The Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset

Olivia is deputy director and former special education teacher at Phoenix Charter Academy, in Chelsea, MA. She volunteered to role-play a teacher getting feedback and not handling it well. The guy holding the camera is my colleague and Olivia's husband, Randall. This first video, entitled "You're Wrong I Rule," is about 4 minutes. You'll love the non-verbal communication.

Now let me back up.

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Carol Dweck is a popular read in schools these days. She's a psychologist who wants people to become self-aware of "fixed mindset."

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Her work is supposed to operate in 2 ways. Convince kids that they can improve if they work hard. Convince teachers of the same thing about themselves.

A problem for all of us is it's easy to reflexively think: Oh, that's not me. I'm "growth mindset" -- not fixed.

But in real life, faced with critical feedback, we all sometimes become defensive, and revert to fixed mindset. (Including me. Especially me?) Because of dopamine.

Our teacher residency half-jokingly describes these defensive reactions as "The Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset." These are "types of reactions" that the skilled teachers (coaches) sometimes get from trainees (on the receiving end of feedback). These reactions also frequently happen when a teacher gets "data that is a downer" -- like 74% of your kids failed the interim assessment.

1. You’re Wrong I Rule

2. You’re Right I Suck

3. Blame it On The Rain

4. Optimist Without a Cause

We write:

The first two, You’re Right I Suck and You’re Wrong I Rule, come from a very similar place. In both cases, people who do these read any piece of data on themselves as being Personal (It’s my fault), Pervasive (This is me in a microcosm), and Permanent (There’s nothing to be done about it). The difference between the two behaviors is that people who go to You’re Wrong I Rule have built up some nice defensive mechanisms that outwardly deny the validity of the data, while internally feeling the sting. If it didn’t hurt—if it wasn’t dangerous—the data wouldn’t engender such powerful responses.

While those two horsemen are defined by giving the data too much power, the next two are united by the way in which they don’t give the data enough. With both Blame it On The Rain and Optimist Without a Cause, the data never makes its way in. In both cases, it gets dismissed a priori to the teacher having to ever really grapple with it as being useful or valid to their practice. This happens in two different ways.

Optimists Without a Cause deny the weight of the feedback by minimizing it relevant to all of their other strengths. It’s not that the data is wrong—it’s just that it’s really not that big of a deal. Problems are small; solutions easy.

People who go to Blame it On the Rain, on the other hand, are willing to admit that the critical feedback is important, but compartmentalize it and treat it as so specific to circumstance that it defies generalization. In other words, it may have been a big deal on that day, with those kids, but long-term—nothing to worry about.

In each case, the teacher feels like it's just a good discussion about "what really happened," while the coach perceives the discussion as resistance to change.

Everyone who knows me knows this: my personal go-to defensive move is definitely #1. This is the way I play it.

Here are the other videos where Olivia demonstrates these reactions. Enjoy.

2. You’re Right I Suck

3. Blame it On The Rain

4. Optimist Without a Cause

There's one complication here. What happens when the feedback is, in fact, wrong? In the real world, teachers are on the receiving end of dumb feedback all the time. I don't have any good answers for that, besides (hopefully) find a school where you love and trust the leaders.

Luckily, in our small teacher residency, our coaching is permission-based -- i.e., you don't enter the program unless you specifically want precisely our coaching, and at any time, if the coaching isn't leading to clear improvement (in the sole opinion of the trainee), we happily help the trainee "healthily" exit the program and find a job or opportunity or program that is a better fit.