There can scarcely be a teacher in England who has not heard of growth mindset – the wildly popular idea that it is possible to increase pupils’ perseverance, and thus their attainment, if they are taught that their brain has the potential to grow through effort.
The concept, developed by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, has been adopted by schools up and down the land.
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But the latest study on growth mindset shows that one particular growth mindset programme had no impact on Year 6 children’s reading and maths scores.
More than 5,000 pupils in 101 schools took part in the study – a randomised controlled trial – to assess the impact of the Changing Mindsets project.
Changing Mindsets involved teachers attending a one-day training course on mindset theory and evidence. The teachers were then given the materials and training to run weekly lessons and activities on mindset theory with their pupils for around two hours a week over eight weeks.
But the evaluation, published today by the Education Endowment Foundation, found pupils taking part in the project made no additional progress in key stage 2 Sats tests in reading or maths when compared with pupils in a control group whose teachers carried on as normal.
Is this finding the beginning of the end of growth mindset?
That is difficult to assess. For a start, the researchers said that one possible reason for the finding was the sheer ubiquity of growth mindset.
Schools were only eligible to join the trial if they had not previously used a systematic mindsets programme with their Year 6 pupils. However, most of the teachers in the schools in the study's control group were also familiar with growth mindset and over a third had attended training days based on it.
Perhaps pupils in control schools were applying growth mindset principles to their work, for example, through being willing to try difficult tasks.
“The implication is, therefore, that our study is likely to understate the overall effect of the Changing Mindsets intervention because it is only a comparison of a ‘structured package’ to approaches based on the same theoretical underpinnings, and not a comparison of the intervention to the counterfactual of no growth mindset approach at all,” the researchers state.
But still the study is large, rigorous and it will raise questions. While research in the US and Norway with secondary pupils has shown that children who are taught that their intelligence can be developed through effort show more perseverance and do achieve more, there has been concern that some of Dweck’s original studies have failed to show similar effects when replicated. And there is a backlash against some of the more simplified messages seeping into schools.
“Crudely implemented, growth mindset reinforces the notion that pupils are to blame for not having enough 'grit' to succeed when the system is stacked against them,” then chief executive of the Sutton Trust, Lee Elliot Major, and Steve Higgins, professor of education at Durham University, wrote in Tes.
“Bullshit” is how the geneticist Robert Plomin, of King’s College, London, has described the theory.
But Dweck has hit back at Plomin’s criticism, which she says is based on a misunderstanding of mindset theory.
The two key pitfalls in implementation, she told Tes last week, are teaching the concept to pupils but not implementing teaching practices that focus on growth, and simply praising effort (rather than achievement).
Dweck said that implementation in the classroom is far more complex than was imagined when the research began – and will take deep thought and deep experimentation.
Today's study may be a blow to one particular way in which growth mindset theories could be implemented. But it also feeds into that ongoing experimentation which aims to improve children’s learning.
Another major study on growth mindset, from the US, is due to be published soon. It may reinforce the concerns or produce more positive results. We don't know yet. Either way, the debate is likely to continue.