A Beacon in the Mindset Wilderness

For a few years now, I’ve been in the Mindset wilderness.

Three years ago, I spent lots of time tapping the brakes.

“Yes,” I’d say, “we do have plenty of good research behind this strategy. HOWEVER, let’s be realistic. A wall covered in upbeat slogans (“YET!”) just isn’t going to revolutionize education.”

I got a lot of side-eyes.

In 2018, several careful scholars published a blockbuster pair of meta-analyses, throwing doubt on the whole mindset enterprise. Their grim conclusions:

First: students’ mindset has little effect on their academic performance, and

Second: mindset intervention programs don’t provide much benefit.

Suddenly, I started sounding like a mindset enthusiast.

“Yes,” I’d say, “a focus on mindset won’t revolutionize education. HOWEVER: incremental increases in motivation can add up over time. We have SO FEW strategies to help with motivation, we shouldn’t ignore the ones that provide even modest benefits.”

I got even more side-eyes.

The Stickiest Wicket

In these conversations, one point has consistently created the greatest difficulties for my position.

Several mindset researchers have championed the efficacy of “one-shot interventions.”

That is: if students experience one carefully designed mindset-reshaping experience — a webinar, a presentation, an exercise of some kind — that “one shot” alone can help them transform a fixed mindset into a growth mindset.

I gotta say: I just don’t believe that.

My doubts stem not from research, but from experience. Having taught high-school students for thousands of years, I don’t think it ever happens that telling them something once meaningfully changes anything.

I don’t doubt the integrity of the researchers or the process they use. But their conclusion defies too much of my experience (and common sense) for me to take it on board.

Rarely do I use the “my experience trumps your research” veto; in this case, I’m really tempted.

What’s That? “A Beacon,” You Say?

A soon-to-be-published study — run by several of Team Mindset’s leading scholars — offers some support for this skepticism.

These scholars asked a perfectly sensible question: “can a one-shot mindset intervention help students whose teachers demonstrate a fixed mindset?”

That is: must the classroom context echo the explicit message of that one-shot intervention?

Or — in the words of the study — can the mindset “seed” grow in inhospitable “soil”? Are students (on average) independent agents who can overcome implicit classroom messages and act on their explicit mindset training?

To answer this question, the authors reviewed data from a very large study with more than 9000 high school students.

This study takes great procedural care to get the details right: students are randomly assigned to groups; teachers don’t know which student is in which group; teachers don’t know the hypothesis of the study — and so forth.

After a one-shot intervention at the beginning of 9th grade, researchers tracked students’ math grades at the end of the year.

The researchers also asked questions to learn about the teachers‘ mindsets. They wanted to know: did the teachers’ mindset shape the students’ response to the intervention?

The results?

Context Always Matters

Initially, no.

Immediately after the one-shot intervention, students who saw the growth-mindset messages expressed higher degrees of growthiness. Those in the control condition did not. And the teachers’ mindsets didn’t influence those early results.

However — this is a big however — at the end of the year that final sentence wasn’t true.

Students who BOTH heard the growth-mindset messages AND had growth-mindset teachers saw higher math grades.

Students who heard the growth mindset message BUT had fixed-mindset teachers did not.

And, to repeat, those results came months after the intervention itself.

To me, these results make perfect sense. A one-shot message won’t help if the daily classroom routine constantly undermines it; that message might sink in if classroom routines reinforce it.

After all, as the authors wisely write, “no psychological phenomenon works the same way for all people in all contexts.” *

Next Question

This research suggests that teachers’ classroom work can sustain explicit mindset interventions.

Here’s my question: do students need that intervention in the first place? Is the teacher’s classroom practice enough?

I do share LOTS of research with my students: research into retrieval practice, and multitasking, and spacing. I DON’T even mention mindset research, or exhort them to embrace their inner growth mindset.

Instead, I simply enact the mindset strategies.

The classroom rewrite policy encourages and rewards multiple drafts.

I frequently comment on the benefits of cognitive struggle. (“Good news! If you got some questions wrong on that retrieval practice exercise, you’re likelier to learn the answers in the future. The right kind of practice will help you learn.”)

I regularly emphasize what I don’t know, and am excited when I learn something new. (I recently told my sophomores that I have NO IDEA how to interpret the symbolism of Tea Cake’s rabies in Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of my students promptly offered up an explanation; I’m genuinely enthusiastic to have his insight — and the class knows that!)

As I see it, growth mindset isn’t something to talk about. It’s something we demonstrate: quietly, un-fussily, daily.

I’m hoping that — someday — research will support this belief as well.


* Although most psychology studies can put off even the most determined reader, this one has been written (it seems) with a lay reader in mind. Although the technical sections are indeed quite technical, the early sections are easy to read: clear, logical, straightforward. If you’re interested in the topic, I recommend giving these early sections a read.

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