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Misinterpreting the Growth Mindset: Why We're Doing Students a Disservice

Growth Hattie

Today's guest blog is written by John Hattie, Laureate Professor and Deputy Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, as well as the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne (Australia).

Too often I have had to deal with misinterpretations of my work, misappropriation of my name, and over-zealous and incorrect use of the Visible Learning research. I was trained to critique ideas, never the person, but in these internet days this is continually violated. Recently, I had the chance to meet Carol Dweck, and knew all too well that they had to deal with these same issues when it comes to their work. 

Carol had come to Sydney to address AITSL's Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers conference. So we dined, talked for hours, and had a very pleasant time together. As I did not agree with many of the claims attributed to Carol, I had done my homework by re-reading all her academic publications. Hence, I was a little terrified as I knew Carol's reputation for exactitude. Indeed, I met a careful, precise, and esteemed colleague.

Over the time we spoke, we discussed our mutual disappointment, not surprising, that so many took her work and applied it in many haphazard ways. Educators, pundits, and researchers have over promoted growth mindsets with no evidence of impact, and she noted how so many critics never bothered to read her academic work. Instead they often recited secondary sources, believed Twitter and Blogs were peer reviewed rigorous studies, and misappropriated her searching for ideas as if it was all resolved.

Before I revealed my concerns about the generalised claims about growth mindsets, Carol said that in every session she talked about under what conditions growth mindset can work, what kinds of people it best works with, and she noted that developing a "growth mindset is the most fixed mindset idea" of the lot. 


Hype and False Claims
The same popularisation has occurred for related notions, such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and well-being. At times, over stated claims are made about how these programs can enhance academic achievement, help develop world peace, and are foundational to 21st century skills. Many schools advertise they are growth schools, parents are seduced by this new set of skills, and well-being and positive psychology are great brands to market schools to parents. Like many seductive claims, the hype precedes the evidence, but that evidence is now coming in - fast. And it is not all pleasant.

Growth mindset was developed by Carol Dweck from a life time of careful and precise research work.  She claimed that growth mindsets can inspire different goals, shape views about effort, but she has never claimed in her academic writings that there is a state of mind called "growth mindset" - it is not an attribute of a person, it is a way of thinking in a particular circumstance.  She has undertaken many research studies to understand when and where it can be invoked to lead to better outcomes. It is a more a coping strategy than a state of being. 

For example, she has said:

  • Growth mindset leads to expending more empathetic effort in contexts where empathy is challenging (e.g., when they disagree with someone or some other they do not know is suffering)" (Murphy & Dweck, 2016, p. 487).
  • In situations when students are over confident-- they allocated less time to difficult problems (2016, p. 98)
  • The triggers for when growth matters: When we face challenge; Receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others; When threatened or defensive (Dweck, 2016, p. 3-4)
  • Peer conflict and peer exclusion (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 309).
  • When we make mistakes or reveal deficiencies, try to hide mistakes, feel we do not have the ability (Dweck, 2007)
  • Those who see "failure-is-debilitating" as opposed to those who see failure-is-enhancing (Haimoitz & Dweck 2016, p. 866).

When is the Growth Mindset Appropriate?
The key question is, "WHEN is the appropriate situation for thinking in a growth manner over a fixed manner?" In these situations, having access to growth thinking helps resolve the situation, move the person forward, and not lead to resistance, over reaction and fear of flight into a fixed mindset. The major situations for growth mindset are:

  • When we do not know an answer
  • When we make error
  • When we experience failure
  • When we are anxious.

In these situations, having a growth mindset is a most appropriate coping strategy.

Dweck has often written about misconceptions others have made about growth and fixed mindsets. These include: confusing growth mindset with an open-minded or positive outlook ("I already have it and I always have"); assuming we are either growth or fixed mindset people; assuming that a growth mindset is about praising and rewarding effort; and those who believe that having mission statements, "I can" posters, and students mouthing platitudes about growth as if that will lead to good things happening.

Most recently, Dweck (2017) noted her research relates directly to how students perceive their abilities - which has a long history in self-attribution, locus of control, calibration, and many other related notions. She brought a sharpness to two of the core ideas.

  • The belief that one's intelligence or abilities can be changed
  • or
  • It is fixed and immutable

Like all good researchers, she noted that she continues to learn more about how these processes are working, can be enhanced, and how they can be misused. For example, she states that a growth mindset is not merely about effort, praise, feeling good, running around saying "I can", believing everyone is smart, or used to explain why some students are not learning ("Oh, he has a fixed mindset."). They should not be used to personify that the student is responsible alone for learning or not learning.

Indeed, we need to delve deeper about the reasons for learning or not learning; there needs to be evidence of when to use the growth and fixed notions in the practice as well as language of the classroom, and too often an adult will endorse the claims of "growth" in their words but not in their actions and particular reactions to children's mistakes. She notes we are all a mixture of growth and fixed and need to understand both in ourselves.  As is the theme of this blog, Dweck particularly notes the reactions we have when we face challenges, are overly anxious, in fight or flight.

Other researchers have also noted that it is critical to understand the situations when having a growth mindset can make the difference. Credé, Tynan, and Harms (2016), for example, showed that having grit (a component of growth mind-set) "may be most useful when the task is difficult but well defined; that is, high levels of sustained effort and deliberative practice are required to succeed and the manner in which performance is to be attained is relatively clear". 

Having a growth mindset, therefore, may not be needed for easy tasks, or on performance on tasks that are "novel and ill-defined and that therefore require both creativity and the willingness to abandon unsuccessful strategies." It may not help if it leads to more practice on a task using already failed strategies, and seeking experts to provide alternative strategies may be more effective than believing that "I can" and other growth notions.

It is also noted that the growth interventions may help the very lowest achieving students (the bottom fifth) improve their GPA, but showed minimal effects for the others. But then these same struggling students can make GPA gains and not exhibit changes to their mindsets.  Schwartz, Cheng, Salehi, & Weiman (2016) argued that growth mindset may have been taken up differently by the lower and other groups.

"The higher achieving students being good at school, learned what answers they should give to the mindset survey, but they treated the message of the intervention as just another thing to learn in school. In contrast, the lowest achieving students found a message of possible change compelling, and while they did not change their beliefs about intelligence, they did feel a boost of optimism that drove them forward" (p. 400).

We need more care about over-reach with concepts like growth and fixed mindsets- otherwise they will disappear like other over-used and over-rated claims that bedevil education and psychology. We will then miss the incredible value the research on these topics can provide relating to when to use them, how to use them, with which students, and to what ends. 

A reading of Dweck's research show not the development of some generalised state called 'growth mindsets" but a far more nuanced set of claims about the conditions when having access to this form of thinking can assist a person move forward. If you believe you can change the wall and thus try to run through it, you will certainly develop a headache - and that is an example of where a fixed mindset helps. 

There is no general state to aim for called "I have a growth mindset" as we can have both fixed and growth, they have advantages at different times. In times of dilemma and confusion having the skills to think in a "growth" manner can make a positive difference. Those who argued that they have a "growth mindset" are oblivious to the many situations when this is unnecessary, not efficient, and can get in the way of effective living. The notion of growth mindset is akin to notions of self-efficacy and attributions, in that they are strivings, dispositions, or can be invoked as reactions in certain situations; but you can be taught these skills to so invoke them.

When in a fixed mindset, we are often more likely to accept (however despondently or joyously) our lot. That's perhaps why "bright" kids do well (at school) often invoking fixed mindset reactions - because they are happy with their place in the pecking order. In fact, invoking growth reactions may actually threaten that position because it suggests things are changeable. But when we want to change our lot, having the skills of growth mindset can help us in this change.

It is thus perhaps not surprising that the meta-analyses of growth mindset studies show very low effects - too often the interventions are generalised rah-rah attempts to develop a language of growth vs. fixed with little to no attention to the conditions that optimally invoke the strategies of growth; too often the low effects reinforce just how hard it is to change long developed coping strategies to failure, error, and challenge.  The low effects do not mean we should not ignore the power of understanding when to be growth and when it is ok to be fixed.

The most bitter and unfortunate part of the current literature is abrogating a researcher's name to stamp approval on over blown notions of others and thus distorting their credibility. Go back and read the original work and realise that most academics continually seek moderators (those conditions, people etc. where any overall conclusion may need to be modified) and they continue to learn and enhance their own earlier findings - it is the essence of our business. Yes, often when writing for a more general audience these slip more into the background, but critics are surely required to check their sources before blasting away.

Finding Common Ground blogger Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. works with John Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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