Few theories in education have had a more dramatic story arc than Carol Dweck’s “Mindset.”
Based on research she started in the early 1970s, Dweck published her sumptuously-titled book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential in 2006. By the time I entered this field in 2008, it had gone beyond “must read” status to the “what do you mean you haven’t read it?” pantheon.
Like millions of other teachers, I read it. (In fact, I wrote my own book about Mindset: Learning Grows.)
Across the country, Growth Mindset posters went up on classroom walls. Grading standards changed to include the words “not yet.”
Like any big target, Dweck’s work attracted detractors. Doubts reached their pinnacle in 2018, when Sisk and Burgoyne published two meta-analyses. Their findings:
Growth mindset doesn’t really make much of difference for student learning.
Programs designed to enhance growth mindset have little meaningful effect.
Other large-scale studies, including this one from Argentina, reported similarly doubts.
Mindset’s potential, contrary to Dweck’s subtitle, remained unfulfilled.
Fresh Plot Twist?
Since the Sisk & Burgoyne meta-analyses, it has become fashionable to say “Successful mindset interventions have one variable in common: Carol Dweck did them.”
This critique is both untrue — lots of other researchers have found positive results — and unprofessional: it implies (without directly accusing) that Dweck either has been sloppy or has cooked her data.
And yet, anyone who reads Dweck’s research over the years would hesitate to throw such shade.
A freshly released heap o’ data, in fact, might restore some interest in Mindset.
Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-olds in science, math, and reading. They gather all sorts of data and publish those results.
As Sarah Sparks summarizes the data:
After controlling for students’ and schools’ socioeconomic differences, students with a strong growth mindset scored significantly higher on all subjects—31.5 points in reading, 27 points in science, and 23 points in math—compared with students who believed their intelligence was fixed.
Unsurprisingly, Sparks reports, teachers matter:
Students with supportive teachers—for example, those who show interest in every student learning and a willingness to provide extra help and explanation until a student understands—were 4 percentage points more likely to have a growth mindset than those without a supportive instructor.
In other words: when we look past the shade and the snark, we find that growth mindsets might help learning, and that teachers can help foster them.
Stop the Pendulum
Our profession, alas, tends to extremes. We might embrace Mindset Theory as our school’s shining mission; we might reject it as fashionable pseudo-science.
I hope this time we can aim for a modest middle ground. A few points to keep in mind:
First: the PISA data show correlation, not causation.
Second: they come from self-report.
Third: they show wide differences across country and culture. (For instance: this graph caught my eye.)
Rather than put all our energies into this one strategy (or, into denigrating this one strategy), I think we can adopt a sensible logical chain:
A: Motivated students learn more, but teachers can struggle to motivate students. (Let’s admit it: much of what we study in schools isn’t intrinsically motivating for most students.)
B: On average, a growth mindset offers many students a motivational boost.
C: On average, specific teaching practices make it somewhat likelier that students will adopt a growth mindset.
D: If we can easily adopt — and easily maintain — culturally-appropriate teaching practices that enhance a growth mindset, our efforts will help some students learn.
E: Therefore, let’s do so.
Do I think a one-shot mindset intervention will help? Probably not. (I don’t think a one-shot intervention of anything will help.)
Do I think that Mindset strategies — consistently and modestly applied — will help? I do.
Should those strategies be accompanied by many other research-supported approaches (retrieval practice, metacognition, cognitive-load monitoring, attention-fostering, stress-reduction)? Indeed they should.
A True Story
I did some consulting at a summer camp two years ago. When I went to the archery department, they asked if I wanted to try my hand with a bow.
NO, reader, I DID NOT.
As a camper at this very camp decades before, I had experienced repeated humiliation; I only rarely hit the target, and often missed comically/catastrophically. Honestly, it was dreadful — one of those experiences that, 40 years later, can STILL make me blush.
After a moment of terror, I said to myself:
“Okay, Andrew, you talk about Growth Mindset all the time. Give it a try. Your goal shouldn’t be to get a perfect score. Just try to learn a bit and improve. That’s what you tell your students. Practice what you preach.”
What happened next was an archery miracle.
It turns out that I am right handed, but I sight with my left eye. I had been humiliated all those years ago because I was shooting with the wrong bow.
Once they got a lefty bow into my hand, taught me the stance and a few breathing tricks, I found that I’m a passable archer.
I’m no Robin Hood, but I felt like I hit the bullseye.