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Is This the Death of Growth Mindset?

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The final nail in growth mindset’s coffin has been hammered in by a piece of research published in Psychological Bulletin – or has it?

A meta-analysis collating results from 63 studies found that the positive effects of growth mindset on academic achievement are actually a result of poor-quality study design, error prone reporting, and financial incentives – gotta make that book dollar, am I right?

“Growth mindset” describes somebody’s belief that they are able to influence their intelligence in a given domain. This is contrasted with a “fixed mindset” where individuals believe their intelligence is unchangeable. The advantages of a growth mindset are said to be significant and broad (Look it up. You’ll be amazed), with achievement commonly espoused as a key benefit. Out of this comes the equally slippery idea that mindset can be changed through explicit interventions – that must be paid for, by schools, of course.

This recent meta-analysis represents the strongest evidence to date on the effects of growth mindset initiatives. And, unfortunately for “growthies” (a term the growth mindset community calls its’ advocates) the study found growth mindset has no impact on academic performance (OK, I made up the “growthies” thing.) Enthusiastically peddled throughout the sector, growth mindset was sold as a wooden stake to plunge into the heart of pupil disengagement that sucked life from lessons. As it turns out, the tables have turned, light has been cast on growth mindset and its boundless advance has been stopped stone-dead. Allowing for a little artistic license, the point is that it talked the talk but hasn’t walked the walk.

We should always be wary of easy solutions to something as complex as academic outcomes. My inner cynic says this is simply another example of a fad that was adopted too early, spread too quickly, and was poorly evaluated by schools (and researchers, clearly!). I could get quite angry thinking about people making money selling snake oil to an underfunded sector that is looking for quick fixes. 

If we truly want to improve pedagogy (Yeah. The p-word. I said it), the gap between research and practice must close and researchers must communicate better with teachers. Trusts, schools, and teachers must be incentivised to work closely with researchers. We must be willing to take risks, knowing that a lot of what we try will have very little impact on long-term achievement. But, perhaps, something significant, something transferable and something with great utility will be discovered along the way.

I am an ex-primary teacher. I have incorporated growth mindset into the curriculum. I am a parent. I have conversations with my son about responding to setbacks. I am an academic. I understand the strength of a well-conducted meta-analysis. So, let me move on from this wishy-washy business of a meta-analytic review to robust and critically appraised personal anecdotes. I have seen growth mindset initiatives transform a school culture driven by outcomes to one far more accepting of children’s struggles and challenges. Put simply, it became a better place to work. I have seen children who found the learning process disheartening begin to embrace challenges because they have learned to reframe mistakes as opportunities (see here for research showing impact for low and medium achieving schools). For them, school became a better place to learn.

But do I think schools should continue spending money on growth mindset? No. I don’t think any of this requires spending a penny. Its greatest utility was as a pedagogical rendition of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping (“I get knocked down. I get up again”) – a way to motivate children and challenge their perception of getting things “wrong”. A way to shift teacher focus from ticks and crosses to effort and process. This requires investing in the process of learning and not investing in more resources or schemes or work. 

Perhaps senior leaders can embrace these findings as a warning and stop implementing sweeping changes based on fads or pop-science books. Perhaps educators can advocate for proper evaluation of time-consuming changes they are asked to make. Perhaps at the root of all this is that researchers must be more honest about the real impact of their work.

I started teacher training in 2014 and one of my first jobs was to clear out a cupboard. It was full of science textbooks from the early 90s. So, is this the final nail in the coffin for growth mindset? I doubt it. But I’ll finish by ending the way any article should finish – by quoting Public Enemy. And by echoing a sentiment of the meta-analysis authors: “Don’t believe the hype.”

Ben Ford is an ex-primary school teacher. He is currently a lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, and a PhD candidate in psychology at Edge Hill University.

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