Growth mindsets have caught on in a big way. Teachers have mapped and adapted their own practices to Carol Dweck’s framework; schools have made it their mantra. Pendulums, though, have a propensity to swing back.
Dweck says that students should be praised for their industry, creativity and resilience, rather than for native ability. Moving from a fixed mindset (“I’m no good at maths”) to a growth one (“I can’t do that … yet”) means rejecting the idea that intelligence is a fixed quality. Dweck argues that those with a fixed mindset have little control over their academic success. But if you believe that mental skills are malleable, achievement can benefit from the application of effort and effective learning techniques.
Mindset theory has been subjected to critique from various sources. Geneticist Robert Plomin points out that changing growth mindset is but “a tiny piece of the action” – there are genetic predispositions towards mindset formation. Add gender to the mix – research suggests that there are significant gender differences in academic self-concept, and in intrinsic/extrinsic motivation.
Educationalist Alex Quigley supports the theory, but counsels against oversimplification. Confidence and motivation are crucial, but “confidence without competence is simply hot air”. Recent research studies have failed to find a link between academic performance and students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence.
Maybe the problem with mindset theory is the temptation to see it as a quick fix. Which poses the question: how, and how quickly, might mindsets really be changed?
Mention of mindsets prompts a digression. The French Annales school of historians introduced the term “mentalités”, sometimes translated as “mindsets”, to describe the collective frames of reference that individuals and communities use to make sense of their world, and to inform their actions (the locus of “custom and practice”). The point is that, according to the Annalistes, these mindsets are to be found at the level of deep structures, characterised by persistence; in contrast to the daily flow of events, or the periodicity of things like business cycles.
What about the mindsets of teachers rather than students? Custom and practice are deeply-embedded, and for good reason: they are framed by what we’ve learned from research and experience. They can change, but not by prescription. Schools can’t adopt growth mindsets by fiat. They need to put their money where their mouths are – with resources, professional development and time for reflection. They should also try applying the theory to teachers themselves – i.e. believe in them, invest in them, empower them.
The Annales framework points to the need to avoid adopting mindset theory as a cure-all initiative bolted on to otherwise unchanged school cultures. Eye-catching but evanescent initiatives reside at the surface level of events, destined to be replaced in short order by the next fad, unless they are anchored in system changes in schools, and by structural changes – sustained efforts to ensure that growth mindsets become embedded in custom and practice.
If we’re in the business of sustainable impact, let’s hear it for the longue durée.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust.