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
…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:
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.
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.