Growth Mindset: Fact or Fiction?
Several years ago, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” research has swept Australian education by storm. And for good reason: it’s simple, intuitive, and evidence-based.
Since then, her TED talk has been viewed close to 12 million times.
Here comes the “but”…
The excitement about growth mindset and its application in education grew much faster than the science did.
In this blog and my speaking, I like to look critically at these things. One of the workshops I run for educators and schools is called “Everything you don’t know you don’t know about growth mindset”. I can do that because I’m the only Australian to have conducted growth mindset research. In the early 2000’s, I conducted one of Australia’s only experimental mindset studies. It’s still an unpublished manuscript.
The results weren’t what they needed to be in order to be published in a respectable journal. Yes, we found that praising intelligence did lead to a significantly increased likelihood that experiment participants would choose to do an easier, rather than a harder, subsequent activity following a setback. However, a range of other hypotheses were unsupported. And the study simply wasn’t a high enough standard to publish.
Just four years ago in 2019, a large number of researchers, including Dweck, published a growth mindset study in Nature. In it, they said:
Here we show that a short (less than one hour), online growth mindset intervention—which teaches that intellectual abilities can be developed—improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased overall enrolment to advanced mathematics courses in a nationally representative sample of students in secondary education in the United States.
It sounds great, right?
However, when you read the study a bit closer here’s what you find:
In line with our first major prediction, lower-achieving adolescents earned higher GPAs in core classes at the end of the ninth grade when assigned to the growth mindset intervention, B = 0.10 grade points
In simple terms: teaching growth mindset to students who are low-achieving teens leads to increased GPA of 0.1! It’s miniscule. Other meta-analyses of growth mindset research use the polite academic term, “weak”, to describe how growth mindset impacts educational outcomes. They did acknowledge that students from poor areas or with learning difficulties might benefit somewhat from growth mindset principles.
Does that mean that yet another education intervention/program bites the dust?
It certainly does mean that those who are making money from mindset interventions need to be up front about what it does and doesn’t do. But it’s worth highlighting a few critical things:
First, the Macnamara meta-analysis showed a tiny effect size (0.08 for the science nerds) of growth mindset interventions, but it was more than four times greater in kids from low income families (effect size of 0.35). So it does make a difference. And as Michigan University economist, Susan Dynarski states, based on cost, this may actually still be bang for buck.
Second, Brown University scholar, Matt Kraft, published an important paper about “effect sizes” in education. Investigating over 800 studies, he showed that the Mindset intervention did better than half of those included in his study. And he argued that even a small effect size, like the one I’ve highlighted above, can have significant real-world effects, particularly for such a small price. It’s a tiny effect. But it’s actually a bigger effect than many education interventions attain – and it’s from a really, really simple intervention.
So what does that mean for educators?
Is Mindset another fad? In some ways, yes. The research certainly doesn’t live up to they hype in education circles about Growth Mindset.
Should we give up? To this, I’d say “it depends on what you mean by give up.”
If you think we should just let go entirely, then no. But if we think pinning a poster on a wall and saying “You can do this if you believe you can” is enough, then we’re in need of an expectation adjustment. Educators need to create environments that are supportive and encouraging, period. If mindset ideas can be incorporated, that’s wonderful and helpful. Perhaps they don’t experience positive messages about their potential outside of the school context.
But a growth mindset is not likely to flourish – ever – in a system that is designed to judge, evaluate, examine, and assess. While we are examining and assessing rather than assisting and developing student mastery and competence, the fixed mindset approach may dominate, or mindset interventions may continue to fall flat. Looking seriously at the way we give feedback and the extent to which we focus on exams and grades will be crucial for us to improve the mindsets of our students – and their enjoyment of learning.
Looking to learn more?
Get in touch to talk about my staff presentation titled “Everything you don’t know you don’t know about Growth Minds”.