YES, BOTH, AND

Both-And

I’m always interested to go to LOEX. One of the most valuable benefits I find from this conference is often the push to better understanding my own thoughts and feelings about a given topic. Usually, there’s a presentation I can’t stop thinking about, even (especially?) when I don’t agree with what’s being said.

This year, the session I can’t stop thinking about was Eamon Tewell’s The Problem with Grit: Dismantling Deficit Models in Information Literacy Instruction. Tewell had a well-argued point that the pervasive theories of grit and growth mindset (as espoused by Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck, respectively) place the responsibility for learning at the individual level without regard for the “systemic forces (that) control individual behavior.” Mindset, he says, doesn’t provide resources. Without resources, all the positive thinking in the world won’t get you far if it “require(s) students to adapt to a broken system.” This is, unsurprisingly, a call for the application of critical pedagogy.

In his rhetoric, Tewell suggests that passion and perseverance are less than social structures. The individual can’t swim upstream against the power and pressure of the group. While I wholeheartedly agree that social structures, institutions, and systems are often broken and often do not serve the individual, I do not agree that individual agency makes no difference in the “success and achievement” equation.

I do not see the concepts of grit and growth mindset as being at odds with the asset-based pedagogy Tewell advocated for towards the end of his presentation. These concepts as examples of deficit mindset, he says, are focused on “fixing” what is “wrong” with the individual, rather than fixing what is wrong with institutions. I would argue that victimizing the individual by telling them that they are powerless to overcome broken systems is the original deficit mindset. And yet, this approach does not directly fix a broken system, so I maybe I’m teaching deficit models by default? Somewhat unsurprising, I suppose, given that I taught Mindset by Carol Dweck in First Year Seminar.

While I do not agree with disregarding concepts of grit and growth mindset comprehensively, I can wholeheartedly get on board with the concepts of asset-based pedagogy. I have worked for many years to advocate for dismantling deficit models of information literacy education in my institutions. Part of this work involves repeatedly reminding myself and others that students are not ignorant, empty vessels waiting to be filled with our expert knowledge, but instead people who know things that they can contribute to the classroom. When we begin an instruction session with what students can do rather than what they can’t do, we are not only getting at information literacy but also at metaliteracy, all while empowering them to use the knowledge they already have as groundwork for new information. This focus on can instead of can’t is the core of asset-based pedagogy.

One of the things I’m working on in my personal life is the “AND” principle – holding more than one thought or feeling together at the same time. For example, our transition to a new living situation this year has been really hard AND it has been an amazing opportunity. I’m sad that my son is no longer a baby AND I’m excited for what comes next for him.

And so, I’m wondering if we can apply the “AND” principle to these discussions surrounding the role of individuals and institutions. Can we say that an individual’s belief in the his/her power to grow, learn, and change is a critical component in the ability to grow, learn, and change AND that having a great mindset isn’t always (usually?) enough to overcome broken systems and social structures? Can we say that perseverance is the main predictor of long-term achievement AND that perseverance alone won’t help a human grow wings any time in the near future?

Here’s what I know from my own experience. All the positive thinking in the world won’t make much difference without access to good medical care; however, access to good medical care won’t make a difference without the perseverance to commit to treatment. In music school we used to say, “Work beats talent when talent doesn’t work,” and yet, all the work I put in didn’t magically launch me past all of the brokenness of modern classical music. But neither would fixing what’s broken with the system have made a difference if I hadn’t put in the work.

So I guess what I’m saying is YES, BOTH, AND. Growth mindset AND asset-based pedagogy. Improving the individual AND improving the institution. Can we have BOTH?

AND also, maybe, sometimes, your house doesn’t need renovating.

So thanks, Eamon Tewell, for pushing me to push back. It was worth the trip to Houston.

P. S. For more thoughts on this presentation, you can read Veronica’s take on academia’s emphasis on text, another great mind-bender from this presentation.

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