More than four decades ago, Network member Carol Dweck and her colleagues began a series of studies to understand the origins of learned helplessness in humans. Soon thereafter, former Network interim chair Claude Steele was developing a theory of stereotype threat to understand why individuals with the same high school test scores but different racial group membership got dramatically different grades in college. As this body of work has matured, it has repeatedly shown in randomized controlled trials that students’ beliefs and perceptions, or “mindsets” about learning and school, can affect their motivation, resilience, and achievement in school.
In recent years, mindset research has more widely entered the public eye with numerous stories in the press and Dweck’s 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, as well as Steele’s 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi. In May 2013, Network Co-Chair David Yeager led a national summit on mindsets co-hosted by the White House and the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by the Raikes Foundation. As part of this summit, Yeager led the writing of a white paper summarizing what was known and needed to be known in the field.
In the wake of the White House event, the Raikes Foundation believed that funding an interdisciplinary research network could enable the field to do more than advance any one researcher’s agenda. A network could launch important studies and initiatives that no single researcher or discipline could take on alone.
“It appeared to me that this was research that was really positioned to have an incredible influence on the education sector and on a variety of different aspects of social policy,” said Craig Wacker, Program Officer at the Raikes Foundation.
Previously, Wacker had worked with the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, a similar cross-disciplinary network approach that had led to groundbreaking decisions in the juvenile justice sector, principally informing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to rule out the possibility of a juvenile death penalty. The goal of these networks was to advance progress on major social challenges that could uniquely benefit from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
Wacker was convinced the research on learning mindsets was poised to have an equally important effect in the education and social policy fields. “The question became, how do you amplify and deepen the fantastic work that already exists?”
A network was part of the answer. With leadership from David Yeager, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Barbara Schneider, Professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University, the Student Experience Research Network kicked off in Spring 2015.
“What we realized in writing the white paper [for the White House summit in 2013] was that there were questions about mindsets that were bigger than the psychological perspectives we’d been taking,” Yeager said. While the field is rich with psychological evidence showing the effect mindsets can have on student achievement, “that doesn’t mean we know how [these] ideas play out in policy contexts and certainly not across school settings.”
In response, the Network aims to advance an interdisciplinary research agenda that will expand our understanding of mindsets in social contexts. As one example, the multi-year National Mindset Study launched by the Network will help psychologists, sociologists, and economists understand the learning environments in which a focus on mindsets is most beneficial for students in the transition to high school.
In addition to psychologists, the Network is composed of leading scholars from other social science disciplines that have a long history in education research. These include researchers from statistics, sociology, and economics whose expertise spans developmental stages from early childhood through adulthood, cutting edge advances in study design and measurement, and applications of research to public policy.
The Network will also act as an authoritative body that can speak with a unified voice in disseminating valuable insights to education stakeholders and responding to misinterpretations of mindset research that may arise as the research continues to make inroads in different settings.
The moment is right for a network.
“If you look at the Network, these are people who really care about using knowledge to inform practice,” said Wacker. “They really care about leveraging the science to realize change and help practitioners in ways that improve kids’ lives.”
It’s a unique time for the field, one the Student Experience Research Network hopes is a turning point in using mindset research to improve student outcomes and expand educational opportunity.