How Growth Mindsets become “last year’s initiative” – A cautionary tale

As the 2020 school year starts, I find myself reflecting on the past few years and asking why the Growth Mindset has become “last year’s initiative”.

It’s seems like only a few years ago that you couldn’t do anything in education without hearing about the Growth Mindset. Conferences weren’t complete if the keynote speakers didn’t mention the importance of a Growth Mindset. It was one of the top-trending topics on Pinterest. And schools were rapidly branding themselves “Growth Mindset Schools”.

Today, of course, things are different. The pendulum has swung, the page has turned, and we’ve quietly moved on. A Growth Mindset is yet another unfulfilled promise.

What went wrong? Why weren’t we able to make this important work stick?

I’ve identified the top 5 reasons why Growth Mindsets have become one of last year’s initiatives:

1. We started doing Growth Mindsets.

Our first mistake was a failure to recognise that educators had always played a significant role in shaping students’ beliefs about abilities. We’d been creating Growth (and Fixed) Mindsets since before we started sending children to schools!

Psychologist Carol Dweck didn’t create the Fixed and Growth Mindsets – they already existed. She simply identified them, and helped focus our attention on their importance.

The problem with “starting” was that it was disrespectful to the teachers who’d already done great work helping students build positive beliefs about their abilities. Instead of asking, “How do we do this?”, we should have asked, “How do we do this better?”

The truth is that we never started working with students’ Mindsets, and we’ll never stop. It’s simply stopped being a “thing”. We’ve stopped paying attention to our work with Mindsets, and have lost an opportunity to get better at it.

2. We promised teachers that students would have Growth Mindsets.

The notion of Fixed versus Growth oversimplified things. It led us to believe that if we did something, students would stop having a Fixed Mindset and have a Growth Mindset instead. This set unrealistic expectations for teachers.

Our work was never going to lead to students having a Growth Mindset – at least, not in the timeframe most people expected.

Fixed and Growth are two ends of a continuum. The reality is that our long-term goal is to help move students along this continuum to become increasingly growth oriented. Making a significant change to a student’s Mindset usually happens over years, not minutes.

So, by believing their work would result in students “having” a Growth Mindset and all the behaviors associated with it, teachers felt as though they’d failed. Our success with Mindsets should not have been measured by the number of students “with” a Growth Mindset. It should have been measured by how growth oriented our students had become.

As Dweck went to pains to point out in 2017: “A Growth Mindset is not a declaration, it’s a journey.” Most of us missed that.

3. We treated the symptoms, not the cause.

A Mindset is your set of beliefs about your most basic characteristics – your talents, abilities and intelligence. These beliefs create what psychologists call your unconscious bias: how you behave when you’re not paying attention. Your actions, then, can be thought of as the symptoms of these underlying beliefs.

Social media began circulating lists of the behaviours (the symptoms) of the Growth Mindset. And that’s what teachers wanted: students who behaved in a Growth Mindset way! The temptation was to short-cut the beliefs and simply instill the behaviours.

Strategies that essentially asked students to act as if they had the underlying beliefs of a Growth Mindset proliferated. Students were asked to choose those actions consciously. Instead of saying, “I can’t”, they were asked to say, “I can’t yet.” Basically, they were asked to pretend that they had a Growth Mindset.

The quick-fix promise of these strategies was seductive, and they were widely adopted. Unfortunately, they did little to address students’ underlying beliefs. So, when students weren’t in the “Mindset moment”, their actions often reflected a more fixed set of beliefs.

Of course, there were strategies that did seek to change students’ underlying beliefs about their abilities. Dweck’s Brainology program was one. This aimed to teach students how the brain can rewire itself to create new abilities. However, the easy “adopt-these-behaviours” techniques dominated – and, ultimately, failed to create enduring change. Teachers were left feeling disillusioned.

4. We stopped at Mindset and didn’t move on to Growth!

Many teachers didn’t understand that a Growth Mindset is the invitation to grow, not growth itself. While a student with a Growth Mindset is more likely to take actions, it doesn’t mean these actions are effective!

For many students, “I can’t do it yet” simply became “I still can’t do it yet!”  Teachers witnessed the Growth Mindset, but not the growth!

To be fair, the dramatic increase in student performance most teachers expected as a result of a Growth Mindset wasn’t realistic. With only modest gains (at best) in student performance, it’s understandable that many teachers abandoned Growth Mindsets and moved on to something else promising more growth. After all, we are in the business of achieving growth, not believing you can achieve growth.

It was not enough to simply teach students they were capable of growth. We also had to teach them how to grow. We needed to shift our attention to the processes and behaviours that would allow them to achieve growth – something I talked about in my book, The Agile Learner, which is as relevant today as it was when it was released in late 2017!

5. We thought it was all about the students.

Dweck and her colleague Susan Mackie described the emergence of the False Mindset – someone who advocates a Growth Mindset, but whose actions (guided by their unconscious bias) reflect a more fixed set of beliefs.

John Hattie pointed out that the effect size of Fixed versus Growth Mindset was small because adults had a Fixed Mindset, and treated students accordingly.

The signs were all there. So why didn’t we pay attention? The biggest contributor to a student’s Mindset was never going to be the Mindset lesson, the posters, the catchphrases, or the praising of effort. The number-one thing we could have done to change students’ Mindsets was to address teachers’ Mindsets. In doing so, we would have influenced the thousands of Mindset messages sent unintentionally every day!

Teachers have Mindsets, too! The same types of messages and experiences that influence their students have influenced them. When we presented teachers with the polarised and stigmatised Fixed versus Growth dichotomy, we almost forced them to declare they “had” a Growth Mindset. In doing so, we robbed them of the opportunity to reflect, change and move towards an increasingly growth-oriented Mindset.

So here we are, at the start of 2020, and this essential aspect of learning has been relegated to the ever-growing pile of “last year’s initiatives”.

Of course, there will always be “hot topics” in education that serve a purpose and, when that purpose has been served, we should move on.

But the Growth Mindset wasn’t one of those things. What Dweck did was identify a set of beliefs that significantly impact students’ learning. And not just in the classroom, but throughout their lives. This was not something that should have been left on the educational shelf, the latest fad. This should have become a mainstay. I’d go as far as saying that one of education’s primary purposes is to instill a robust and enduring Growth Mindset in students, so they can become life-long learners.

If only we’d recognised and acted on these lessons years ago …

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