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What Every Teacher Needs To Know About…Growth Mindset Theory

How could anyone possibly object to Carol Dweck’s wildly popular theory? After all, isn’t she just claiming that anyone can, with effort, become cleverer? What could be wrong with that?

David Didau
by David Didau
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Dweck’s theory is more complex than simply ‘try, and you will succeed’. She is actually making three claims.

First, that having a growth mindset leads to better academic achievement. Secondly, that having a fixed mindset leads to worse academic achievement – and lastly, that providing students with a growth mindset intervention (which focuses on explaining the neuroscience involved) changes students’ mindset and thereby improves their academic performance.

These are all testable theories and Dweck and her colleagues have amassed a host of impressive data to support them. It seems that telling people ‘the brain is like a muscle’ (it’s not) and that persisting in that face of setbacks makes our brain grow (maybe) really does make them cleverer.

Innate ability matters

But at the same time, there is good research supporting the idea that inborn ability (including but not limited to intelligence) matters, a lot. Added to that, when schools try a growth mindset intervention without support from Dweck or her colleagues, sometimes it doesn’t work. For instance the Education Endowment Foundation trial, Changing Mindsets was unable to replicate Dweck’s results and concluded that any improvements observed may have been down to chance.

Maybe you’ve tried telling kids about growth mindsets and how this can turn them into academic superheroes? Has it worked? If it has, I’m glad for you; if it hasn’t, the problem might be that either you or your students have a ‘false growth mindset’.

Basically, a false growth mindset is where people say they have a growth mindset but really they secretly persist in having a fixed one. Because we’ve unanimously agreed that having a fixed mindset is egregious and a growth mindset makes you a better all-round human being, no one wants to fess up to being ‘fixed’. When asked, we tend to say, “Yes of course I have a growth mindset,” because the alternative is to say, “No, I’m afraid I’m a terrible person.” Dweck came up with this addition to her theory to explain why her suggested interventions don’t always work; if students don’t make an improvement then they haven’t really developed a growth mindset.

A mass of contradictions

Can you see what’s wrong with this? The problem with a theory that explains away all the objections is that there are no conditions in which the claim could not be true. When fossil evidence disproved the widely believed ‘fact’ that the world was created in 4004 BC, Philip Henry Gosse came up with the wonderful argument that God created the fossils to make the world look older than it actually is in order to fox us and make Himself appear even more fabulous and omnipotent.

By invoking the ‘false growth mindset’, Dweck has made her claims untestable. If no amount of data or evidence can prove Dweck’s claims false because she can just say, Well, that’s a false growth mindset, not a real one, then what’s the difference between her and Gosse? 

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying growth mindset is completely wrong or useless. Clearly it isn’t. But, it does contradict a lot of research in other fields and it also flies in the face of many people’s lived experience: there really are human beings with fixed mindsets who are actually very successful and not helpless at all. (Ah, but are there really? Maybe they’ve all got false fixed mindsets?)

In fairness, Dweck isn’t the problem; it’s the legions of mindset fans who’ve popularised the belief that all people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough. And this message is both harmful, and wrong.

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