Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

The MWS Podcast 128: Barbara Gail Montero on Thought in Action

Our guest today is Barbara Gail Montero who is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. Her work focuses on one or the other of two different notions of body: body as the physical or material basis of everything, and body as the moving, breathing, flesh and blood instrument that we use when we run, walk, or dance. Before entering academia, she was a professional ballet dancer and she’s here to talk to us today about her recently published book ‘Thought in Action: Expertise and the conscious Mind’ which challenges what she refers to as the ‘Just do it’ principle.



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Double Vision

When we try to think critically and to open our imaginations at the same time, a kind of double vision results. At one and the same time we develop our awareness of potential alternatives, making our thinking more flexible, but still remain aware of the limitations of our beliefs, and do not allow our imaginativeness to slip into credulity. We develop meaning but also control belief. It seems to me that developing this double vision is one of the hardest parts of the practice of the Middle Way: but if we are to avoid absolutizing our beliefs we need to develop both meaning and belief. Those of an artistic disposition will find it easier to imagine, and those of a scientific disposition to limit their beliefs to those that can be justified by evidence: but to hold both together? That’s the challenge.

I’ve been reflecting more on the metaphor of double vision, since I heard it used recently in a talk by Jeremy Naydler in the context of the Jung Lectures in Bristol. Naydler used this metaphor in a talk called ‘The Inner Beloved’, which was about the way in which visionary men of the past have maintained images of beloved women that were actually projections of their own psyches (what Jung would call the anima). He spoke of Dante’s vision of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and Boethius’s figure of Philosophia in The Consolations of Philosophy. These were not ‘real’ women, or had the slightest of relationships to real women, but rather became powerful archetypal symbols of the part of themselves that remained unintegrated. They were the focus of yearning, but also the path of sublimated wisdom – never possessed but always beckoning and challenging.

The capacity for double vision is central if one is to cultivate such a figure: for if a man were to project it onto a real woman (or vice-versa) the results could be (and often are)disastrous. “Being put on a pedestal” probably creates conflict when the real person starts behaving differently from the idealisation – for example, needing time of her own away from a relationship. It is only by maintaining a critical sense of how the mixed up, complex people and things in our experience are not perfect and do not actually embody our idealised projections that we can also give ourselves an imaginative space to engage with the archetype itself. Recognising that the archetype puts us in touch with meaningful potentials, showing us how we could be ourselves, and how we could relate to the world, can provide a source of rich inspiration that I see as lying at the heart of what religions and artistic traditions can positively offer us without absolute belief. 

The annunciation, a Christian artistic motif that I’ve previously written about on this site, for me offers an example of the archetypal in its own terms. For most of us, it is much easier to look for the archetypes in art, and separate this mentally from trying to develop balanced justified beliefs with the real people we meet every day, rather than prematurely over-stretching our capacity to separate them by risking archetypal relationships with real people. That’s why lasting romantic relationships need to be based on realistic appraisal rather than seeing the eternal feminine or masculine in your partner, and also why venerating living religious teachers like gods may be asking for trouble.

Personally, I do have some sense of that double vision in my life. My imaginative sense and relationship to the archetypes has developed from my relationship to two different religious traditions (Buddhism and Christianity) as well as from the arts and an appreciation of Jungian approaches. On the other hand, my love of philosophy and psychology provide a constant critical perspective which also provide me with a respect for evidence and a sense of the importance of the limitations we must apply to practical judgement. Sometimes I find myself veering a little too far in one direction or the other, slipping towards single vision rather than double vision, and then I need to correct my course. Too much concentration on cognitive matters can make my experience too dry and intellectual. Underlying emotions and bodily states can then come as an unpleasant surprise. On the other hand too much imagination without critical awareness can reduce my practical resources in other ways, as my beliefs become less adequate to the circumstances.

Our educational system overwhelmingly only supports a single vision, with the separation of the STEM subjects on the one hand from arts and humanities on the other. But a single vision seems to me an impoverished one, even within the terms of that vision. Those with a single vision based on scientific training and values tend to have some understanding of critical thinking, but to think critically with more thoroughness it’s essential to be aware of your own assumptions and be willing to question them – which requires the ability to imagine alternatives. There are also those with a single vision who are willing to imagine, but tend to take the symbolic realm as in some sense a key to ‘knowledge’ of ‘reality’, and thus uncritically adopt beliefs that they can link with their imaginative values. For example, those who, like Jung, find astrology a fascinating study of meaning, often seem to fail to draw a critical line when it comes to believing the predictions of astrology – for which there is no justification.

If it is not simply a product of limited education or experience, a single vision is likely to be associated with absolutisation; because absolutisation, being the state of holding a belief as the only alternative to its negation, excludes alternatives. We avoid allowing ourselves to enter the world of the other kind of vision, then, by regarding ours as the only source of truth, and by disparaging and dismissing the other as ‘woo’ (from the scientific side) or as soulless nerds (from the imaginative). Rather than accepting that we need to develop the other kind of vision, we often just construct a world where only our kind of vision is required. Then we share it with others on social media and produce another type of echo chamber – alongside those created by class, region, educational level, or political belief.

Developing a double vision, then, is an important part of cultivating the Middle Way, and thus also a vital way beyond actual or potential conflicts. A failure to recognise your projection onto someone, for example, creates one kind of conflict, but a failure to imagine may take all the energy out of it and lead to another type of division between you. We may not be able to develop double vision all at once, and it’s best not to over-stretch our capacity for it, but the counter-balancing path is open to you right now from here. Here are some follow-on suggestions on this site: if you’re a soulless nerd, go to my blogs about Jung’s Red Book. If you’re more of credulous “woo” person, try my critical thinking blogs.

Pictures (both public domain): double vision from the US air force and Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’.

The MWS Podcast 127: Tim Farron on Liberalism and the Middle Way

Our guest today is the British politician, Tim Farron. Tim was the leader of the Liberal Democrats from July 2015 to July 2017. He’s been the Member of Parliament for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005 and he’s here to talk to us today about Liberalism, its origins and development, its core values and how it might relate to the Middle Way.



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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.