Growth Mindset and Learning about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Why is it so hard for people to talk and learn about equity, diversity, and inclusion? In this post I argue that part of the answer is that many people have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning about these things.

Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindset helps to explain why people react differently to challenging situations. In broad strokes, people with a growth mindset believe that ability (as it relates to that situation) can be developed, even when one fails to overcome that challenging situation; people with a fixed mindset approach the same challenging situation with doubt about their ability to overcome the situation despite hard work and they withdraw from the situation to avoid failing.

Mindset changes over time. And, mindset can vary by domain of knowledge–in other words, my self-concept as a learner of mathematics is high and I have a growth mindset about learning mathematics but my self-concept as an athlete is low and I have a fixed mindset about learning sports. (Sidenote: it is important to remember that growth mindset is not a silver bullet–most school-based interventions involving growth mindset have been shown to yield modest effects–and that growth mindset doesn’t make up for inequities in educational opportunities in our society.)

All of us need to learn more about equity, diversity, and inclusion, especially those of us who are teachers. We need to learn about the difference between race and ethnicity, sex and gender identity. We need to learn about our own implicit biases. We need to learn about racism, sexism, ableism, and all other forms of discrimination and bias, at the personal, institutional, and societal levels.

Learning about equity, diversity, and inclusion can be scary, especially for progressive, liberal-minded folks who want to believe that we are fair and good. The thought of being labeled as a racist, sexist, *-ist person can be frightening. However, the truth is that we all carry unconscious biases that cause us to exhibit prejudice despite our best intentions. Instead of thinking of being racist as a binary state, I posit that it is more meaningful and accurate to think of ourselves as being on a journey toward ever more equitable, inclusive, and caring words and actions. We’ll never fully get there, but we still work toward that goal.

There are interesting parallels between ways that people think about learning mathematics and ways that people think about equity, diversity, and inclusion. These parallels have to do with the beliefs that people have about their abilities and the ways that they approach challenging situations. Being racist is not an innate character trait in the same way that having the ability to learn math is not a product of one’s genes.

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Learning math “I’m not good at math. My sister has the math brain in the family.” (implying that there is some sort of “math gene” that they lack and that math skill is a binary trait) “I can learn math with effort and persistence.”
Learning about equity, diversity, and inclusion “I’m a good person. I’m not racist.” (denying the existence of implicit bias, and implying that being racist is a binary trait) “I can learn more about these things with effort and persistence.”
Learning math “I don’t want to attempt this mathematical task because I’m likely to fail and I don’t want to be seen as dumb.” “I will try to learn what is needed for me to attempt this and if I mess up I will learn from that experience.”
Learning about equity, diversity, and inclusion “I can’t raise any controversial topics in my class because I might say the wrong thing and I don’t want to be seen as racist.” “I will try to learn what is needed for me to attempt this and if I mess up I will learn from that experience and take responsibility for any harm caused.”

I draw these parallels because I suspect that appealing to growth mindset might help some educators be more willing to talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Many educators are already familiar with the idea of a growth mindset and actively think about how to use it in their own teaching, so they might be able to see how it also applies to learning about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Most educators I know are trying to do the right thing and aren’t overtly racist and sexist. And yet, we still need to work harder to help more folks see equity, diversity, and inclusion as central to their work.

But a growth mindset approach is not enough. For folks who train others on topics relating to equity, diversity, and inclusion, it is important to set a tone of compassion and humility. Shame and guilt often cause people to withdraw from the conversation and put up defenses.

It doesn’t help that we seem to live in an age when people’s mistakes can be captured on video and shared around the world instantly. Call-out culture makes people nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing. And, our human nature is to want to discredit a person or organization entirely once we’ve found some flaw in them/it. The pressure to be perfect is so great–I understand why some faculty want to just sit on the sidelines and avoid saying anything that could be used against them.

We desperately need to transform classrooms and schools into spaces in which instructors and students can be brave with each other and at the same time offer grace to each other when mistakes occur. Part of the solution is to establish classroom norms that foster these things. (See previous post about some possible norms to use.) Part of the solution might also be to use the growth/fixed mindset framework to help debunk myths about ourselves. I invite you to share other things that could also help in the comment section below.

3 thoughts on “Growth Mindset and Learning about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

  1. Interesting stuff! This gives me kind of an “aha” moment about a conversation I had with a close relative a few months ago. She was saying (as best I remember) that her husband, consistent Republican voter, really resents liberals because he perceives them as labeling people like him as racist. I was saying that liberals I know do think that almost ALL (maybe all) white Americans are racist because of how we grew up, and that we just want people to own it and do something to make things better. But if they see racism in a fixed-mindset way — you’re either racist or you’re not, and it’s just a fixed characteristic — then no wonder they are so offended at the label.

    PS See you later this week at PCMI?!

  2. In my 15 years of doing diversity work, the obstacle is not as simple as progressive/conservative as it is with people who believe everything is fine as-is. These people (usually those who do not/have not experienced systemic oppression) are so focused on their intentions that they don’t see the negative impact of their behavior across difference. When their ineffective behavior is pointed out, they get defensive and accuse others of being too sensitive. Because they have not experienced oppression, they attribute others’ lack of accomplishment to “not trying hard enough.” They don’t see the cultural/systemic nature of inequity and exclusion.

    That being said, the way for all of us to have better, richer, deeper conversations about diversity and inclusion is to start with the reality of how things are and how they got that way. Nobody alive today is responsible for slavery, but some of us benefit from the lingering effects it has in our culture. All of us have biases that we need to confront in ourselves so that we can better pay attention to how we behave with each other. That confrontation of self is a great example of growth mindset…working on the solution instead of getting stuck with the judgment of ourselves and others.

    Once we work on ourselves, we can then focus on the dynamics in our culture that keep the status quo. We need to examine laws and processes, both written and unwritten, that exclude across differences and keep inequity in place.

    This culture change requires a collective progressive growth mindset that answers the question “How do we remove the barriers that limit opportunity in education and business?”

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