. The problem with the genius model of excellence in science is that it reinforces the idea that you have to be innately special to excel at physics, and that it is only a very few people who are lucky enough to have this rare talent. Einstein once made the modest claim that “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” This kind of remark that hints at a growth mindset gets lost in the hype and mythos surrounding Einstein the eccentric genius, the ‘one of a kind’ plaudits, which seem to be so much more palatable to the general public.

Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom

How, then, can I encourage students to believe the growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset? One way is to model a growth mindset myself. At the time of writing, we are five weeks into the new school year and I’m still struggling to accurately remember the names of all the children that I’ve not taught in previous years. The most acute case is my science class of 11 year-olds, who are completely new to the school. I am making a point of explaining to them how I’m going about remembering their names, as it isn’t something that comes easily to me. I’m modelling the growth mindset in action by embracing the challenge with good humour (I’ve got to learn their names, so I might as well have fun doing it), I’m persisting in the face of setbacks (keeping on trying to use their names, even when I get it wrong so often), I’m showing that I’m making an effort (refusing their help until I really really need it, and then encouraging clues rather than just supplying the forgotten name) and I’m learning from their criticism (which more recently has involved them suggesting helpful mnemonics). They’ve helped in this by providing an environment in which it is safe for me to fail over and over again, and by praising my effort rather than any innate ability to remember names with ease.

Providing opportunities for failure to occur in a safe way so that students can learn that (repeated) failure is usually a necessary step towards better understanding a subject. The earlier this can be put into practice, the better – I meet a lot of students (even the older ones, who are working at quite a high level of achievement in physics) who would rather not try at all than try and encounter failure. A classic example of this is students sitting and waiting for me (or someone else) to reveal “the correct answer” to a problem that they are supposed to be trying to solve themselves. A superficial examination of the reasons for this yields answers like “Well, there’s no point me writing stuff down if it is wrong!”.

A third technique involves making careful use of the way that I speak to students about the inherent challenge in the process of learning. The most useful advice I’ve had about this is about appending the word ‘yet’ to fixed mindset phrases that students use: for example, “I don’t get this” becomes “I don’t get this yet” or “I’m not good enough to do the exam” becomes “I’m not yet good enough to do the exam”. The word ‘yet’ is not essential, of course, as can be seen from the example of how “There’s no way I can do this” can become “I can’t see a way of doing this right now.” This more or less seems to amount to skilful use of provisionality markers, as previously discussed in one of Robert’s blog posts.

A fourth involves incrementalising absolutes by persistent questioning to go from the general to the specific. For example, a student who comes to a revision lesson may say “I don’t understand anything in physics!”, to which I respond “Give me an example of something you don’t understand.” and so on until you’ve gone from a blanket rejection of the whole subject to something quite specific, like not realising that a term like ‘resultant force’ just means something like the ‘overall force’, rather than being a new type of force in addition to things like friction, weight, air resistance and so on.

A final simple practice involves a general ‘no hands up’ policy during teacher-led questioning in the classroom. I’ve been amazed at the difference this simple technique makes. Previously, with children putting their hands up to indicate that they want to be picked to answer a question, those who considered themselves to be ‘no good’ at the subject could opt out by not ever putting their hand up. The division between those who considered themselves ‘no good’ and those who thought that they could answer would be reinforced in a feedback loop. A better practice is to make it clear that anyone could be called upon to respond out loud, to pose the question, to give time for all to think about it (no hands up) and then to ask a specific student to share their thoughts. It also helps to praise the effort made, to valorise trying even if it involved failure, and not to praise a student for ‘being correct’ or innately ‘clever’.

Concluding remarks

I’m not claiming here to offer anything radically new in terms of pedagogy. The examples of practice that I mentioned above seem to be the sort of thing that experienced teachers typically do to get students to see that they are capable of making progress, if only they’ll allow themselves – and the fact that they align well with the mindset theoretical framework just gives a pleasing coherence. The experience of students in the past, or in other schools currently, may have been different if teachers did, in fact, tell students that they were “no good” at this subject (or even worse “no good… just like your brother/sister/mother/father was no good at it”), or if the education system itself assumes that students have a fixed mindset and treats them accordingly by severely restricting their possibilities from very early on in their school careers.

I’m also wary of slipping into the mistake of telling children that they can “be anything they want to be, as long as they want it enough”, as that fails to address conditions adequately by absolutising responsibility. I’m told that a lot of children think that they are going to be ‘rich and famous’ because they really, really want to be rich and famous – it is easy to believe this when you see examples of celebrity culture. Maybe that attitude is not so common where I teach, but we can’t ignore the fact that some children will assume that they are ‘no good’ at certain subjects, or even the whole business of learning, because their parents before them were ‘no good’ – and it may be that there is a job waiting for them (in the family business, etc.) which doesn’t require them to have a school-level of understanding in physics! There are many other contributing factors other than the fact that a student ‘really wants’ to succeed, contrary to the popular perception, such as happening to be in the right place at the right time!


Further reading
Picture credits
  • Mindset graphic by Nigel Holmes, professional graphic designer.
  • Satirical Einstein quote, own work.
  • Photograph of me with magnets at a school open evening by Stephen Hill.