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Is Growth Mindset the new Brain Gym?

January 21, 2017

Earlier this month, an article on the Guardian website told us the following:

Schools and teachers across the world have embraced Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset in the hope of helping students to fulfil their potential. Popular strategies include tweaking the way teachers give feedback, encouraging self-reflection through questioning and, crucially, praising processes instead of natural ability.

But many educators feel they could be doing more. A recent survey found that 98% of teachers believe that if their students have a growth mindset it will lead to improved student learning, but only 20% of them believe they are good at fostering a growth mindset and 85% want more training and practical strategies.

This seems to suggest the idea of Growth Mindset is well-established within schools. Is it a fad that’s as disreputable as Brain Gym?  Probably not, but I couldn’t resist putting that in the title after I rediscovered this tweet earlier today:

However, it probably is time to start asking serious questions about the Growth Mindset fad.

Growth Mindset refers to some ideas about attitudes to learning associated with the psychologist Carole Dweck. She is a reputable psychologist and in no way a crank. The ideas, largely to do with accepting that making an effort can change ability, and encouraging effort, seem not only plausible but actually appealing to teachers who wish to motivate their students. For these reasons I’ve tended not to be particularly concerned about this fad, but perhaps I should have been.

About a week ago, BuzzFeed published an article A Mindset “Revolution” Sweeping Britain’s Classrooms May Be Based On Shaky Science that raised a number of questions about the science behind Growth Mindset. I would recommend reading the whole thing, particularly as I don’t think Dweck comes across as anything other than a serious professional in the article. However, doubt is raised about failures to replicate and about studies with statistically insignificant results that have been used to support Growth Mindset. The article does not give enough detail for us to know if this means we are anywhere near the point where the whole idea can be thrown out, but it would certainly appear that there is a lot more empirical work to be done before we should accept the idea wholesale.

Even if the theory does hold up, that does not mean there are going to be positive results from attempts to weaponise it into in-school interventions. After mentioning that BuzzFeed article on Twitter, it was pointed out to me that the EEF has done a RCT trial on a Growth Mindset intervention. While this has the usual problems of EEF research in reporting positive results in terms of months, it concluded that none of the effects on academic performance of were statistically significant. While the researchers put a remarkably positive spin on this, this strikes me as grounds for schools to steer clear until interventions with statistically significant results can be identified. In a blogpost in 2015, Nick Rose suggested why, even if a Growth Mindset was a good thing, interventions designed to develop a Growth Mindset in students might not work:

Rather than being a generic appeal, successful psychological interventions tend to be highly specific – crafted to the precise psychological process being manipulated… The intervention methods come from a solid understanding of the psychology of social influence and persuasion… This isn’t a non-specialist role, according to Yeager and Walton. They suggest that we need a new class of professional psychologist to scale the impact of social-psychological interventions in schools… Essentially, psychological interventions aren’t suited to generic attempts at amateur psychology. The people claiming to demonstrate some profoundly successful interventions suggest a level of expertise is involved; that to be successful, individuals designing and delivering an intervention require significant understanding of the psychological theories involved… “Well-intended practices can sometimes even do more harm than good.” A successful psychological intervention involves a quick, well-targeted ‘nudge’; not repeatedly hitting students over the head with a sledgehammer!

There are reasons to be sceptical about many of the specific interventions being used in schools to promote Growth Mindset. A lot of schools seem to have given Growth Mindset messages in assemblies, tutor time or PSHE lessons. While these may backfire, it is plausible that these are no more harmful than any other form of motivational talk in schools. Some of the other ideas schools have tried seem far more questionable. A lot of schools seem to have used surveys to measure Growth Mindset. While this may seem sensible, there are real problems with such an approach as Nick Rose explained.

We need to be very wary of these as measurements of impact. School mindset interventions which rely upon explicit mindset messages may temporarily alter student attitudes to their learning without actually changing their behaviour in the classroom or outside of school. Worse still, reliance upon ‘inspirational’ messages or explicit teaching of mindset may simply tell pupils the socially desirable response expected in surveys – giving the appearance of changing attitudes without genuinely changing the attitudes that pupils possess. This would render any attempt to measure ‘impact’ through – for instance – student surveys potentially meaningless.

Despite this, surveys are still on the more sensible end of the spectrum of Growth Mindset interventions. Here are some other things I found that just seem gimmicky:

…first the students had a bookmark with the four key characteristics of a growth mindset. This bookmark also formed a banner on their task sheet. It served as a constant reminder of of the way in which I wanted them to work. Secondly we introduced the use of brag boards. These were simply sheets on which I gave the students a sticker every time I saw them exhibit a particular growth mindset characteristics, the students seemed to respond well to these, the fact they were ‘stinky stickers’ may have helped.

From this blogpost.

Or how about these displays?

Or this reflection sheet?

(Both from this blogpost)

Or how about this as a way of using staff time?

Once we get to half term I will be meeting with those students who are recorded as having the most fixed mindsets. I will then be spending a tutor time each week for a term working on exploring growth mindset and helping them to change. I will be putting together a set of tutorials on this over the next few weeks. Ultimately the aim would be to equip these students to be growth mindset ambassadors, supporting the next student intake.

From this blogpost

More gimmicks are mentioned by Nick Rose, in a review of Growth Mindset Pocketbook,:

…I was dismayed by some of the suggested ways in which teachers could apply the growth mindset to their lessons. The worst involved dividing the class into three to roleplay a mock TV show called “Changing the Lives of Fixed Mindsets”. Other suggestions, such as “Mindset bingo!”, “Mindset Heroes” or creating a “Mindset wall”, displayed a similar level of subtlety.

One thing I noticed was how often a lot of effort was made, then it all appears to have been abandoned. One school created their own blog about developing Growth Mindsets which was updated intermittently over a year and a half. Elsewhere people designed complex diagrams:

screenshot-2017-01-20-at-23-40-33

Finally, though, Growth Mindset has been used to justify the same old progressive ideology that people already supported. The most ludicrous example of this has been on the part of maths educationalist, Jo Boaler, who has propagandised for mixed ability teaching and against teaching basic maths facts for decades. She decided that Growth Mindset research (which apparently now has something to do with neuroscience) meant the following:

A true  commitment to the communication and teaching of a growth mindset probably requires examination of all aspects of teaching. Even the tasks that teachers choose allow different opportunities for messages to be communicated to students. In mathematics for example, if students are working on short, closed questions that have right or wrong answers, and they are frequently getting wrong answers, it is hard to maintain a view that high achievement is possible with effort. When tasks are more open, offering opportunities for learning, students can see the possibility of higher achievement and respond to these opportunities to improve.

And inevitably:

Ability grouping as a practice rests upon fixed mindset beliefs — it is implemented by schools and teachers who themselves have fixed beliefs about learning and potential and it communicates damaging fixed ability beliefs to students. But the ways in which schools group students are difficult for individual teachers to change, even those who are aware of the negative impact of ability grouping and who are dedicated to implementing growth mindset messages and practices. Such changes require positive leadership from governments, local authorities, head teachers and heads of department…

Fancy that, Growth Mindset turns out to mean that we have to impose the very things she just happened to support all along.

Now there may still be something positive to be made of the Growth Mindset idea, but we should wait until the psychology experiments are replicated and the interventions are shown to have statistically significant results. I propose that until then we treat the phrase “Growth Mindset” as unnecessary jargon and those claiming to be able to instill Growth Mindset as either unlikely to be adding anything new to the mix, or worse, sneaking in the usual failed ideas under a new name.

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20 comments

  1. The ‘Growth mindset’ industry is growing in the same manner as Learning styles and Brain gym. I am a fellow traveller with Dweck, and I see each year so many children achieve beyind their imaginations. I agree wholeheartedly with her admonitions not to posterise the principles of mindset because making such motivations extrinsic ensures growth is strangled. Alerting children to success steps along the way is unlikely to succeed, any more than collecting olympic medal stamps on a training journey to gold would be for an athlete. Could it be that our profession easily falls for crass ideas, harvesting low hanging ‘fruit’ being an alternative proxy for the more serious endeavour of building relationships and striving to improve? Manufactured colourful posters are so much easier to display than curated works by pupils, but far less powerful as motivating tools in learning environments. There is no kwikfix – but there are ways of preventing the stifling effects of ‘fixed mindset views – ‘You’ll not amount to anything, sonny because you’re stupid’ being a voice I hear in my ear from my childhood past reminding me just how appalling leaders could be!


  2. The well-intentioned but rather naff and amateurish application of potentially useful propositions in schools is the bane of our education system and not limited to any particular concept, such as growth mindsets. This mentions some of the worst offenders: crass and unsubtle PSHE activities; eye-achingly designed diagrams; shallow slogans on display; over-simplistic self-evaluation exercises; attitudinal student surveys to measure impact. The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of the underlying idea but the lack of expertise amongst teachers to interpret and apply it. The point above about requiring expertise in psychology to apply growth mindset ideas in schools is therefore really important. Teachers should respect themselves enough to recognise the limits of their professional practice and resist attempts to develop or facilitate approaches for which they have no expert grounding.


  3. The most pernicious aspect of the growth mindset industry is that our kids are already narcissistic enough. Teachers already have quite enough work without distractions like this. Only a very brave person would wager that growth mindset doesn’t join the long, long list of educational fads that have disappeared without trace once the circus moved on.


  4. A timely blog post and I applaud you for opening a debate on growth mindset. One of my big concerns is not so much in the underlying construct of ‘theories of intelligence’, nor the research conducted by Dweck and other researchers, but rather how the conclusions/findings may be misapplied to pupils and used to ‘blame’ the child for lack of progress (it is your fault for having a fixed mindset) rather than examining the processes and structures in school and society that foster these beliefs. Hence why I have just completed doctoral research which focuses on the conditions in the classroom that may promote or hinder a growth maths mindset, specifically manipulating praise behaviour of teachers. In terms of significant findings, certainly educational research is moving towards effect sizes as a more meaningful way to ascertain if an intervention has impact (hence why the EFF report months gain as opposed to p values).

    Below is an abstract of an aspect of my empirical paper. I would welcome replication.

    Laboratory based research suggests that process praise statements encourage children to take risks in their maths learning because it fosters a growth mindset. Utilising an experimental between and within group design, 522 ten to twelve year old primary age pupils were exposed to either daily process praise statements or usual praise practice in maths lessons for four weeks. Dependent measures taken pre and post consisted of a teacher reported effort grade and pupil self-reported maths mindset made up of four statements, and a mindset based scenario. Results found that pupils exposed to process praise increased effort post intervention (medium effect), whereas the control group saw a decrease in effort; and pupils exposed to process praise attributed a higher proportion of a fictitious pupil’s maths score to effort rather than intelligence compared to the control group (small effect). There was no difference between the control and experimental group for the four mindset statements. The findings suggest training teachers to deliver process praise statements in maths lessons is a cost effective approach to improving pupils’ effort in maths, but may not be enough to alter the maths mindsets of pupils. Replication of this study with a Time 3 follow up measure is recommended.

    I agree we need more research in the UK within schools to better understand how mindsets develop and how they can be changed, but I don’t agree this is a ‘fad’ akin to brain gym, rather, we need to ascertain what value this construct (theories of intelligence) adds to improving education for all children.


  5. Reblogged this on Design Technology & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Is Growth Mindset the new Brain Gym?


  6. Before we rush in we should collect some data. Here is my attempt at getting some baseline data on real students in a real school about “Growth Mindset”. https://leadouteducation.com.au/2016/01/05/growth-mindset-some-baseline-data/
    Was there a correlation between a “growth mindset” and achievement?
    We didn’t find one.
    I’d love to see some other schools repeating the experiment.


  7. Reblogged this on Pace N.Ireland Education Weblog and commented:
    The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education blogged about the flaw in Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler’s research on December 13th, 2016 http://wp.me/pateI-K5. Dweck and Boaler were forwarded the critique and invited to respond. No replies have been received.
    Carol Dweck is obviously feeling the heat as evidenced here http://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/growth-mindset-firm-foundation-still-building-house/
    It seems to have escaped the attention of the author of Scenes from the Battleground.


  8. While Stanford professor Carol Dweck hides from her responsibility to address a referenced criticism of her Mindset research she publishes a diversionary article here: http://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/growth-mindset-firm-foundation-still-building-house/
    I charge her with building her houses on sand. Please join the effort to exact a response. Forward a copy of this article to her at Stanford. https://paceni.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/the-flaw-in-dweck-boalers-mindset-research


  9. Totally agree that there is no true quick fix, and before making a judgement collecting data and research can help making a judgement because opinion without information is…..


  10. […] Jan 2017 following an article in Buzzfeed there has been a renewed focus on Growth Mindset. Andrew Old wrote a good summary here https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/is-growth-mindset-the-new-brain-gym/ […]


  11. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  12. When you can buy ‘Rising Stars’ schemes of work on growth mindset, you start to worry. My problem is can you measure it? If not, can you improve it? Self reporting is notoriously biased and unreliable being subject to all manner of biases.
    Finally, what’s the underlying morality behind GM? I can’t help but feel it’s been jumped upon so heavily because it says the rich are rich because they ‘work harder’ and the poor are poor because they are largely feckless individuals without the gumption to try. The implication: we don’t need to improve the circumstances of deprivation, just dangle a carrot.
    Either way, it’s a lucrative bandwagon that makes a lot of money.


  13. This is an interesting take on the Growth Mindset debate. My district jumped on this bandwagon a few years ago and not much has been done since our initial push to move students from the fixed to the growth mindset. I do agree with some of the other comments made that the issue isn’t so much our students-but our society. Until our society accepts failure as a learning process, how are we supposed to make our students accept this idea?


  14. I agree that a ‘wait and see’ approach is perhaps the best way to proceed with this. Whilst the predictions and initial results seem promising there’s no reason to go changing the way schools operate and teaching styles until we have tangible, proven results to back up the theory.


    • If anyone adopts a ‘wait & see’ approach to the academic responsibility of Stanford University’s Professor Carol Dweck to respond to the call for a reply to the criticism of her Mindset research they will be disappointed. I think Retraction Watch need to become involved.


  15. Interesting article. I agree that this whole “growth mindset” thing is dumb We should spend more time teaching than worrying about this type of stuff. Check out my post about Direct Instruction at https://courtneylivin.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/direct-instruction/


  16. Fixed, limited abilities fit nicely into a culture based on the echoes of feudalism and class? Are we as a culture comfortable with dynamic change, mobility? Does this rattle the depths of our limbic minds – who does he think he is climbing the ladder?

    What mindset do we recommend to a 17yr old day-1 Royal Marine recruit, embarking on an intense learning journey of self and skills: fixed ability or soon to be transformed through experiencing a growth process?

    To support anything other than growth in education is oppression – we need to look deep into our own values and beliefs and where these have materialised from if this is the case.


    • Hang on. To be sceptical about growth mindset initiatives is not to believe that all abillities are fixed. It is simply to doubt whether the growth mindset initiatives are effective and whether every claim made about growth mindset is true.


  17. In my opinion, a growth mindset ethos in the classroom is massively down the teacher modelling the key qualities such as resilience and persistence.
    Follow our page for our journey modelling growth mindset through endurance challenges.



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