Several recent studies have unfairly thrown doubt on the importance of the Growth Mindset. To respond accurately to this criticism, two crucial points must be understood:
- The Growth Mindset is not growth.
- The Growth Mindset existed before Carol Dweck.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll unpack these points and explain why it’s important to stay focused on growth and how we can achieve that growth.
The Growth Mindset is not growth
It’s important to remember a Growth Mindset is not growth, it is simply the belief that growth is possible. Think of it as an invitation to grow.
Professor Dweck defines the Growth Mindset as the understanding that your most basic characteristics – such as your talents, abilities and intelligence – are malleable. She does not describe it as the actual growth of these characteristics. In fact, Dweck points out that some people with a Growth Mindset don’t change their abilities much, yet some people with a Fixed Mindset do.
Ultimately, it’s the actions you take that determine whether you achieve growth. If you take the right sort of actions, you will grow. If you take the wrong sort of actions, you will not grow, even if you have a Growth Mindset.
A Growth Mindset does not guarantee growth. It will encourage you to stretch beyond your current abilities and take on challenging tasks in your Learning Zone. It will also help you recognise that the mistakes you make in your Learning Zone don’t define you, they simply point the way forward. However, a Growth Mindset does not correct your mistakes.
This is why in my conversations about Growth Mindset I talk about Learning Agility. Learning Agility is understanding you’re capable of growth and knowing how to achieve that growth. An Agile Learner understands growth requires more than simply believing they can grow. They know they must engage in a set of actions – namely, engaging their Habits of Mind through the process of Virtuous Practice.
It’s not a case of “believe and you can achieve”. It is more accurate to say:
“Believe and you will act. Act effectively and you can achieve!”
Recent research suggests that while a Growth Mindset is a good predictor of student performance, an even greater predictor is “Motivation Calibration”. Motivation Calibration is a measure of a student’s belief in their ability to grow and their understanding of the actions required to achieve that growth. I suspect that as time goes on, we’ll be talking more and more about the interventions that develop this type of understanding.
Critics do a great disservice to education when they talk about “sounding the alarm bells”. They point to the small effect size of current interventions and try to dissuade educators from getting caught up in the “hype” surrounding Growth Mindset. Clearly, a Growth Mindset is important. The problem is our current interventions aren’t effective – they only do half the job!
Is it surprising that teaching children “about” a Growth Mindset or simply reading an article about changing intelligence have little effect on their academic growth? Are we surprised that catchphrases such as “not yet” fail to have a significant impact on student learning outcomes?
I believe the type of Mindset that results from these interventions is an “artificial Growth Mindset”. Students are taught to act as though they have a Growth Mindset, which has far less impact than if they developed an “authentic Growth Mindset” through real-life experiences.
The interesting question is: What are the more effective interventions? Where do students get an “authentic Growth Mindset” from? Can we create authentic Growth Mindsets and ensure students enjoy the benefits of truly achieving growth? This is the topic I’ll look at next week, and it hinges on the fact that Professor Dweck did not invent the Growth Mindset – she identified it.
The second point we need to understand to set the record straight is this:
The Growth Mindset existed before Professor Carol Dweck.
Dweck did not invent the Growth Mindset. She observed it, often in people who had achieved great growth.
Growth Mindsets existed well before the current “hype” and will endure regardless of whether the term survives the present wave of excitement. Growth Mindsets are real.
The fact is, many people understand they are capable of changing their most basic characteristics and they act accordingly. They understand it because their lived experience has been one of growth – they don’t need Dweck or their classroom teacher to tell them they are capable of growth!
George Bernard Shaw, who died in 1950, perfectly captured the Growth Mindset when he said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” I’m sure if Dweck could apply her Growth Mindset tests to Shaw, she’d quickly recognise he had a Growth Mindset!
So, for me, the interesting question is: How did Shaw and countless others develop their Growth Mindset before the term had even been coined? What type of “intervention” resulted in their Growth Mindset?
Two types of Growth Mindset?
I’m starting to believe there are two types of Growth Mindset. I call them the authentic Growth Mindset and artificial Growth Mindset.
The authentic Growth Mindset is what Dweck originally observed. This type of Mindset was developed, probably over a long period of time, through an individual’s lived experience. These people experienced growth and came to understand the types of actions that helped them grow. They “knew” they could change.
The artificial Growth Mindset is what many of our current interventions produce. It occurs when we simply ask students to believe they are capable of growth before they experience the growth for themselves.
This is why, for many students, “not yet” becomes “still not yet”. They trust they’ll be able to change, but don’t know what actions to take to achieve that change. It’s also why we are seeing such a low effect size for our Growth Mindset interventions. These interventions change beliefs, not actions.
The most recent criticism of Growth Mindset focuses on the fact our current interventions have not been effective at improving student learning outcomes. In my opinion, that’s because these interventions have largely focused on the “believing” rather than the “achieving” of growth.
To make our Growth Mindset interventions more successful, we need to take the lead from those with an authentic Growth Mindset and ask, “How did these people develop their Growth Mindsets? How do we develop Growth Mindsets without using the term ‘Growth Mindset’?”
I suspect the most successful Growth Mindset interventions will look like Motivation Calibration. They will focus not only on “you can grow”, but on “this is how you achieve growth”. This is where authentic Growth Mindsets came from. And, of course, it is exactly what Learning Agility is all about – achieving growth through Habits of Mind and Virtuous Practice.
Reflecting on how real people developed authentic Growth Mindsets, I suspect our most successful Growth Mindset interventions will have these qualities:
- TIME: We shouldn’t expect student Mindsets to change quickly. As Dweck points out, a Growth Mindset is not a declaration, it’s a journey. We should nurture Growth Mindsets, not “teach” them.
- ACTIONS: While interventions that focus on belief invite students to take action, we must also explicitly focus on the actions required to achieve growth.
- CONSISTENCY: The more our interventions can align with other aspects of our school system, the better. If we say we value growth and process but only reward standards and achievements, we send mixed messages.
The artificial Growth Mindset focuses on the need to believe. The authentic Growth Mindset focuses on the need to achieve. Let’s put the growth back into Growth Mindset.
There is much to be learnt from recognising that Dweck did not invent the Growth Mindset. It’s real. There are circumstances that create it. It does make a difference to life outcomes. Our challenge is to not get caught up in the “Growth Mindset interventions don’t work” stories. Rather, we need to search for the interventions that do work. We need to recreate in our schools, as best we can, the circumstances that create a Growth Mindset so our students can achieve even greater growth.
- Mourshed M., Krawitz M., Dorn E., 2017, How to improve student educational outcomes: New insights from data analytics, mckinsey.com, accessed 19th June 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/how-to-improve-student-educational-outcomes-new-insights-from-data-analytics
- Anderson, J., 2018, Mindsets Matter – but that’s only half the story, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th April 2018, https://mindfulbydesign.com/mindsets-matter-thats-half-story/
- Anderson, J., 2017, Beyond “Not Yet” to “What’s Next?”, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 19th March 2018, https://mindfulbydesign.com/not_yet_is_not_enough/
- Anderson, J., 2018, How hard can it be?, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 1st May 2018, https://mindfulbydesign.com/how-hard-can-it-be/
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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