Author Blog

Roms, Trads and Mods

Guy describes the three tribes in education today and suggests that we should avoid the danger of over-simplifying complex thinking

In Educating Ruby, we offer a potted guide to the educational scene. Basically there are three tribes: Roms, Trads and Mods. The Romantics believe that children will blossom if we leave them alone. The Roms have almost completely died out – except in the mind of the second tribe, the Traditionalists. The Traditionalists seem to believe that all would be well if we had lots of old-fashioned grammar schools teaching Latin and algebra. They blame all educational ills on the (non-existent) Roms. If kids don’t do well at school it’s because the ‘trendy liberals’ have mucked things up – or (see previous blog) the kids are too unintelligent (‘low-ability’) or lazy. Trads like to keep things simple, even if their beliefs are damaging or wrong. The third tribe is the Moderates, which includes the vast majority of people who work in or care about education. Where the Trads are simplistic and pugnacious, the Mods like to think and tinker (or ‘thinker’, as Michael Ondaatje put it).

One example of the kind of complexity that Trads ignore, because it messes up their neat picture, comes from the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck. I’ve just come back from a joint lecture tour of New Zealand with Carol, and she had some exciting new research to talk about. (She’s speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College, 18th and 19th June, by the way. Do catch her.) Her team were invited by the Ministry of Education in Chile to carry out a study of all the 10th graders in the country – that’s 168,000 15-year-olds. Each student’s attitude to challenging learning was assessed by a questionnaire: to what extent did they see struggling with challenge as a way to expand their ability (‘growth mindset’, GM) or see struggle as a negative indicator of innate ability (‘fixed mindset’, FM). This measure was then correlated with their standardised school achievement in literacy and numeracy, and a raft of indicators of their socio-economic status (SES).

They found that poorer kids were more likely to have a FM, but those who did have a GM showed levels of school achievement typical of much, much wealthier kids. And having a GM was as good a predictor of school success as parental level of education or family income, for all income levels. Furthermore, previous research has shown that, if teachers change the way they talk and teach, fixed mindsets can be converted into growth mindsets quite readily. So it’s not that low-SES children tend to have a lower fixed ability; it is simply that they are more likely to have picked up a dysfunctional belief about their own minds: a belief that can be challenged and changed by teachers if they understand how and why to do so. It’s the false idea that poorer students’ effort won’t affect how well they achieve (once you’re in the bottom set, that’s it) that perpetuates the Trads’ unjust view of education. Everyone can be a Ruby if they are taught the right way – regardless of whether they are going to go on to be a plumber, a carer or a Whitehall mandarin.


S. Claro, D. Paunesku and C.S. Dweck, “Mindset gap amongst SES groups: the case of Chile with census data”, paper presented to Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington DC, September, 2014.