Growth mindset embedded in our education

Kieran Madden

In just over a decade, the ‘Growth Mindset’ has graduated from an exciting theory to accepted wisdom in classrooms across the world, now embraced wholeheartedly by many New Zealand educators.

There is good science behind Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory that one’s belief about whether their intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed has a big influence on future success. But when it comes to actually changing mindsets in the classroom, the hype is way ahead of the evidence.

Developing Intelligence

Dweck offers a compelling story, one that promotes putting in the mahi over being smart as the key to success. Someone with a Growth Mindset, according to the theory, believes that intelligence can be developed and therefore embraces challenges, persists through failure, and loves learning. Someone with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, sees intelligence as given and immutable, and therefore avoids hard things, gives up easily, and seeks to look smart.

The theory is firmly embedded in New Zealand educational world.

For example, the Ministry of Education’s ‘Online Knowledge Basket,’ has a spotlight with Growth Mindset resources for teachers and leaders, and also notes that “Growth mindset closely aligns with the high expectations principle in the NZ Curriculum.”

In a 2018 report, the Education Review Office also recommends that innovative teachers and leaders must have a Growth Mindset.

Sketchy Evidence

Despite a compelling story and wide acceptance, the evidence of academic success in the classroom due to mindset interventions is sketchy.

One commentator went so far as to say that the “literature is basically a menagerie of underpowered exploratory studies masquerading as a cumulative and confirmatory research program.”

Dweck herself has likened the science behind her work as a ‘firm foundation,’ but after a string of studies showing little evidence that interventions made any difference, she acknowledges that “we are still building the house.”

A 2018 meta-analysis, for example, concluded that interventions had “little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students.”

Another recently-published evaluation by Education Endowment Fund in the UK also found that the intervention “had no impact on literacy and numeracy overall,” nor on a few other non-cognitive measures.

Worryingly, some of the schools in the latter evaluation “planned to press ahead regardless [of the evidence] as engaging in the sessions, in their view, was not having an adverse impact on pupils and was worth continuing.”

Nuanced growth

Spending hours of students’ time with an intervention that doesn’t appear to make any difference to achievement seems bonkers.

We need to do better, taking a serious step back until we work out how to translate a good theory into great progress in the classroom.

Perhaps many educators haven’t quite grasped the nuanced view of growth mindset and are teaching a counterfeit version of self-esteem instead, as Dweck worries. Perhaps, as the report says, everyone knows about growth mindset already so it’s hard to see any difference. What we do know is there is much that we don’t know about growth mindset, and when even the architect has “sounded the alarm,” we should listen.

Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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