SSC discussion: growth mindset

post by tog · 2015-04-11T15:13:59.432Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 18 comments

(Continuing the posting of select posts from Slate Star Codex for comment here, as discussed in this thread, and as Scott gave me - and anyone else - permission to do with some exceptions.)

Scott Alexander recently posted about growth mindset, with a clarificatory followup post here. He discussed some possible weaknesses of its advocates - as well as their strength. Here's a quote outlining the positions discussed:

[Bloody Obvious Position]: innate ability might matter, but that even the most innate abilityed person needs effort to fulfill her potential. If someone were to believe that success were 100% due to fixed innate ability and had nothing to do with practice, then they wouldn’t bother practicing, and they would fall behind. [...]

[Somewhat Controversial Position]: The more children believe effort matters, and the less they believe innate ability matters, the more successful they will be. This is because every iota of belief they have in effort gives them more incentive to practice. A child who believes innate ability and effort both explain part of the story might think “Well, if I practice I’ll become a little better, but I’ll never be as good as Mozart. So I’ll practice a little but not get my hopes up.” A child who believes only effort matters, and innate ability doesn’t matter at all, might think “If I practice enough, I can become exactly as good as Mozart.” Then she will practice a truly ridiculous amount to try to achieve fame and fortune. This is why growth mindset works.

[Very Controversial Position]: Belief in the importance of ability directly saps a child’s good qualities in some complicated psychological way. It is worse than merely believing that success is based on luck, or success is based on skin color, or that success is based on whatever other thing that isn’t effort. It shifts children into a mode where they must protect their claim to genius at all costs, whether that requires lying, cheating, self-sabotaging, or just avoiding intellectual effort entirely. When a fixed mindset child doesn’t practice as much, it’s not because they’ve made a rational calculation about the utility of practice towards achieving success, it’s because they’ve partly or entirely abandoned success as a goal in favor of the goal of trying to convince other people that they’re Smart.

 

Carol Dweck unambiguously believes the Very Controversial Position. 

18 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Alexandros · 2015-04-12T09:34:09.544Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This whole conversation sounds to me like people arguing whether width or height is a more important factor to the area of a rectangle. Or perhaps what percentage of the total each is responsible for.

It seems we humans are desperate to associate everything with a single cause, or if it has multiple causes, allocate causality to x% of multiple factors. However, success quite often has multiple contributing factors and exhibits "the chain is as strong as its weakest link" type behaviour. When phrased in terms of the contribution width and height make to the area of a rectangle, a lot of the conversation sounds like a category error. A lot of the metaphors we try and apply quite simply do not make sense.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-17T15:17:41.588Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Whether or not the [Somewhat Controversial Position] and the [Very Controversial Position] matters for education.

comment by emr · 2015-04-14T05:24:26.987Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The discussion itself is a good case study in complex communication. Look at the levels of indirection:

  • A: What is true about growth, effort, ability, etc?
  • B: What do people believe about A?
  • C: What is true about people who hold the different beliefs in B?
  • D: What does Dweck believe about C (and/or interventions to change B)?
  • E: What does Scott believe about C (by way of discussing D, and also C, and B, and A)?

Yikes! Naturally, it's hard to keep these separate. From what I can tell, the conversation is mostly derailing because people didn't understand the differences between levels at all, or because they aren't taking pains to clarify what level they are currently talking about. So everyone gets that E is the "perspective" level, and that D is the contrasting perspective, but you have plenty of people confusing (at least in discussion) levels ABC, or A and BC, which makes progress on D and E impossible.

comment by jbay · 2015-04-16T06:15:03.087Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted because I think this is a really good point, which is almost totally missed in the surrounding discussion.

For example, it's interesting to see that a lot of the experiments were directly attempting to measure C: The researcher tries to persuade the child to believe something about A, and then measures their performance. But then that research gets translated in the lay press as demonstrating something about A!

I feel that if emr's post were put as a header to Scott's, the amount of confusion in the rebuttals would be reduced considerably.

Incidentally, I've observed a similarly common difficulty understanding the distinction between derivative orders of a quantity, eg. distinguishing between something "being large" vs. "growing fast", etc. This seems less common among people trained in calculus, but even then, often people confuse these. I see it all the time in the press, and I wonder if there is a similar level-hopping neural circuit at work.

For example, there are three or four orders of differentiation that exist in common discussion of climate change, eg:

  • A: Scientists recommend that atmospheric CO2 be kept below 350 ppm.
  • B: Canada emits only about half a gigaton of CO2 per year, whereas China emits nearly twenty times that much.
  • BB: Canada emits 15.7 tons of CO2 annually per capita, among the highest in the world, whereas China emits less than half of that amount per capita.
  • C: China's emissions are among the fastest-growing in the world, up by nearly 500 million tonnes over last year. Canada decreased its emissions by 10 million tonnes over the same period.
  • D: The growth in Canadian oil-industry emissions could slow if low prices force the industry to reduce expansion plans.

Et cetera...

Ostensibly what actually matters is A, which is dependent on the fourth integral of what is being discussed in D! People end up having a very hard time keeping these levels distinct, and much confusion and miscommunication ensues.

I wonder -- do you think students of calculus will be better at understanding the levels of indirection in either case?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-17T15:22:35.468Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

[Bloody Obvious Position]: innate ability might matter, but that even the most innate abilityed person needs effort to fulfill her potential. If someone were to believe that success were 100% due to fixed innate ability and had nothing to do with practice, then they wouldn’t bother practicing, and they would fall behind. [...]

[pollid:860]

[Somewhat Controversial Position]: The more children believe effort matters, and the less they believe innate ability matters, the more successful they will be. This is because every iota of belief they have in effort gives them more incentive to practice. A child who believes innate ability and effort both explain part of the story might think “Well, if I practice I’ll become a little better, but I’ll never be as good as Mozart. So I’ll practice a little but not get my hopes up.” A child who believes only effort matters, and innate ability doesn’t matter at all, might think “If I practice enough, I can become exactly as good as Mozart.” Then she will practice a truly ridiculous amount to try to achieve fame and fortune. This is why growth mindset works.

[pollid:861]

[Very Controversial Position]: Belief in the importance of ability directly saps a child’s good qualities in some complicated psychological way. It is worse than merely believing that success is based on luck, or success is based on skin color, or that success is based on whatever other thing that isn’t effort. It shifts children into a mode where they must protect their claim to genius at all costs, whether that requires lying, cheating, self-sabotaging, or just avoiding intellectual effort entirely. When a fixed mindset child doesn’t practice as much, it’s not because they’ve made a rational calculation about the utility of practice towards achieving success, it’s because they’ve partly or entirely abandoned success as a goal in favor of the goal of trying to convince other people that they’re Smart.

[pollid:862]

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-17T18:56:10.411Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The Bloody Obvious Position is bloody obviously incorrect when applied to things which actually do depend 100% on innate ability (breathing, for instance).

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-17T19:35:09.843Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are different ways to breath and training can make the way people breath more efficient.

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-18T00:43:48.251Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So insteead of "breathing" use "ordinary breathing". Or "breathing sufficient to survive".

Breathing is an extreme example, but the statement fails on any hypothetical where practice is not needed. I was hoping that nobody would bother trying to fight the hypotehtical, but alas.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-18T00:59:17.277Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So insteead of "breathing" use "ordinary breathing". Or "breathing sufficient to survive".

That's a bit like saying "Playing chess requires no skill at all." You just have to memorize a fairly trivial set of rules of how pieces move. Even if you violate the chess rules you likely still survive the experience, so playing chess is completely about innate ability.

A lot of people simply breath poorly because they don't practice breathing well. It's actually a quite good example of how the growth mindset where you are aware that you can improve breathing through practice actually allows you to improve while you wouldn't otherwise.

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-18T06:17:02.465Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Playing chess requires skill. Playing chess poorly doesn't require a lot of skill.

When making statements about X, X is permitted to be a clause which includes both a noun and qualifiers. X does not have to be a single word. If I assert that there is at least one X such that X requires no skill, X can be "breathing sufficient to survive" or "chess played poorly" or some other phrase which contains a qualifier, and still legitimately demonstrate the truth of the assertion.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-18T11:34:26.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

X can be "breathing sufficient to survive"

People do die as the result of poor breathing so "sufficient" isn't that clear either.

"chess played poorly"

That's no description of an ability. We don't take about whether Alice or Bob are better at "chess played poorly". When we talk about abilities we generally do take about things that aren't binary.

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-18T14:35:51.949Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

People do die as the result of poor breathing so "sufficient" isn't that clear either.

I've never heard of anyone dying as a result of poor breathing related to lack of skill in breathing.

I think you're trying to fight the hypothetical. Do you seriously think there is no X such that I can say that X doesn't require any skill?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-18T18:24:26.807Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think the word ability is pretty synonymous with skill.

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-18T19:43:03.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a bit like saying "Playing chess requires no skill at all." You just have to memorize a fairly trivial set of rules of how pieces move. Even if you violate the chess rules you likely still survive the experience, so playing chess is completely about innate ability.

That quote clearly is an attempt by you to contrast skill with ability, and to equate "requires no skill" with "is about innate ability". You can't mean for skill and ability to be synonymous in that.

comment by peter_hurford · 2015-04-11T17:31:38.367Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Also see this reply by econblogger Noah Smith.

comment by dxu · 2015-04-12T03:14:57.873Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Scott seems to think that his graph, if true, contradicts Dweck's idea. But I think that his graph is exactly Dweck's idea.

Scott has responded to this in his latest update:

Nevertheless, some people thought I was denying the Bloody Obvious Position. Other people thought I was accusing Carol Dweck of denying the Bloody Obvious Position (see eg here). This despite my making sure to say:

I want to end by correcting a very important mistake about growth mindset that Dweck mostly avoids but which her partisans constantly commit egregiously.

I believe the Bloody Obvious Position. Dweck believes the Bloody Obvious Position. I acknowledge that Dweck believes the Bloody Obvious Position. There are a lot of growth mindset partisans online who don’t believe the Bloody Obvious Position, and I satisfied my urge to yell at them, but now they’ve been yelled at, and the more important issues debated by reasonable people still remain.

comment by torekp · 2015-04-12T11:13:49.232Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Noah Smith steelmans Dweck's idea beyond recognition, almost unto triviality. Smith says that the growth mindset is a belief about the effectiveness of effort at the margin rather than on average. But how do economists understand "at the margin"? I'm not an economist, but it seems to be roughly "improvement per additional resource invested." And how much can innate ability improve per additional resource invested? Does that question even make sense?

Scott, despite his admitted biases, steelmans Dweck in a very useful way. He points to the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs, and tentatively notes that Dweck's thesis about belief-in-effort seems to work better if we interpret that as implicit-belief-in-effort. As I suggested on Scott's blog, though, this actually takes the sting out of some of Scott's worries about Dweck.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-13T08:04:39.806Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant: stereotype threat and testosterone

The important thing here is that gender sterotypes are merely a subset of an ability focused approach. Telling kids you are smart, or that your gender does well on these tests is roughly the same thing. High-T people (competition-oriented) react very positively to an idea that they have more ability than others, and very negatively to the opposite. Low-T people don't really seem to care much.

At any rate, split kids into two class. Put the low-T kids into a class with a growth mindset, and feed high-T kids with ideas that they have superb innate ability.