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ACE Graduate Chairs White House Meeting on "Academic Mindsets"

on Thursday, 06 June 2013.

Special "Convening" Guides Education Leaders in Achievement-Gap Research

By Andrew Hoyt

On May 16th, Dr. David Yeager, an ACE 11 graduate, served as co-organizer and program chair for a special convening at the White House titled "Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets." An assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, Yeager is a leading researcher in the fields of adolescent development and social psychology.

The convening at the White House, sponsored by the Raikes Foundation and co-hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Education, gathered a diverse group of experts and stakeholders in order to identify channels for using insights from experimental behavioral science in U.S. educational settings.

Yeager and his collaborators at Stanford University—Carol Dweck, Greg Walton, Dave Paunesku and Geoffrey Cohen—have shown that there is more to academic success than raw cognitive ability or curriculum and instruction. Students' mindsets—how school looks and feels to them, from their perspective—can powerfully affect whether students rebound from difficulty and sustain motivation in the face of adversity. Importantly, Yeager and others have designed brief, web-based activities that redirect students' mindsets and unlock their motivation, in some cases resulting in dramatically reduced achievement gaps months and years later.

For instance, researchers have shown that when students believe that intelligence is a fixed trait, unable to be changed, they avoid challenges and respond to difficulty by giving up. However, Yeager and colleagues have developed brief interventions that teach neuroscience facts about the potential for the brain to grow and develop when it works on challenging tasks—called a "growth mindset." When this message has been taught via the Internet to thousands of students around the country, it has resulted in increases in GPA and reductions in course failure rates. Findings are generally strongest among low-income and racial minority students, who may have the greatest reason to question whether educators doubt their intellectual ability—something that makes this research especially relevant for efforts to promote social justice.

Yeager stresses that these interventions are not "magic." "Psychological interventions are carefully-calibrated tools. If we want to use them responsibly to produce educational change at scale, we need to think carefully about how to embed these ideas in everyday practice," says Yeager. "This meeting was designed to bring leaders together to talk about how we can achieve an R&D agenda that empowers practitioners to successfully address unproductive student mindsets and promote educational equality in their classrooms."

As a former ACE middle school teacher at Saints Peter and Paul School in Tulsa, Yeager notes that research on mindsets has much in common with the philosophy education he encountered in Catholic schools. He notes that at the heart of any kind of moral development is a belief that a person can fundamentally be developed and improved, with the right kind of support. He believes that having a "growth mindset" is essential not just for supporting learning but also for creating virtuous adults.

The presentations at the White House convening investigated three areas for future research: understanding how to maximize the effects of mindset interventions, expanding the array of effective practices that instill adaptive mindsets, and developing improved measures to learn from practice.

For Yeager, the work on mindsets exemplifies the fact that simple, well-designed social-psychological interventions can provide cost-effective and powerful ways to reduce achievement gaps and improve student learning. For more on mindsets, Yeager's work in adolescent development, and the White House convening, visit his website.

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