Most school-based Growth Mindset interventions don’t work!
As schools struggle to find Growth Mindset interventions that work, a growing tide of criticism has forced psychologist Carol Dweck to defend her theories. A recent article in TES (“Carol Dweck: where growth mindset went wrong”) gives her response.
I’ve been warning that the tide will turn on Growth Mindsets for many years. And it’s not because Mindsets aren’t important. They are. It’s because most of our interventions have taken the wrong approach, leaving schools disillusioned and dissatisfied with Growth Mindsets.
What are the problems?
One of the critical mistakes we’ve made is that we’ve continued to talk about Mindsets as if there were only two: Fixed and Growth. In the day-to-day reality of our schools and classrooms, it’s more accurate and helpful to recognise our Mindsets fall somewhere along the Mindset Continuum.
I introduced the Mindset Continuum in my mid-2017 blog post, “Why are we still talking Fixed vs Growth Mindsets?” Recognising that Mindsets fall along a continuum allows us to engage in a more meaningful dialogue about Mindsets and what needs to be done to change them. The continuum also helps de-stigmatise the Fixed Mindset, allowing us to combat one of the biggest barriers to the successful implementation of Growth Mindsets in schools: the False Mindset.
Most importantly, the Mindset Continuum helps us understand what Dweck has been telling us: “A Growth Mindset is not a declaration. It’s a journey.” That journey takes place along the Mindset Continuum.
Out of concern for the number of schools struggling with ineffective social media-based Growth Mindset interventions, in late 2017 I wrote, “How Growth Mindsets become ‘last year’s initiative’ – A cautionary tale”. I warned schools of the fundamental mistakes they were making and pointed them towards more effective interventions.
In early 2018, I highlighted that our interventions focused too much on students’ beliefs about their ability to grow, and not enough on the actions that lead to them achieving that growth. My plea to schools back then was to “Put Growth Back into Growth Mindset”.
Around the same time, I released my book, The Agile Learner. This was a call to action to help students not only understand they are capable of growth, but also to understand how to achieve that growth. Dweck now echoes this idea in defence of her work, as she calls for interventions that “implement practices that focus on growth and learning”.
I reiterated this same message in my April 2018 blog post, “Mindsets Matter – but that’s only half the story.” Drawing on further research, I reminded educators of the overwhelming evidence that students’ Mindsets do impact their performance. It was a call to arms not to abandon Growth Mindsets, but to abandon social media interventions and refocus our efforts on interventions that work.
As Dweck now points out, “Growth Mindset is even more complicated than we imagined.” It’s not just about “praise effort”.
Many teachers have been seduced by social media quick fixes. Putting posters on the wall and using catchphrases was never going to cut it (as I’ve written about many times – see “Belief is Not Enough,” “Change your Mindset, THEN change your words,” “Schlimmbesserung,” “It’s not as simple as ‘Praise Effort’”, “Beyond ‘Not Yet’ to ‘What’s Next’” and more in my blog).
As criticism mounted, I sought to “Set the record straight on Growth Mindset”. I explained that criticism that focused on Mindset was unfair and unwarranted. Our interventions were failing, not Mindset theory itself.
Interesting research then emerged from McKinsey & Company. This supported Dweck’s research and pointed towards an even better predictor of student success: Motivation Calibration. The study suggested that the students who were best placed to succeed were the ones who understood they were capable of growth and who could accurately describe what it would take to achieve that growth. In many ways, this research reflected and supported my own ideas about Learning Agility.
What are the solutions?
So, what do effective Growth Mindset interventions look like?
In a recent blog post, I wrote about the difference between Authentic and Learned Growth Mindsets. The Authentic Growth Mindset was what Dweck originally identified and wrote about in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. These people had come to their own understanding that they were capable of changing their most basic characteristics – without the benefit of having a single Growth Mindset lesson, an understanding of brain plasticity or even knowledge of the term “Growth Mindset”.
These people developed their Growth Mindsets from their lived experiences. They accumulated what I call positive Mindset Movers – experiences that taught them they were capable of growth. Their Growth Mindset interventions occurred in real life. It is their lived experiences we want to emulate in our schools to create Mindset interventions that work!
People with an Authentic Growth Mindset developed the Habits of Mind that allowed them to succeed at increasingly difficult tasks. They applied these behaviours in their Learning Zone to engage in what I call effective effort. They correctly recognised and attributed their growth to this form of effort. And perhaps most importantly, they continued to develop their skills as a learner so they could continue to grow. All without mention of a Growth Mindset!
The flip side of this approach is to reduce the experiences that lead to the Authentic Fixed Mindset. Dweck’s original research describes many individuals, some very high achievers, who had what I term an Authentic Fixed Mindset.
In a recent blog post, I described “Four Pathways to a Fixed Mindset”. These are the negative Mindset Movers that lead to the Authentic Fixed Mindset. Reducing these experiences will help our students become more growth-oriented.
Successful interventions don’t ask students to “adopt” a Growth Mindset. Instead, they seek to nurture more growth-oriented Mindsets. They create many small positive Mindset Movers and reduce the experience of negative Mindset Movers.
Where individuals find themselves on the Mindset Continuum is the sum of all the positive and negative Mindset Movers they have experienced in their lives. Understanding that our interventions need to nurture students along the Mindset Continuum helps us recalibrate our expectations. Our success with Growth Mindsets will not be measured by the number of students with Growth Mindsets. Rather, it will be measured by how much more growth-oriented they have become.
Perhaps our biggest challenge to successful Growth Mindset interventions is the False Mindset. Dweck has repeatedly expressed her concern about the False Mindset. Many teachers grew up in environments filled with negative Mindset Movers, and now carry unexamined fixed beliefs with them. As a result, even well-intentioned teachers can sometimes unintentionally create negative Mindset Movers in their classrooms.
To combat the False Mindset and increase the frequency of positive Mindset Movers in schools, I advocate two broad approaches to successful Growth Mindset interventions, which I describe in “What’s your approach to Growth Mindset?”
As a starting point, I help schools build a Growth Mindset Style Guide. This guide creates what behaviour psychologists call “nudges”. These gently nudge teachers towards creating positive Mindset Movers when there is a chance negative Mindset Movers could be created by accident.
Of course, style guides wouldn’t be necessary if every teacher had a highly developed and robust Growth Mindset. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case – which is not a criticism, but simply a recognition of a lifetime surrounded by negative Mindset Movers. Most teachers are shocked to discover how frequently they create negative Mindset Movers, especially when they discover how easy it is to create positive ones. What’s important is that teachers recognise and examine where their beliefs and actions fall along the Mindset Continuum, then question and challenge those beliefs to facilitate their journey along the continuum.
When every teacher sees the world through their Growth Mindset, we won’t need interventions for students. All our actions, pedagogy and choices will naturally create positive Mindset Movers. Our students will develop Authentic Growth Mindsets through their day-to-day lived experiences in our schools.
So, I hope the tide has not turned on Growth Mindsets. There is overwhelming evidence that shows they are not only important, but they are real. The beauty of this work is that Dweck didn’t invent the Growth Mindset – she (initially) observed it. People developed and benefited from their Growth Mindset long before Dweck put a name to it. The pathway to successful interventions is to emulate the way these Authentic Growth Mindsets were developed.
But I do hope the tide has turned on the ineffective Growth Mindset interventions we’ve been using. Let’s recognise that making a meaningful difference to students’ Mindset takes a more thoughtful approach. Successful Growth Mindset interventions require professional learning and thoughtful leadership, not posters.
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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