There is great interest in the concept of Growth Mindsets within schools and the principle is being widely applied. In many schools, adoption of the language of Growth Mindsets and a desire to engage with and understand the ideas presented in the writings of Carol Dweck has grown rapidly. The notion that a child’s achievement level across diverse fields can be enhanced by promoting a belief in an incremental model of intelligence is appealing. This has spawned numerous intervention and pedagogical strategies aimed at shaping the individual’s mindset. Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The new psychology of success” has been read by many teachers but perhaps by a fewer number than that which claim to have knowledge of her work. In schools, everywhere walls are covered with the word “Yet” to encourage students to adopt the phrase “I can’t do that . . . Yet”. This rapid adoption is echoed amongst our parent body who have been introduced to the theory through parent teacher nights and the wider media. A recent survey of parents asked what do they hope their children to be like when they grow up. A common response was that they should have a growth mindset.
Personally, I have presented ideas about Growth Mindsets at two teach meets and included mention of it in numerous presentations to staff and parents. My emphasis is that lasting movement towards a Growth Mindset is difficult and complex. The particular details of how an individual’s mindset is shaped through feedback, self-reflection, metacognition, external rewards, praise and criticism are interwoven. In practice, we see individuals making progress in some areas but not others and that it is easy to slip back towards a fixed or entity view. It is difficult to shift the messaging of all influences on a child towards a focus on the things that they do rather than the things that the child is or has. Praise for effort in a specific field is easily undone by praise for an attribute such as artistic talent or sporting ability or a general assessment that the child is 'so smart’.
Misunderstandings, oversimplifications and poor application is perhaps a curse confronted by all psychological theories that move into the vocabulary of the mainstream. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is a good example of a theory reduced to a list of learner styles. Many teachers believed that the multiple intelligences described by Gardner were the singular preferred learning modality of a student and that identifying a learners preferred mode would allow them to target lessons to their needs. In this oversimplified adoption, the understanding that we all might have multiple-intelligences and that intelligence is best seen as a construct of multiple dimensions was lost.
Growth Mindsets is similarly misunderstood and applied poorly. Teachers may believe that the promotion of a Growth Mindset is facilitated by a focus on positive feedback or a model of feedback that sandwiches criticism between praise. Others will believe that mindset is a universal attribute; that the individual adopts either a Growth Mindset (an incremental theory) or a Fixed Mindset (an entity theory) and that this applies to all learning or challenge situations. That the presence of an incremental or entity theory is dependent upon the context is easily overlooked.
In ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking: The Eight Forces we must master to truly transform our schools’ developing a Growth vs. a Fixed Mindset is one of the five expectations that teachers are encouraged to address. In outlining, how this goal may be achieved Ron Ritchhart (2012) outlines eight cultural forces which might be manipulated by the educator and/or school including modeling, language, environment and expectations. The assertion is that only by controlling all eight forces can lasting change be achieved. When looked at in combination this dual perspective of ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘eight cultural forces’ reveal the true complexity involved in bringing about a change in mindset.
We should not be surprised that studies are emerging which question the efficacy of programs to develop a growth mindset when many of these programmes aim to deliver a quick-fix solution with a one size fits all approach. Posters and wall displays will have little real impact. Only through consistent efforts backed by a genuine understanding of the factors which influence the individuals mindset in specific contexts are likely to bring a desirable effect. Even with the most carefully designed programme, results will vary from one context to another and a global shift to a growth mindset is very unlikely. Perhaps it is enough to hope that our efforts might allow individual learners to identify the mindset they bring to particular situations and armed with this awareness make changes to their behaviours where appropriate.
An interesting detail within this research is that the supportive nurturing environment typical of primary schools may serve to mask a fixed mindset. The research presented by Blackwell et al. with its focus on the transition to high-school is interesting as it shines a light on elements of the dip in learning commonly seen at this time. If it is indeed the case that it is during this transition that some learners first experience learning situations that reveal a fixed mindset, then schools might look at how they move such challenges downwards into primary school and move the supports offered in Primary school up. It seems critical that an understanding of the benefits of an incremental theory of intelligence are developed early and that students experience opportunities requiring them to overcome adversity while in a safe and familiar environment.
If our students are not experiencing challenging learning situations, if they do not have opportunities to struggle with learning and to get stuck, where will they learn that they have the capacity to cope with such learning. If we normalise challenging learning and encourage our students to persist when they find new ideas difficult instead of rescuing them with scaffolds and teacher interventions, we build resilience. When we share with our learners the reality that we as adults find learning challenging, that we get stuck and need to try things many times before we master them, we provide our students with the positive models of learning they require most.
Our efforts to enculturate a Growth Mindset or Mindset Awareness are not wasted but the process needs to be understood as complex and demands a multifaceted action plan if it is to produce results.
By Nigel Coutts
Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78. 246-263,
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating cultures of thinking: The eight forces we must truly master to transform our schools. SanFrancisco: Josey-Bass