In early 2017, the Mindset Scholars Network launched a new interdisciplinary initiative, called Mindsets and the Learning Environment, to explore how school and classroom environments shape students’ mindsets about learning. With funding from the Raikes Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, the project’s aim is to rapidly generate scientific evidence about how schools and educators at all levels can convey messages to students that they can grow their ability, that they belong and are valued at school, and that what they are doing in school matters.

Eight research projects have been launched as part of the initiative. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over a dozen external collaborators. The projects span a wide range of topics, from exploring how teacher practices cultivate learning mindsets and identity safety in K-12 classrooms, to the relationships between learning mindsets and neural processes throughout adolescent development.

This is the latest in a series of eight posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each research project to find out more about the questions they are exploring, what they are learning, and how their work is advancing the field of mindset science.

The next project we’re highlighting, Developmental neural and psychosocial correlates of mindsets among low-socioeconomic adolescents from two cultural groups, is led by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Mindset Scholar Camille Farrington. Mary Helen described the project as an opportunity to add a “broader contextualization of mindsets” and to ground research in the rich, lived social experiences of students.

Who are the members of the research team?

Mary Helen is an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and Camille is a senior research associate and the managing director of the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago. Other teammates include Xiaofei Yang and Christina Krone, from Mary Helen’s lab. This interdisciplinary group includes experts in neuroscience, developmental psychology, education, survey design, and data analysis.

“I was immediately captivated by [Mary Helen’s] research and also really appreciated her practitioner-educator perspective.”

Both Mary Helen and Camille have experience as practitioners, having taught in K-12 classrooms. In describing how they began their work together, Camille explains, “I was immediately captivated by [Mary Helen’s] research and also really appreciated her practitioner-educator perspective and how she really was thinking about questions that are of important practical significance to teaching and learning and adolescence — all of the things I care about.”

What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?

Relationships between neural development and mindsets

Scientists have long known that significant neurological development occurs during adolescence. But how might those neurological changes be related to the ways adolescents develop learning mindsets? This is one of the key questions this project explores.

An important element of the research is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analyses on the default mode network (DMN), a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain.

The DMN was chosen for analysis due to its potential relationship with mindsets. Research has shown that this area is activated when individuals call up their own beliefs or reflect on their own (and others’) psychological qualities. By exploring DMN activation patterns, and analyzing how they change across adolescence and how those changes correlate with students’ reported mindsets and environmental factors, the team is hoping to learn about how neurological development, mindsets, and learning environments are related to one another over time.

The role of environments and culture on the way adolescents’ mindsets develop over time

This project builds on a larger study that Mary Helen began for her National Science Foundation Career Grant, which was awarded in 2012. Her research team recruited students from two distinct cultural backgrounds to participate in the study. In addition to collecting fMRI data, they are collecting extensive data on students’ social and academic lives, with a focus on their experiences both in and out of school, and their social-emotional functioning. Doing so allows the research team to explore trends in the way social and cultural factors influence the development of neural networks as well as the behavioral changes associated with the neurological shifts, including students’ reported mindsets.

About the data

Most mindset research relies on self-report survey measures to explore students’ beliefs. In this project the research team is using self-report measures, including the Becoming Effective Learners (BEL) survey, along with longitudinal neuroimaging data and extensive longitudinal data from interviews. Cognitive measures are also collected, including IQ and executive control. By incorporating multiple modes of measurement, the team hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the relationships among underlying neurological processes, students’ experiences both inside and out of school, and their reported beliefs. They also hope to learn about how individual differences in the neural and psychological processing of social emotion may relate to the development of mindsets, and to gain insights about how to most accurately measure these relationships over time.

“It was the perfect opportunity to start to build liaisons between the kind of work that we do.”

Explaining why the research team decided to use these different datasets in one project, Mary Helen said, “It was the perfect opportunity to start to build liaisons between the kind of work that we do and the standardized measures of psychological constructs that we know are correlated with success in school.” Mary Helen and her team had been collecting the fMRI and psychosocial data for several years. By now administering the BEL survey measures Camille developed, the team is able to explore relationships between social-emotional neural processing over time and the survey measures, in order to understand relationships in a more nuanced and practically meaningful way.

53 adolescents from public high schools in Los Angeles participated in the study. All of the students were first-generation U.S. citizens, with parents who emigrated as adults from either Latin America or East Asia. Data were collected from participants at multiple points in time, first when they were between the ages of 14-16 and again two years later. The study participants underwent fMRI scans each time, and extensive psychosocial interviews, as well as standardized testing. During the scans, participants listened to stories that were designed to elicit strong emotional responses, (e.g., the story of activist Malala Yousafzai) and reported the strength of the emotions they were feeling.

A key component of the project is the use of interviews to better understand how students’ cultural contexts and environments influence the development of learning mindsets. The interviews included questions about the quality of participants’ family relationships, their cultural identity, whether they had witnessed community violence, and how they viewed their future possible selves. One focus of these interviews in each case was the youths’ psychosocial capacities for meaning-making.

The BEL survey was administered to participants after their second visit to the laboratory. The survey measures constructs that have been shown to relate to positive academic outcomes, including students’ sense of belonging in school, their mindset about intelligence, and their time management skills.

Initial findings

Initial findings suggest that study participants who showed evidence of more complex, empathic emotional responses to the stories they heard during their interviews and later saw again during fMRI scans, showed tighter real-time correlations between their neural activity and reported feelings, and reported higher levels of belonging and greater endorsement of a growth mindset on the BEL survey. These preliminary results suggest that flexible perspective-taking and capacities for abstract thought in the context of emotional responses to social stories may be related to mindset development over time. Interestingly, these findings were independent of IQ, implying that they are not related to general intelligence but to social-emotional capacities specifically.

What are the next steps for the project?

The research team is continuing to analyze its data to explore patterns in neural activity and assess how they differ by subgroups and reported experiences. More specifically, the team is continuing to analyze the fMRI data to better understand the longitudinal change in the relationship between real-time brain processes and complex social emotion experiences over time.

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