The concept of a “growth mindset” is very popular these days. In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick summary of the idea: Having a growth mindset means believing you can improve through effort and the use of effective strategies while having a fixed mindset means believing you are stuck with whatever abilities you have now.1
I introduced it here, with this blog several years ago. And I’ve followed up on that with numerous supporting posts, such as “Fix vs. Grow” and “Use It or Lose It,” and “The Brain is Like a Bunch of Muscles.”
Researchers have been studying growth mindsets extensively. Schools have been implementing growth-mindset interventions in a wide variety of ways. There are posters and YouTube videos encouraging kids to believe they can improve. And it has even seeped into the corporate world. I was once hired to give a presentation to a sales team about the importance of having a growth mindset.
But with popularity comes scrutiny, and with scrutiny often comes doubt.
It’s unclear whether or not growth mindset interventions actually work. It seems many do not.2 And research findings on the effects of having a growth mindset have been mixed: Sometimes growth mindsets seem to help, but other times they don’t seem to have any effect at all.2
If that were all you read about it, you might be tempted to throw the concept in the same wastebasket as learning styles – a concept that sounded nice but ultimately failed to hold up under scrutiny. However, I think there are good explanations for both of these issues, so before we jump to the conclusion that growth mindsets have been debunked, let’s dig a little deeper.
How Beneficial Is a Growth Mindset?
Carol Dweck is the Stanford professor who pioneered the concept. Both her initial research and much of her follow-up research has been promising, indicating that students with a growth mindset are more persistent on difficult problems and are more likely to choose challenging goals.1 Furthermore, in 2017, Dweck wrote the following in defense of her work:
“A meta-analysis published in 2013 found 113 studies conducted by many authors and concluded that mindsets are a significant factor in people’s self-regulation toward goals. … Government data collected at a country level—all the 10th grade students in the country of Chile (over 160,000)—showed that holding a growth mindset predicted academic achievement at every socioeconomic level. Recently, the state of California, collecting data from over 100,000 middle schoolers, found that students’ mindsets were a good predictor of their test scores.” 3
But then a 2018 meta-analysis of studies encompassing nearly 400,000 students found only a weak correlation between having a growth mindset and higher academic achievement.2 So does this mean that having a growth mindset isn’t so valuable after all? Well, that depends on how you interpret these findings.
Just One Tool Among Many
One interpretation is that, while a growth mindset is probably helpful, it is not a cure-all for academic struggles. Really, this isn’t very surprising since there are numerous other factors that go into how well students do in school. In a great article about this, Carl Hendrick commented:
“An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage.” 4
In other words, the value of a growth mindset may be real, but it does not negate the significance of innate intelligence. Nor can it be a stand-alone remedy for learning differences such as dyslexia, slow processing speed, ADHD, or autism. Nor can a growth mindset, on its own, alleviate the disadvantages of poverty, undereducated parents, or inadequate schools. All of these factors are important to acknowledge and address.
Having a growth mindset is just one component of a broad array of tools and strategies that support student success. In other words, it’s part of a full-court press. In this view, we should still be trying to cultivate growth mindsets in students, but we should also be doing all sorts of other things.
Students need to be taught effective learning strategies, not just academic content. We need to encourage students to be resourceful, but we also need to provide them with actual resources: school supplies, textbooks, tutors, and well-funded schools. And praising students for working hard is good, but the message would be a lot more powerful if our society had a more level playing field.
Another reason the 2018 meta-analysis found only a weak significance for growth mindsets may point to a deeper problem with this kind of research. Collecting data on whether or not people have a growth mindset is simple enough – you can give them a questionnaire. And collecting data on their academic achievement is simple too – you record their test scores and GPAs. The trouble comes when you try to connect the dots between those two things.
You don’t know, for example, if a high school senior currently demonstrating a growth mindset had a fixed mindset up until his junior year. If that’s the case, his academic achievement might be low due to a decade of being a fixed-minded student, even though he has a growth mindset now.
But there’s another case that might be much more common and even more damaging to the data: Smart kids with fixed mindsets. They exist, and they can do very well in school despite having a fixed mindset. I should know; I used to be one of them.
Carol Dweck’s original research discovered that praising kids for being smart helped instill in them a fixed mindset. Well, guess what happens to a lot of kids who test into gifted programs or AP classes? They get told they’re smart. Sometimes they get told this explicitly by other people, and the rest of the time they get told this implicitly by their grades and test scores. Thus, a sizeable chunk of the data would be composed of students with both high academic achievement and fixed mindsets.
On the other hand, a student with say, dyslexia, might have a much harder time in school, but discover the value of hard work and good strategy. This student’s achievement would rank lower, but they would report a growth mindset on a questionnaire.
Taken in combination, these two archetypes would really muddy the water. This might explain why the study didn’t find a strong correlation between academic success and having a growth mindset, even though growth mindsets are helpful.
Psychology is a messy science. It’s very hard to study humans. A growth mindset is probably much better than a fixed mindset, all other things being equal. The trouble with studying humans is, all other things are never equal.
How effective are growth mindset interventions?
Another meta-analysis from 2018 seemed to show that growth mindset interventions aren’t very effective. Most of them either didn’t shift students’ mindsets, or they didn’t improve academic outcomes – sometimes both.2
This one makes perfect sense to me. My own transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset was not a quick one. It took a wide variety of inputs and experiences, and the shift was gradual.
Sure, I had a watershed moment because I happened to be struggling through this really hard jigsaw puzzle while simultaneously listening to the audio version of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. But I also learned about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis from several different sources over the course of a few years, I took Learning How to Learn on Coursera, and I started watching self-development book summaries every morning. I learned about the 10,000-hour rule and the power of deliberate practice from books like Outliers and Bounce. I was working as a tutor and witnessing students’ growth on a daily basis. And I was personally growing academically and psychologically in major ways. All of this reinforced the idea that improvement is possible through effort and strategy.
Getting someone to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is no easy task. A two-hour seminar won’t cut it. Neither will reading an article and then doing a journaling exercise. The sort of interventions that schools can afford to implement are likely to be too small and too brief to be effective. And the same goes for the interventions done by psychologists on tight research budgets.
Furthermore, such interventions are not done in a vacuum. Kids might hear growth-minded messages at school, but then hear fixed-minded messages at home. And even if all the adults in a student’s life are growth-minded, they’re fighting against our culture, which celebrates talent, genius, and overnight success. They’re also fighting the norms of the school system itself, which tends to breed fixed mindsets through its very structure, as Carl Hendrick pointed out:
“One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.” 4
Another major problem with efforts to bring growth mindsets from the lab to the classroom is that, along the way, the message gets jumbled and degraded. The interventions, while well-meaning, are often poor representations of the true concept.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Professor Dweck referred to these representations as “false growth mindset.”
“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait. Something really challenging and outside your comfort zone can trigger it, or, if you encounter someone who is much better than you at something you pride yourself on, you can think ‘Oh, that person has ability, not me.’ So I think we all, students and adults, have to look for our fixed-mindset triggers and understand when we are falling into that mindset.
I think a lot of what happened [with false growth mindset among educators] is that instead of taking this long and difficult journey, where you work on understanding your triggers, working with them, and over time being able to stay in a growth mindset more and more, many educators just said, ‘Oh yeah, I have a growth mindset’ because either they know it’s the right mindset to have or they understood it in a way that made it seem easy.” 5
“another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying ‘Wow, you tried really hard!’ But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.
The mindset ideas were developed as a counter to the self-esteem movement of blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not. To find out that teachers were using it in the same way was of great concern to me. The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success.” 5
And she points out that it’s not just about praising effort rather than ability, it’s also about guiding students toward effective techniques and strategies, and praising them for using those.
“A lot of parents or teachers say praise the effort, not the outcome. I say [that’s] wrong: Praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress; tie the praise to it. It’s not just effort, but strategy … so support the student in finding another strategy. Effective teachers who actually have classrooms full of children with a growth mindset are always supporting children’s learning strategies and showing how strategies created that success.
Students need to know that if they’re stuck, they don’t need just effort. You don’t want them redoubling their efforts with the same ineffective strategies. You want them to know when to ask for help and when to use resources that are available.” 5
So what does work?
In addition to what Dweck just detailed, there are a couple of other ideas worth examining.
For one, students are more likely to shift toward a growth mindset if this goal is pursued by instructors indirectly. If I’m a student, and someone shows up at my school to teach me a different way to think about myself as a student, the message I’m actually going to hear from this speaker is, “You’ve been doing it wrong, and you need fixing.” Ironically, this is a very fixed-minded message. It’s not the speaker’s intention, of course, but that’s how corrective interventions are often interpreted. So what will I do when I hear this well-meaning speaker’s message? I’ll probably get defensive and reject it, or I’ll just tune it out. And the same reaction would be elicited by my teacher trying to coach me to have a growth mindset.
Carl Hendrick explains a better approach:
“Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions … should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.” 4
For parents, the takeaway here is not to teach your kids to have a growth mindset, but rather to subtly shift the language you use and model having one yourself.
Another thing that works is helping students actually experience the kind of success that a growth mindset can produce. In my experience, this can be done in areas where a student is adamantly fixed-minded, and the experience can be very powerful.
For example, let’s say I’ve got a student who is working through the concept of multiplying fractions on Khan Academy. They learn the method and do a series of number problems with little difficulty. We move on to multiplying mixed numbers, and again, it’s no trouble. But then we arrive at the dreaded word problems exercise. It’s the same math, but it’s couched in real-world scenarios that are each presented in a paragraph of text.
The student reads the first problem. It’s three sentences, all densely packed with information – some relevant, some extraneous. They write nothing down. They groan as if in agony.
“What’s going on?” I ask innocently, knowing full well what is coming.
“I’m confused! I’m just no good at word problems!” the student exclaims.
“Okay, can I show you a strategy that might make them easier?” I respond.
“Fine,” they reply with a tone that says, “This is not going to work.”
And then I simply have the student write information down as they read, pausing to write whenever necessary. Then, because they didn’t overload their working memory holding all of the information in their head, they’re suddenly not confused! They know exactly what to do, and they do it with ease.
“Nice job,” I remark. “It looks like you’re not so bad at story problems after all. You just needed a little strategy.”
Often, I leave it there and let them continue to experience that kind of success on the rest of the problem set. If they’re curious about why it works, I’ll explain the concept of cognitive load, and draw a cartoon brain to help drive it home.
The point is, I didn’t tell the student to have a growth mindset. I didn’t tell them to try harder and use strategies. I gave them an effective strategy and let them actually experience its power. Armed with that technique, their self-efficacy increases. Every experience they have like that subtly shifts them toward a growth mindset.
Carl Hendrick summed up the relevant research this way:
“You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. … All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. … [For example,] Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains.” 4
In other words, the best way to create motivation to engage in academics is to give them academic skills. Hard problems require mechanical solutions, as well as effort. Once you have the mechanical solution in hand, and you’re witnessing it work, you’ll be motivated to continue using it. Experience the value of skills and strategies firsthand, and you’ll come to believe in their power. Until you’ve really felt that success, you’re not going to buy into any sort of growth mindset instruction.
It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if just praising your child’s efforts rather than their intelligence was all you had to do? That sure would be an easy way to cultivate the gritty work ethic we’d like to see them have. But alas it’s not that easy. Cultivating a growth mindset cannot be done with a small or short-term intervention. It’s something you pursue incrementally, through numerous avenues, over many years.
We have to do many things, consistently, for a long time, including, but not limited to, shifting our language, changing what we value, supporting academic success, and leading by example. Meaningful change is slow and hard, but it’s worth it.
I said earlier that I had a fixed mindset when I was a student. And even though I did well in school, I did falter in a variety of ways because I had a fixed mindset. I switched from engineering to sociology after my freshman year of college. Ostensibly, this was because I didn’t like the engineering courses, but that’s not the whole story. They were difficult, and in order to succeed, I would have had to work hard. Things had always come easily for me, so I thought things were just supposed to come easily. Beyond academics, being a fixed-minded person also hurt my personal relationships, hindered my ability to take feedback at jobs, and kept me stuck in an unhealthy lifestyle for much of my 20’s.
Shifting to a growth mindset went hand-in-hand with improving my career choices, pursuing self-education, learning to take risks, and working hard. It helped me adopt healthy habits, such as eating more vegetables and less sugar, daily exercise, and meditation. It helped me increase my willpower and stop procrastinating all the time. And it helped me overcome depression and addiction.
So I know from personal experience that shifting to a growth mindset can improve your life in many important ways. Growth mindsets have not been debunked. They’re just harder to instill than some would have you believe. Hard, but worth it.
As an academic coach, I know I have to be patient. When a student presents fixed-minded language, I can reframe it with growth-minded language. Or when a student shows me they’re afraid of making mistakes and failures – a classic sign of a fixed mindset – I can get them to have a positive experience taking academic risks. And I can keep teaching and modeling effective learning strategies in order to help them become more effective students. But I don’t expect any of this to create an instantaneous change. I just patiently keep at it, week after week, trusting that they will eventually shift in the right direction.
1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
2 “Study finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective.” ScienceDaily. May 22, 2018.
3 Dweck, Carol. “Growth mindset is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house.” Mindset Scholars Network. January 18, 2017.
4 Hendrick, Carl. “The growth mindset problem.” Aeon. 11 March 2019.
5 Gross-Loh, Christine. “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize” The Atlantic. December 16, 2016.