What Can We Learn from Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ Theory?

1 February 2017

Author: Alex Quigley

In education we are prone to seek out quick fixes. We are time poor and too often we lack the expert support to make decisions based upon robust evidence. Not only that, when robust evidence does come along, all too often it is quickly proved to be not so substantial as we first thought. Carol Dweck’s research on ‘growth‘ and ‘fixed‘ mindsets is an ideal case study for this approach and there is a great deal we can learn about approaching new initiatives in schools, how we implement, them and what we can learn from them when they do, or do not work out as we had planned.

Over the past fortnight there has been a growth of blogs and articles that are highly critical of Dweck’s research and the entire notion of ‘growth mindset’ in education. Back in December, Carol Dweck, perhaps wary of an inevitable backlash, gave a warning call about how schools were implementing a “false growth mindset” in an article entitled ‘How Praise Became a Consolation Prize’. Dweck attempts to bring some nuance to the simplistic dichotomy of growth and fixed:

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait.”

Back in 2015, people like Scott Alexander labelled ‘growth mindset’ as little more than a “noble lie” – see here. This last week, David Didau asked the question in blunt terms: ‘Is Growth Mindset Bollocks?‘. It charts some of David’s insightful challenges and tests the limitations of Dweck’s theory.

What are teachers to do, in schools that have promoted Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’? We should come out and say that as a school we have shared Dweck’s theories and used a ‘growth mindset’ as an important facet of our work at Huntington School. You may expect that any criticism simply causes a “backfire effect” whereat we hold our views of a ‘growth mindset’ yet more fervently than before. The truth would be that we have grappled with the limitations of the evidence, the difficulties with implementing such a theory, and we have made substantial adaptations to how we use Dweck’s research.

Most importantly, we have followed the debate, welcomed the debate, and adapted our practice accordingly over the last few years. “Doing growth mindset” has always been fraught with issues. We have hosted many schools who perhaps took away resources, but hadn’t time to immerse themselves in the debates and the complex evidence. Our encouragement was to not simply “do” but to “consider and question”.

The limitations are obvious. Growth mindset questionnaires are no different from their GRIT and ‘character’ equivalents, or leadership personality tests: they use loose language, they aren’t very reliable and we shouldn’t use them for much more than a bit of fun and to likely learn more about the concept at hand. We need to move beyond labelling and actually engage with the psychological theories that underpin Dweck’s theories, relate to them, or challenge them. Reading David Didau’s book on ‘What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology’ is a start (it is less blunt than the aforementioned blog title!) and it explores many related concepts.

So, should we chuck out ‘growth mindset’? In my opinion, tackling Dweck’s theories and understanding their principles has real value for teachers. It makes us consider as teachers the motivational factors that attend learning and the complex psychology (much is still unknown of course) that attends learning. For us as a school, ‘growth mindset’ was always fatally flawed if it was dissociated from getting students to think about what they are learning in their subject domains. I think teachers and students understanding that they may have some psychological blockers on their learning is valuable, but they need more than just effort – they need tools to apply subject specific understanding and to think like a scientist, or a historian, or a geographer.

Our introduction to ‘growth mindset’ became much more ‘stealthy’ and subtle than bombastic assemblies and corridor displays (take a look at this blog on ‘Successful Learning by Stealth’ by our Director of Research School, Alex Quigley). The emerging evidence – see here: ‘Growth Mindset’: More Evidence’, made us think hard about our approaches. We moved to having an underpinning framework for supporting the complex factors, like attitude and motivation, that attend learning. We labelled it GREAT (Goals, Resilience, Effort, Attitude and Tools). Most important for us was ‘Tools’. This is about ensuring students develop strategies to think and learn that will help move them from novice status to experts. These tools are invariably subject specific, but they didn’t ignore the psychological flaws in our make-up: our dislike for deliberate practice, our lack of self-control in the face of a challenge and more.

Dweck’s theories are helpful in communicating how we learn, but understanding their limitations and applications for a school context is obviously crucial. So is ‘growth mindset’ just a passing fad? I think it can certainly be treated as such, but if we reject it as quickly as we pick it up, moving quickly onto the next great buzzword to adorn school display boards, we risk failing to learn from the theory and evidence that is posed. Is the evidence contradictory and complex? Yes it is, but all the more reason to think hard about ‘growth mindset’ and not simply treat it as a universal panacea one day and a dumb fad the next.

Here are some prompts for school teachers and leaders to consider:

  • How do we ensure that we better research, judge and consider the implementation of new ideas in the classroom and across our schools?
  • Is ‘growth mindset’ part of your practice and what can you learn from the criticisms: should you drop the theory, or consider it in new ways?
  • How do we better support teachers to understand the complexity and nuances of psychology, motivation and other drivers that attend learning?
  • How do we better evaluate and learn from our actions as teachers and school leaders?
Posted on 1 February 2017
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