Art Markman is an expert on what makes people tick. The psychology professor at UT Austin has also become a popular voice working to translate research from the lab into advice for a general audience. He’s co-authored popular books, including Brain Briefs Answers to the Most and Least Pressing Questions About Your Mind. He also writes a blog for Psychology Today magazine, and co-hosts a podcast through Austin’s NPR station called Two Guys on Your Head.
In his writings and podcasting, he’s tackled questions big and small, from commenting on the recent wave of mass shootings—to weighing in on why people like cat videos so much. And he’s full of surprising findings.
Take a recent blog post he wrote about mindfulness, for instance. Markman is not against meditation, and he agrees that taking steps to slow down and reflect without snap self-judgment can have benefits. But he also points out that such practices are not always universally positive. In a recent study done with prisoners, for instance, “the aspect of mindfulness associated with reserving judgment about the self actually increased criminogenic thinking significantly.” And even in a classroom setting, such practices are not helping creativity, according to research.
Markman recently talked with EdSurge about how his insights can help educators. He might just change the way you think about things like growth mindset, comprehensive testing, and encouraging students to make mistakes. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
EdSurge: Why do we humans seem to have so much trouble understanding ourselves? With all the advances in science, you'd think we'd have the human mind figured out a bit more.
Markman: First there’s the scientific question, shouldn't psychology be done by now? And the answer to that question is no. For one thing, psychology is a lot harder than almost any other science. I've often called cognitive science the place where Nobel laureates come to die. Somebody wins their Nobel prize in physics or chemistry and then says, "I'm gonna go fix cognitive science," and then they vanish without a trace. Because the brain is a complicated organ; it's embedded in social systems, in cultural systems, and it's constantly learning. So all of those factors make the mind and brain an extraordinarily difficult topic.
On top of that, as a science, we can't do all of the experiments we'd like to do because certain things are just unethical. You can't break people. You can split an atom; you can't split a person. You can't raise somebody in a closet so that they don't learn a language, right? So that also complicates the science.
Then there's a second half of the question, which is why is it that more people don't know more about psychology in ways that might help them to live their lives? It has to do with the fact that, when we systematized education about 120 years ago. We had to lay down a science curriculum, and the three mature sciences were biology, chemistry, and physics, so they made the cut. A lot of other sciences didn't, including psychology, which in the early 1900s barely wrested itself free of philosophy. And so we don't teach a lot of psychology.
On top of that, the structure of the brain makes it very hard for people to understand themselves well. Our motivational centers that drive a lot of our action are buried deep in the brain. They are brain structures that humans share with rats, mice and deer. All the complex reasoning and storytelling abilities that we have involve brain structures that are literally built on top of that other structure, and they don't have great access to what's going on in the motivational system. When people introspect, when they look inwards to try and understand their own behavior, they are actually telling stories about their own behavior that isn’t necessarily perfectly related to what actually drove that behavior, which is why people need to go into therapy. Because that introspection doesn't necessarily solve all your problems; sometimes you need a trained professional to help you to do it.
And so all of these factors combine to keep the brain a mystery, both to scientists and to everybody else.
One topic that you tackled recently on your blog that struck me is mindfulness. Even some colleges are trying it out as a way to help students. But you point out that research suggests mindfulness is not always positive. Could you talk a little bit about that?
As you say, mindfulness is a big trend these days, and there are a lot of great effects of mindfulness. And in particular, one of the things that mindfulness training can do is to make you more aware of some of your own thought processes and some of the emotional reactions you have to things in the world. And that is associated with better emotion regulation and greater likelihood of sticking with your long term goals. So I always like to preface this by saying I'm not making the argument that mindfulness is this a horrible thing that's being foisted on us. But I think we have to understand what it does and doesn't do. And so if you look at the research, there are a few areas where mindfulness is not helpful.
On the not helpful side is creativity. So you could ask the question, if you do a lot of mindfulness training, will you become a more creative individual? And the answer seems to be not so much; it doesn't seem to hurt, but it doesn't seem to help. What really helps you to become more creative is learning a bunch of stuff and having a wide, broad base of knowledge that you can draw from, and mindfulness isn't going to help you to get there.
You’ve written quite a bit about the concept of growth mindset. What is your take on that?
I've followed this work for a long time. Carol Dweck, who developed a lot of these ideas, she and I were colleagues together at Columbia University for a while before she went to Stanford and I came here to the University of Texas. I think there's a lot of wonderful stuff about this mindset work.
The concept is that you can think about almost any skill that you engage in as either being mostly talent-based or mostly skill-based; talent-based meaning, ‘I'm born with it,’ or skill-based meaning, ‘if I work hard enough at it, I'll get it.’ And what her work suggests is that if you adopt a growth mindset, which suggests that most things are skills, that you will often work harder in the face of adversity because you will recognize that your hard work will allow you to overcome difficulties. Whereas if you believe something is purely talent-based, then when things get difficult, you think, "Well, I guess I've reached the limits of my talent. I'm gonna give up."
And that can have important consequences with student retention?
I wrote about a study not long ago that was really interesting in which they looked at students in a low socioeconomic status school in India, and looked at providing information that would help students to adopt a growth mindset there. There were two findings there that I think should cause all of us who like this kind of work to take a step back and think about it more. And to be fair, Carol Dweck has acknowledged that this is part of her research program, so I'm not criticizing her particularly. But there were two findings of interest here: The first was that the students who were most helped by the growth mindset training were the best students already.
The second thing, though, was that for some of those students, particularly those students who the teachers acknowledged were the most conscientious students, this growth mindset training actually decreased their motivation to come to school. Giving them a growth mindset training actually increased their absentees. And the speculation in this paper was that, for some kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods, they come to school because they're good at it, and so they think there's something special about them that makes them good at this, and this is a place they can go to feel special. And when you give them growth mindset training, inadvertently what you do is to say, ‘Well, it's not really that you're special; it's that you've worked hard.’ And they're not as motivated by that as to be in a place where they were actually the special one, and so it actually undermined some of their motivation to continue to come to school.
And so what this means is that we need to really think carefully about how to take the controlled laboratory studies that we do in order to demonstrate that there's something worth continuing with, and then work hard to figure out what factors affect whether this is going to have an impact on students in ways that will help us to then launch this in a way that helps students, helps the students most in need, and doesn't undermine those students who might be succeeding on other grounds. This is no different than having laboratory studies that suggest a particular treatment might cure cancer, only to find out that it doesn't work as well when you try to use that in patients. So it's the hard work of applying research.
From all of your research and careful reading of the literature, what is your biggest piece of advice for teachers—something that might surprise them about how students learn?
What I would say is that we have a conflicting set of goals when we look at the educational system. On the one hand, we want to train independent, innovative thinkers, and then we want to do that by making sure that all of them get the same answer on the state test. And I think that one of the things we need to do is to really think about how the reward structure that is part of school influences the long-term thinking of students.
A lot of what we want to do is to give students more opportunities to do things that may not be correlated with grades, right? To give students opportunities to make mistakes and to recover from those mistakes—to give students opportunities to answer questions that nobody in the room knows the answer to, give students the opportunity to read stuff that has no bearing on whatever the lesson plan is at the moment. Because those skills in the long run are the ones that are correlated with success after school, and that to me is a real tension.
In the most recent book that you co-authored, Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions about Your Mind, one of the chapters is titled "Do Schools Teach the Way Students Learn?" What is your answer to that one?
I would say is sometimes, but often not.
One of the things that schools do is that they test on material at the end of units and then not again. And one of the things that we know about short term testing is that studying in the moment for a test that's coming up will allow you to learn the material for the test, but then your brain is basically gonna decide you don't need this information anymore if you don't encounter it again. Your brain wants to keep using information when you're forced to keep pulling it out over and over again. And so, even though students hate cumulative exams, those are the ones that actually force them to keep encountering the material repeatedly over the course of a year in order to make sure that it gets in there. So actually forcing them to keep going back to things that learned before in an explicit way is really important.
I think another part of what schools do, and this gets back to something I was saying a little bit earlier, is that schools teach mistake minimization, right? So to get good grades, you have to get the answers on each test correct, which means that the kids with the best grades, generally speaking, make the fewest mistakes. And what that teaches us is really good learning is about never making mistakes. But actually, learning is failure driven; it's when surprising things happen that you're forced to learn new things. And so it's actually the recovery from mistakes that helps people to learn best.
And so what we need to be teaching is yeah, make a mistake, but then you're responsible for fixing it and for understanding the thing you didn't understand. Getting a C is just the first step in a process of actually learning something, not the demonstration that you hadn't learned it.
We focus on technology in education, and these days there’s a lot of talk about trends like adaptive learning and flipped classrooms. How helpful do you think these types of tech innovations will be, or can a low-tech solution be more helpful?
I think technology's just a tool, and so technology alone isn't going to solve problems. For example, I think some of the schools that have experimented a little the inverted [or flipped] classroom, where you have students engage with the lecture outside of the class time and then have more guided activities inside the classroom. There's a place where I think technology can have a real benefit, because why should the teacher deliver a lecture that could just have easily have been engaged with in a more interesting way outside of the classroom, and then save the teacher's expertise for helping to debug misconceptions in students. So I think some of those things can be very valuable.
In general, I think technology hasn't been used that well in classrooms, certainly at the college level where I teach. MOOCs were all the rage, these massively online courses, which have really not engaged people very much because after you watch a video screen by yourself for about five minutes, you start looking at your cellphone. There's actually something valuable to being in a classroom with other people. You're much more likely to pay attention if there are 25 other students in the room also paying attention than if there's nobody around and you can do whatever you want. I mean, when I go home, every once in awhile I will sit and watch television by myself and after five minutes, I'm on my phone, and I'm trying to be entertained.
We have to really think about how technology can fit with the way people learn rather than assuming that just putting it online, or just using a computer to present the information, is going to fix all of the problems.