One teacher, Carl Hendrick says, saw growth mindset in the snow. Taking her children out into the pristine snow covering the school playground, she instructed them to walk around, taking note of their footprints.
“Look at these paths you’ve been creating,” the teacher said. “In the same way that you’re creating new pathways in the snow, learning creates new pathways in your brain.”
Hendrick, head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire, pauses. “I don’t see how that’s going to help little Johnny solve quadratic equations in period one,” he says.
“The thing that’s going to help little Johnny solve quadratic equations is learning about quadratic equations.”
It is a rare teacher who has not heard the term “growth mindset”. It is probably an equally rare teacher who has not used the term, in some form or another, with pupils.
But, though its message is an appealing one for teachers and pupils alike – believe you can succeed and you will – many researchers are now beginning to question whether lessons in growth mindset are the pedagogical equivalent of the go-get-’em platitudes regularly superimposed over pictures of waterfalls. Or, put differently, whether growth mindset – like brain gym and learning styles before it – is all hype and no benefit.
“A lot of educational problems are quite entrenched,” Hendrick says. “They’re not something you can solve through a motivational poster, or an Olympic athlete saying, ‘Growth mindset! You can do it!’”
'The most unread book'
Growth mindset was first introduced to the world in 2006 by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. According to Dweck, some people believe that intelligence is set at birth, and that success or failure is determined by one’s intrinsic ability. This is a fixed mindset.
Others argue that the brain is plastic: like any muscle, it responds to regular exercise. Through study and hard work, therefore, intelligence can be strengthened. This is a growth mindset: the belief that effort improves intelligence. And, obviously, with improved intelligence comes improved outcomes.
It is easy to see the appeal for teachers. “I think that growth mindset is a really, really good example of how, as a profession, we are still very susceptible to novelty, and to programmes or projects that resonate emotionally with our values,” says Tom Bennett, founder of ResearchED, which helps teachers apply academic research in the classroom.
“Almost everyone who talks about growth mindset hasn’t read Carol Dweck’s research. It’s the most unread book in educational dialogue, and the most widely discussed.
“But growth mindset appeals emotionally and altruistically. And, because of that, it’s very seductive. It feels right that you don’t criticise the person, but invite them to believe that, through hard work and persistence, you can achieve.”
In fact, growth mindset points to a larger, perennial problem: teachers are not researchers, and translating complex neuroscientific and psychological ideas into classroom-friendly language is always going to create problems.
“There’s something that I call a magic mirror,” Bennett says. “Even good research, by the time it reaches the classroom – it’s become transmogrified into something that bears no resemblance to its original version.
“The relationship between schools and research is still very, very embryonic. It’s easy to approach research in schools in the same way we’d approach cognitive psychology by buying a self-help book from WH Smith.”
Hendrick uses similar terms. “It’s the Chinese-whisper effect,” he says. “By the time research reaches the classroom, it’s a pale interpretation of its original form. It’s become amateur psychotherapy.”
Worse: it ends up being cited as some kind of cure-all panacea for underachievement. “We’ve stopped using the phrase ‘growth mindset’, because the students have got sick of it,” says John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York. “My son just gets fed up of self-righteous teachers giving assemblies about how great they were when they were up against it.”
'Vanguard of frustrations'
But, says Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, growth mindset is very far from a panacea. In fact, attempts to duplicate Carol Dweck’s research in the classroom have shown no measurable benefit to pupils’ achievement.
“There have been three attempts to replicate Carol Dweck’s work, and it doesn’t appear to be replicable,” Wiliam says. “She says it’s difficult, subtle work.
“But, if it is, then the chance of people replicating this in schools is very small. Carol Dweck told me that they don’t have a single example of a school successfully changing pupils’ mindsets.”
And, says Tomsett, the message of “you can do whatever you want” has a negative side, as well as a positive. “If kids haven’t got the knowledge or the methodology to get better, they just get discouraged by flogging themselves,” he says. “You need knowledge and metacognitive skills to get through it. Then, if you have those skills, and you put your mind to it, you can get through it.”
Wiliam argues that none of these motivational assemblies or lessons actually refers back to what Dweck herself meant by growth mindset, anyway. Her research does not talk about improving outcomes or results. It talks about improving intelligence, or IQ.
“What schools are doing under the name of growth mindset is encouraging students that, whatever your talents are, you can become more proficient,” he says. “And that’s a very positive message. But it’s not how Carol Dweck defines growth mindset.”
Sympathy for this point of view comes from an unexpected source. “I share some of the frustrations,” says Carol Dweck. “I’m leading the vanguard of frustrations with how some educators may be saying ‘work harder’ and think they’re growing children’s intelligence.
“‘Work harder’ is something adults have said for centuries. It’s called nagging, and it doesn’t work. That’s not growth mindset.
“I was asked once, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ It’s the idea that my work – which was designed in opposition to the self-esteem movement – would be used in the way that the self-esteem movement is used.”
Talent vs knowledge
Still, she says, the bastardised version of growth mindset being preached in many schools is fundamentally benign. “It’s true in most cases: if you work harder, you will do better,” she says. “You certainly won’t do worse.”
Dylan Wiliam agrees. There is nothing wrong, he says, with teachers encouraging children to view school subjects as they might football practice: the more they practise, the better they will perform.
“Natural ability doesn’t get you very far in anything useful or important,” he says. “People practise a lot, because they’ve got talent. And other people give up, because their practice doesn’t produce the same amount of improvement. So it’s wrong to say that talent doesn’t matter. But real success depends on the amount of practice. There’s no school subject where talent alone is determinative.”
This brings Hendrick back to his original point: giving children lessons in growth mindset is often pointless. Knowing what growth mindset is will not enable them to improve in maths; mathematical knowledge is what enables them to improve.
“It may give students more of a growth mindset to have one-to-one tutoring in maths than to have a lesson in growth mindset,” he says. “You can have a theoretical understanding of something, and yet not be able to apply it to yourself.
“We’re not really honest with kids. We want to apply a magic pill to learning when, in fact, learning is difficult.”
Bennett agrees. “We operate within a very high-stakes, instant accountability system,” he says. “One of the things that this provokes is a need for quick solutions – particularly simple solutions to complex problems.
“If someone can come along and say, ‘Rub this in your forehead three times a week’, it’s a very easy way to get yourself out of a problem.”
Teacher, improve thyself
Carol Dweck believes that her role as a researcher obligates her to promote a better understanding of what growth mindset really is.
She insists that it is less about telling pupils what to think, and more about showing them. “Growth mindset is about embodying it in all the everyday practices that educators do,” she says. “Presenting material with students’ understanding that you think they can all learn it to a high level.
“It’s collaborating with students, and giving feedback to them on their learning processes. It’s about helping children to relish challenges, because the challenges can help them grow their abilities.”
This is backed by evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation. A trial run by the foundation found that teachers trained in the principles of growth mindset had zero impact on the pupils they taught subsequently. However, when the ideas were embedded in practical workshops with pupils, children gained an extra two months’ progress compared with similar children not involved.
Dweck is currently developing classroom materials to better enable teachers to differentiate between what is and is not growth mindset.
“We were wrong that we thought it was a simple concept,” she says. “I thought it would be easy to implement. I thought that the idea that intellectual ability can be developed was more straightforward.
“But every psychological phenomenon is subtle, and one has to understand when, where, how. Educators have to learn how to embody the growth mindset in their practice.”
However, Wiliam says, many teachers struggle with this – and this is part of the problem. “Every teacher should continue to strive to improve their practice as a teacher,” he says. “But teachers are threatened by evaluation mostly because they have a fixed mindset – because they think they can’t improve as a teacher: ‘You tell me I’m bad, and I can’t do anything.’
“What I find ironic is that, in many schools where they push growth mindset for students, the teachers themselves don’t have growth mindset.”
Carol Dweck will be a guest on the Tes Podagogy podcast on 18 October, when she will talk in detail about the criticisms of her work. The Tes Podagogy podcast is a weekly podcast about teaching for teachers and recent episodes featured Dylan Wiliam, Daisy Chirstodoulou and professor Daniel Willingham.