Mindsets Matter – but that’s only half the story

There is no doubt that Mindsets matter.

Research clearly shows that a student’s Mindset is extremely important. For example:

The research clearly shows that having a Growth Mindset is associated with better performance. But this is NOT what educators should be concerning themselves with.

Simply knowing that a Growth Mindset is associated with higher performance isn’t particularly helpful, unless we can change Mindsets to improve student outcomes. So, the key question educators should be asking is: can we change a student’s Mindset? And if we can, what is the most effective way of doing it?


 Many educators have tried to change students’ Mindsets by teaching ABOUT Mindsets.

This approach is based on the theory that if you teach students what a Growth Mindset is, tell them what people with a Growth Mindset do, then ask students to have one, they’ll adopt a Growth Mindset and better results will follow.

Social media is full of “teach ABOUT Mindsets” approaches. But there is little evidence that this type of approach works.

I’ve commented on many of these strategies before. For example, the Mindset moment of [5]“not yet” becomes “still not yet” if students are not also taught the strategies they need to overcome what they are stuck on. [6]Praising effort backfires when effort is confused with time and energy. Students who engage in ineffective effort fail to grow. Consequently, more Fixed Mindsets are created as students see their investment in time and energy failing to pay off.


The strategies that work best do not focus on teaching ABOUT a Growth Mindset. Rather, they focus on teaching FOR a Growth Mindset.

One successful strategy is to teach children about brain plasticity. This is what Mindset Works’ “Brainology” course focuses on. This strategy helps students understand the fundamental truth that underlies the Growth Mindset – that your brain is capable of developing new abilities by rewiring itself.

But it’s important for students to understand that for this rewiring to take place, they must take specific actions. They must be told not only that they can rewire their brains, but also how to effectively do this.


Understanding that growth is possible (a Growth Mindset) and at the same time also understanding what has to be done to achieve that growth is what researchers call “motivation calibration”. According to the McKinsey study cited above, motivation calibration was “the most important factor for both EU and non-EU students”.

This makes sense when you recognise that psychologist Carol Dweck didn’t invent a Growth Mindset. She identified it.

People have always differed in their beliefs about their ability to change their basic characteristics – their abilities, talents and intelligence. In the past, people didn’t develop a Growth Mindset because they were taught about it. Rather, they developed a Growth Mindset because they came to understand how to achieve growth and, as a result, they experienced growth. They had good “motivation calibration” – they understood not only that hard work was necessary, but specifically what sort of hard work was required to achieve that growth!

When students understand what they must do in order to grow, and are able to achieve that growth, we observe what Dweck described as a Growth Mindset.


This is why Learning Agility is so important. It’s why I’ve declared this year to be [7]a year of action, and why my focus is about [8]putting the Growth back into Growth Mindset.

The Agile Learner not only understands they are capable of growth but also how to achieve that growth. They have been taught the importance of Virtuous Practice and how to engage in it, and they are developing powerful Habits of Mind that allow them to achieve growth.

After all, at the end of the day, this work is all about achieving the growth – we want students to be able to develop their talents, abilities, and intelligence and then be able to do more difficult things. The Growth Mindset is just the invitation to achieve that growth. Learning Agility is the way to achieve the growth!


  1. Claro S., Paunesku D., Dweck C., 2016, Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement, pnas.org, accessed 13th April 2018, www.pnas.org/content/113/31/8664
  2. West, M., 2016, Should non-cognitive skills be included in school accountability systems? Preliminary evidence from California’s CORE districts, brookings.edu, accessed 13th April 2018, www.brookings.edu/research/should-non-cognitive-skills-be-included-in-school-accountability-systems-preliminary-evidence-from-californias-core-districts/
  3. Dweck, C., 2017, Growth mindset is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house, mindsetscholarsnetwork.org, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/growth-mindset-firm-foundation-still-building-house/
  4. Denoël E., Dorn E., Goodman A., Hiltunen J., Krawitz M., Mourshed M., 2017, Drivers of student performance: Insights from Europe, mckinsey.com, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/drivers-of-student-performance-insights-from-europe
  5. Anderson, J., 2017, Beyond “Not Yet” to “What’s Next?”, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/not_yet_is_not_enough/
  6. Anderson, J., 2017, It’s not as simple as “Praise Effort”, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/not-simple-praise-effort/
  7. Anderson, J., 2018, 2018: A Year of Action. A Year of Growth!, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/2018-year-of-action-and-growth/
  8. Anderson, J., 2018, Putting Growth back into Growth Mindset!, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th April 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/putting-growth-back-into-growth-mindset/



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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