In spring 2020, Teachers College decision to move its Convocation online necessitated deferring appearances by three honorees: Shannon Watts, Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense; Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard’s Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics and co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and Carol Dweck, Carol Dweck, the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, whose 2007, book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, introduced lay readers to her concepts of “fixed” and “growth mindsets.”

This year, the three were prominently featured during Convocation Week in a series of three virtual “Medalists Conversations.”

Speaking with TC’s Sonali Rajan, Associate Professor of Health Education — herself an authority on the causes of gun violence – Watts described how she founded Moms Demand Action from her kitchen in Indianapolis in response to the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“We set out to change hearts and minds with data, anecdotes, stories and relationships,” said Watts, whose organization now boasts more than 6 million followers.

Moms Demand Action has brought about bipartisan, incremental progress on gun violence prevention, including local measures to curtail open carry in public spaces and successful campaigns to elect candidates supporting common-sense gun laws.

We set out to change hearts and minds with data, anecdotes, stories and relationships.

—Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

But with 400 million guns circulating, contributing to 100 firearm deaths and over 230 injuries each day — and with a mass shooting having occurred daily thus far in 2021 — the work is far from done.

“We are creating relationships with Republicans and independents, but it’s still going to take a long time,” Watts said. “The only place that this is a polarizing issue is the U.S. Senate. Because, when you look at America broadly, 90 percent of Americans support background checks — and that includes 89 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of gun owners.”

Shannon Watts still image

Watch the conversation between Shannon Watts and Sonali Rajan

Rajan, a co-founder of the Columbia University-based Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence (SURGE) asked Watts whether non-legislative solutions such as creation of green spaces and improvements in public housing are gaining traction among gun safety or anti-gun violence groups. 

“When I started Moms Demand Action I was a white suburban mom who was afraid my kids weren’t safe in their schools. That is what got me off the sidelines,” Watts replied. “Shame on me for not realizing that it isn’t just about mass shootings or school shootings — that’s about one percent of the gun violence in this country. It’s really about gun homicide, gun suicide or unintentional shootings. It’s all senseless and preventable. The truth is there isn’t a ‘silver bullet.’ It is going to take a safety net of solutions.”

In conversation with TC’s Caryn Block, Professor of Psychology & Education, Banaji, who is  credited with introducing theories of “implicit bias” into the national conversation on race, gender, sexual identity and body weight, urged TC’s 2021 graduates to take the long view of themselves and those around them.

“It’s hard to give up your own sense of what reality is,” Banaji said. “So, use the eyes of the other to see the world. And shape the views of the other to see the world from your unique perspective. What Teachers College has given you is an ability to be able to say perplexing things to people that will open up a world they haven’t been able to see.”

Use the eyes of the other to see the world. And shape the views of the other to see the world from your unique perspective.

—Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard’s Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics 

Banaji noted that TC’s 2021 graduates are forging their careers at a time when the nation is grappling with precisely the kind of systemic, institutional biases that are the focus of her research. A recent analysis of the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), a measurement tool she co-developed that exposes the stereotyping that all humans (herself included) engage in “shows us our bias but it also shows us that we are capable of change,” Banaji said. Specifically, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of Americans holding negative views of same-sex relationships, Banaji said, but IAT data also shows that negative stereotypes attached to race and skin color are decreasing at a slower rate.

Another positive development, suggested Block, a Social-Organizational Psychology program faculty member whose research focuses on diversity issues in workplaces and communities, is that “systemic racism has played out on camera and we can no longer deny where we are in this country.” 

Mahzarin Banaji

Watch the conversation between Mahzarin Banaji and Caryn Block.

Bias education is a powerful response to what the camera is showing us, Banaji said – but, she cautioned, it cannot be employed as a quick fix.

“I’m very critical of people who use implicit bias training as a band-aid,” she said. “But I’m also critical of people who say it is not worthwhile. Think about the problem of climate change. Would anyone ever say they recycled for two days in 1990 and the climate didn’t change at all? Why should a little drop in the bucket of implicit bias training for two hours change something I believe is on the scale of climate change? It’s climate inside our head as opposed to the climate outside our head.”

In her conversation with Nathan Holbert, Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Learning Technologies, Dweck recalled that she once asked a group of teachers, “What is the most important thing you ever learned?”

Remember, that every student has something to contribute to the world. And with the pandemic, poverty and undermining of democracy I don’t think there has been a time in my life when this has been more important.

—Carol Dweck, Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University

“One said, ‘I’ve learned every student has something to teach me,’” Dweck recalled. The broader takeaway: “Remember, that every student has something to contribute to the world,” Dweck told viewers. “And with the pandemic, poverty and undermining of democracy I don’t think there has been a time in my life when this has been more important.” 

Dweck’s landmark 1975 study, demonstrating that children with learned helplessness behavior could significantly improve their performance when taught to understand failure as a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability, has become a touchstone for teachers, parents, coaches, business leaders and mentors in all walks of life. From that work came her concepts of “fixed” and “growth mindsets” — the former positing that inherent intelligence alone determines an individual’s capacity for development, and the latter holding that nurture, experience, encouragement and love are the key differentials that expand understanding and, with it, the capacity to learn.

Watch the conversation between Carol Dweck and Nathan Holbert.

Holbert, Director of TC’s Snow Day Learning Lab, characterized growth mindset as instrumental to “helping us think about the value of knowing that learning is something that can be improved — a process that includes successes, missteps, challenges and sometimes failures.”

Dweck suggested that acceptance of the value of failure is what often gives educators pause.

“Many teachers take it to mean ‘let’s give students a growth mindset as a tool to use,’” she said. “They put a chart in the front of the room or maybe give a lecture. But they don’t change practices that support learning from mistakes. It works when you create culture that promotes the development of student abilities by making progress visible. The emphasis should be on agency in learning, the courage to express what they don’t know, interest and support for their own and one another’s mistakes.”