Good Interventions Do NOT Have to be Expensive

Good Interventions Do NOT Have to be Expensive

By Cindy Nebel

Last week, this article titled “Exclusive: Growth mindset is ‘bullshit’, says leading geneticist” popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. We’ve talked about growth mindset before (see here and here), so today I’m not going to spend time refuting the claims made in this article exactly. Instead, I’d like to talk about what I see as several fundamental flaws in the argument itself. My goal here is not to argue with TES or with the individual quoted in the article. Instead, I hope that the readers of this post will be better able to read these types of articles with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Issue #1: Consider the Source

I should admit first-off that I did not purchase the full interview, so perhaps this is answered somewhere at the beginning of that article. However, I’m not sure how much this behavioral geneticist knows about growth mindset interventions. My understanding is that he knows quite a bit about the fact that one’s ability to learn and/or persist is related to their genetic makeup, but is that enough to say all growth mindset interventions are ‘bullshit’?

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

A common misconception that we hear is that education and neuroscience are related disciplines and that those who study the brain must know how we learn. While one can inform the other, I promise that training in neuroscience does NOT include an understanding of how those brain processes translate into classroom practices. We often talk about a very necessary dialogue between educators and researchers, because very few individuals have extensive experience in both domains.

My first hesitation when reading this article came from the title. Why did they ask a behavioral geneticist for his opinions about an educational intervention? That’s not to say he couldn’t read that research and develop a decent understanding given his expertise in research design, but he comes to very strong conclusions about something I’m not sure he is fully trained in.

One of the things I appreciate so much about my colleagues here at the Learning Scientists is that we try to approach similar conversations with caution. You can ask us about how cognitive science applies to developmental disorders and we will tell you exactly what we know and admit that we are NOT experts in developmental disorders, so any conclusions we are making need further analysis.

Issue #2: “To think there is some simple cheap little thing that is going to make everybody fine, it is crazy”

Ok, this statement isn’t completely untrue, but there’s only one part of it that is a problem. That problem is his use of the word “everybody”. That’s correct, there’s no one solution that will work for every single learner every single time. The best interventions are flexible and adaptable, but there are processes that work for every learner. And they don’t have to be complicated (see Issue #3).

Issue #3: “Good interventions are the most expensive and intensive”

I would love to see any piece of research that backs up this claim, especially given that it is the opposite of our recommendations. Strategies that will improve education do not have to be these giant curriculum overhauls. (See Megan’s blog from last week for more on this.) Educators can use the same content that they have always used, but reinforce that encoding with retrieval practice (for free) and voila! Retention is improved… A good intervention that is both free and not terribly labor intensive.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Educators work so hard every day to enhance the learning of their students. They shouldn’t be told that they have to spend a ton of money and effort to do so, especially if there is no evidence to support that claim. Myths like this have the potential to hurt the field of education, educators, and worst of all – the students.

Issue #4: “…if it were easy, teachers would have figured it out for themselves”

Would they? We talk a lot about intuition not always being trustworthy (here’s one example). In the linked blog post, a study is discussed where student were asked to either read a passage four times or to read that passage and then write down everything they could remember three times. Students then predicted how well they would do on an upcoming test. Those who repeatedly re-read were grossly overconfident and performed much worse than anticipated. Those who retrieved were underconfident and performed a bit better than they predicted.


So students can’t trust their intuition, but would educators predict anything different? Imagine that you had a classroom full of students who were reading a passage over and over and they were doing so quickly, with ease, and reported that they “really understood it”. It wouldn’t be surprising that you would predict that they would do well on a test later on. Imagine instead that you had a group of students who were trying to retrieve what they had read and they were struggling. They weren’t doing great on the task and reported to you that it was really hard and they didn’t think they understood it at all. On top of being terrified that an administrator would drop by and observe this failed learning assignment, you might be quite nervous about how much they would retain for an exam. BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG! This is a common theme with learning strategies that work – learners have to struggle a little bit (emphasis on ‘little bit’ here) during learning in order for learning to take place! If it’s too easy, they’re not learning anything.

I could go on and on about this (and maybe a future blog post will be devoted to just this point), but the key is that effective learning strategies AREN’T intuitive and for very good reason. That is absolutely not a dig on educators. But that doesn’t mean those strategies are hard per se, just that they don’t always look like they’re working during the learning process.

So no, strategies that are fairly easy to implement do not mean that teachers would have figured it out for themselves. Teachers aren’t dumb, but they do have many competing pressures that don’t necessarily give them the time to sit down and comb through the literature on learning processes and cognition. That’s why we need to chat back and forth, so that we can learn what research is needed and they can learn what research has been done.

So I hope that you will not accept blanket statements like these as fact because they came from a possible expert. Just as you shouldn’t necessarily accept every statement we make as fact. Hopefully we provide enough background research to support our claims and enough explanation as to what works, what doesn’t, when, and why.