It’s Not Their Mindset That’s Holding Children Back At School

Children’s ‘growth mindset’, characters and attitudes to learning have little impact on how well they do at school, according to a new study.

Instead, researchers point to external factors such as school funding, pre-school placements and opportunities outside school as much more important in bringing about meaningful change.

Children’s attitudes to learning has become a focus for intervention in schools over the last decade, most notably the ‘growth mindset’ approach popularized by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck.

And helping to cultivate these social and emotional characteristics has been at the forefront of attempts to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers, with high-profile advocacy both in the U.S. and the U.K.

But these traits account for no more than 9% of the attainment gap, according to researchers at Cambridge, Zürich and Tübingen universities.

And even this is likely to be an over-estimate, as low achievement damages children’s self-belief, they argue.

“Educational inequality cannot be solved through social and emotional learning,” said Dr Rob Gruijters, from the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study.

“The idea that children can overcome structural disadvantage by cultivating a growth mindset and a positive work ethic overlooks the real constraints many disadvantaged students face, and risks blaming them for their own misfortune.”

While researchers acknowledge that social and emotional learning can positively affect learning, they cast doubt on its ability to substantially reduce the achievement gap.

Researchers analyzed data on almost a quarter of a million 15-year-olds across 74 countries from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

They found that the gap between students at the top and bottom ends of the socioeconomic scale was large across all 74 countries: the equivalent of almost three years’ education between the wealthiest 25% and the 25% at the other end of the scale.

But while children from more affluent backgrounds tended to have higher levels of social and emotional skills, this made little impact on the differences in achievement.

The researchers found that if the poorest children had the same social and emotional skills as the richest, this would reduce the learning gap by no more than 9%, according to the study, published in the journal Sociology of Education.

These findings were consistent across countries and the three subjects tested by PISA, math, reading and science.

“Developing social and emotional skills is hugely valuable for children, but the evidence suggests it has little to do with why low income students are more likely to struggle academically,” said Nicolas Hübner, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education at the University of Tübingen and co-author of the study.

“According to our results, it is not a magic bullet for tackling the socioeconomic achievement gap.”

The negligible impact of a child’s attitude to learning may be due to the relatively high level of social and emotional skills overall, researchers suggest.

For example, while 90% of the most affluent teenagers agreed with the statement that they felt proud that they have accomplished things, so did 84% of the least advantaged.

And even the 9% impact may be an over-estimate, if children’s social and emotional skills suffer as a result of low levels of achievement.

“Students who lack the right mindset may perform less well at school, but that may be because their academic performance has eroded their self-belief; not the other way round,” said co-author Isabel Raabe, a researcher in the Department of Sociology, University of Zürich.

Rather than focusing on growth mindsets or attitudes to learning, efforts to close the learning gap should look at the more fundamental reasons for the disparity in achievement between affluent and disadvantaged children, researchers said.

These include differences in the quality and funding of schools, access to quality pre-schools and differences in opportunities to take part in extracurricular and out-of-school activities.

Written by Nick Morrison for Forbes ~ December 18, 2023

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