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Are we Having the Wrong Argument about Growth Mindset?

Debating whether Carol Dweck’s work represents sound neuroscience or the latest edu-fad is rather missing the point – and the potential – argues Harley Richardson…

Harley Richardson
by Harley Richardson
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If you’ve spent any time in schools over the past few years – and I’m guessing you have – you’ll probably have come across the concept of ‘growth mindset’. This says that we have, broadly speaking, two ways of thinking about our own intelligence: ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’.

People with a fixed mindset see their mental abilities as limited, and so are more likely to become disheartened and give up when they fail at a task.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe their minds are flexible and so are more likely to work hard to overcome any setbacks they encounter.

Fixed mindset bad, growth mindset good.

If correct, this claim has implications for the classroom, in the way children learn, the feedback teachers give them, and the exam results they get.

Some schools are now attempting actively to foster a growth mindset amongst their pupils and staff, leading to the inevitable INSET sessions and a proliferation of consultants and commercial resources.

My colleague at the IOI Education Forum, Kevin Rooney, argues that this is getting out of hand and that growth mindset is rapidly becoming another accountability stick to beat teachers with.

He tells of teachers being berated by senior leadership when their students’ grades don’t hit the desired targets: “You don’t have enough of a growth mindset!”.

The evolution of a theory

Growth mindset theory was proposed by the American academic Carol Dweck over 30 years ago but it is only over the last four or five years that it has attracted a lot of attention amongst educationalists in the UK.

It certainly taps into the current enthusiasm for all things cognitive science, being backed up by neuroscientific research into brain plasticity which shows that the neurons in our brain can change and develop over time and that their growth can be fostered by good nutrition, healthy amounts of sleep, and so on.

Dr Dweck’s research in schools found exceptionally strong support for her theory, but others have struggled to replicate the results, or have even claimed that having a growth mindset can have a detrimental effect on academic results.

So, is growth mindset a valuable psychological insight or just another educational fad based on shaky evidence? I doubt that further research can settle this question.

I remember attending an education conference where a speaker announced with absolute certainty that “research shows that growth mindset doesn’t work”.

Yet earlier the same day, Carol Dweck had packed out the main hall with teachers eager to hear what she had to say. Whatever the evidence, clearly something about growth mindset has caught people’s imaginations. What could this be?

A red herring

I think the evidence both for and against growth mindset constitutes a red herring. It is more productive to think of it as an idea to engage with, rather than a scientific claim to accept unquestioningly or reject outright. What’s more, It’s an idea with several facets.

Growth mindset is a common sense idea. We don’t need neuroscience to tell us that our attitude to failure can make a difference to our chances of future success.

“You can do it!”, “Don’t give up!” and other everyday phrases all implicitly acknowledge that, in life, making progress often involves recognising and overcoming our perceptions of our own limits.

Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, has also pointed out that growth mindset is a reformulation of the old adage “if you don’t work hard, you won’t get the results”. And with that in mind…

It’s a banal idea – when I heard about growth mindset the first thing that came to mind was, believe it or not, the Spice Girls.

I doubt Scary, Posh, Ginger, Sporty and Baby Spice were familiar with growth mindset back in their 1990s pop heyday but they would have all scored high on the Dweck-O-Meter for their exuberant claims that “all you need is determination and self-belief”.

And they certainly worked hard to achieve their success and weren’t put off by early failures.

However their somewhat erratic careers since then demonstrate that these admirable qualities on their own are not always enough.

Without substance to back up your positive attitude, as well as the support of other people and a fair dose of luck, the claims of growth mindset theory may amount to nothing more than an empty greeting card sentiment which leads to disillusionment when the promised success doesn’t come.

Yet – growth mindset is also a deep idea – grappled with by thinkers over thousands of years as society has evolved and become more free.

When life was about survival, the idea of ‘personal growth’ would have been meaningless, but the Enlightenment and civilisation have brought the possibility of changing both ourselves and, if we work together, society.

This notion of individual and collective self-determination was given perhaps its most profound expression in Karl Marx’s maxim that “we make history – but not in the circumstances of our choosing”.

Most importantly, it’s a political idea – and perhaps the reason that growth mindset has struck a chord with so many teachers at this particular point in time is that it, completely accidentally, contradicts many of our culture’s prevailing views about human nature and society as a whole.

These tend to emphasise both our personal limitations and the limits of the world around us.

Take identity politics, which encourages people to think of themselves in terms of fixed identities (gay, black, etc); or the popular notion that economic growth is damaging to the environment. Or, in education, the still widespread idea that children are, from an early age, either academic or practical and should be taught accordingly.

Challenge assumptions

Growth mindset is common sense, banal, deep and political. It is all of these things – and none of them, because the narrow, scientific way it is framed discourages us from engaging with the rich tapestry of thought that it could build upon, if thought about more broadly.

If we’re serious about encouraging schoolchildren to have a ‘growth mindset’ (in the best, widest sense), we should put the scientific arguments about its validity to one side and take on the political and intellectual task of understanding and challenging the cultural assumptions that discourage us all – children and adults – from developing our potential as human beings.

Harley Richardson is director of design & development at Discovery Education and a member of the IOI Education Forum.

At the next meeting of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum, which gathers monthly to discuss trends in education policy, theory and practice, a stellar cast of panellists will fight it out over the question ‘Who has made the biggest impact on education?’ Come along on 11 December for a raucous and festive shindig to round out the year.

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