The theory of Growth Mindset began over twenty years ago when Carol Dweck, now a world-renowned psychologist at Stanford University, became fascinated by how children responded differently to challenges and failure. In her words, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a Growth Mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more Fixed Mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).” (Dweck, 2016).
From the TED stage to classroom posters, it’s safe to say Dweck’s findings back in 2007 have instilled the notion of ‘Fixed’ and ‘Growth’ mindsets in classrooms and education systems around the world. However, recent years have seen mounting criticism for the tangible value of her theory in education. Along with problems reproducing the promising results from Dweck’s research, implementing the Growth Mindset theory within the classroom has proven difficult. Though correlations between the Growth Mindset and academic achievements may be murky, it’s hard to argue that arming students with self-belief through purposeful effort could be negative.
Like most studies into the practical effectiveness of educational theories, the truth appears to be something closer to ‘it depends’. However, one silver lining is that the criticisms that challenge the effectiveness of a Growth Mindset might just be almost as valuable as the original literature itself. If building a Growth Mindset appears to be a powerful tool, ensuring that educators understand its caveats and limitations might be the key to its true success.
Correcting Growth Mindset implementation
1. Instead of expecting students to obtain a Growth Mindset, try to reset your expectations by viewing mindsets on a continuum
A common misconception of Dweck’s mindsets is to view them as a dichotomy rather than a continuum.
‘Everyone is actually a mixture of Fixed and Growth Mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience. A “pure” Growth Mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek’ (Dweck, 2016).
Our success as educators shouldn’t be measured by our number of students ‘with’ a Growth Mindset, but by how many we inspire to strive for growth orientation. When asked to address the criticism of her mindset work, Dweck raised concerns about its implementations.
‘How can we help educators adopt a deeper, true Growth Mindset, one that will show in their classroom practices? Let’s legitimize the Fixed Mindset. Let’s acknowledge that (1) we’re all a mixture of Fixed and Growth Mindsets, (2) we will probably always be, and (3) if we want to move closer to a Growth Mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds. If we watch carefully for our Fixed Mindset triggers, we can begin the true journey to a Growth Mindset.’ (Dweck, 2015).
When we reset our (and our students) expectations of being able to obtain and hold onto a Growth Mindset, we give ourselves permission to slide back and forth on the continuum. Embracing this fluctuating process is an important step in reaffirming our desire to move away from a Fixed Mindset and towards one of growth.
2. Instead of overpraising effort, try to help students assess when they need to shift strategies
Continuously praising effort while students fail to make progress with their learning might be seen as disingenuous. Rather ironically, students might perceive this praise as a hollow consolation prize, but it could also communicate an unconscious bias that their teacher doesn’t really believe they can do better.
To combat this, instead of only praising the effort that leads to the outcome, praise the strategies used. If those strategies need adjusting, help students to find a workaround.
'Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the Growth Mindset with effort. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.'(Dweck, 2015).
If your students’ effort wasn’t effective, help them to shift gears and reassess their approach. As Anderson suggests, ‘we need students to reflect on and judge their effort not simply in terms of the time and energy spent, but how effectively that time and energy was spent. Their focus needs to shift from effort to efficacy and understanding.’ (Anderson, 2019, p.36)
3. Instead of blaming poor results on a ‘poor’ mindset, try to acknowledge when the system needs fixing, not the student
The notion of intelligence being malleable encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. But we need to account for how this shifts the burden of accountability. It would be naive to assume, like one too many ‘your only limit is your mind’ posters tout, that a student’s results are based solely on their mindset. After all, it takes two to tango. No matter how strong a student's mindset is, their progress is undoubtedly influenced by external factors; one of the most important being the teaching they receive.
It’s great to see a student believe they can overcome their struggles, and even better to see them put the work in and actually do so. But we can't let their glory, or their failure, cloud our judgement as to why they struggled in the first place. It’s on us as educators to figure out what holds our students back; from mindsets, to concepts not being clearly explained right up to systemic challenges that impact their learning. If we really want to create a Growth Mindset environment in our classrooms, we need to acknowledge the existence of a Fixed Mindset within our systems as well as our students.
Just as Dweck champions the belief that our talents and intelligence can develop, let’s acknowledge that our implementation of Growth Mindset theory has room to improve. Along with trying out the strategies above, you can help your students get a better understanding of Fixed and Growth Mindsets by watching the video in our Study Skills subjects. Or, if you’d prefer to listen to a teacher's perspective, tune into our Atomi Brainwaves podcast to hear our resident education expert Su Temlett put Growth Mindset under the microscope.
Anderson, J, 2019, ‘The Mindset Continuum, how to implement Growth Mindsets and increase Learner Agency’.
Dweck, C, 2015, ‘Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset'’, Education Week.
Dweck, C, 2016, ‘What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means’, Harvard Business Review.
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