Archive for the ‘Psychological Theory’ Category


The concept of a “growth mindset” is so wildly popular these days that it has spread into mass culture and creeps into many supposedly cutting-edge leadership development presentations.  Having a “growth mindset” means believing that you can improve your intelligence through effort and the use of effective strategies, whereas having a “fixed mindset” means accepting your limitations. It is now virtually the ‘New Age’ elixir for the ambitious in 21st century times.

Since the publication of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the whole notion gained widespread currency. Her TED Talk attracted 10 million views and the mindset approach spread from elementary and secondary education and was applied in stress and mental health research, in conflict resolution, and in corporate boardrooms. School systems in Canada and around the world began to promote the teaching of growth mindset as a learning technique, and educational companies jumped on the bandwagon, generating sets of mindset materials for teachers and parents.

Millions of dollars went into funding mindset research until the first studies appeared five years ago calling into question the legitimacy of the fashionable psychological theory. Dweck’s claims and those of her research collaborator, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, were challenged in a March 2018 study by Case Western Reserve University researchers. Two meta-analyses, replicating Dweck’s most-cited papers, reported “little or no support for the idea that growth mindsets are beneficial for children’s responses to failure or school attainment.”

Overhyped educational panaceas tend to underdeliver when subjected to evidence-based analysis and mindset theory is no exception. While some mindset-based interventions produced good results, the Case Western Reserve team found others had no effect on student outcomes.  Aside from a few methodological quibbles, the biggest criticism was that mindset research fell well short of its promise.


Schools tend to be fertile ground for the latest psychological theories and learning experiments. From Brain Gym to learning styles, a succession of innovations promoted by curriculum and pedagogical consultants have been implemented by classroom teachers, only to be abandoned or simply disappear when shown to be largely a gimmick rather than a genuine breakthrough.

Unlike most educational ‘fads,’ Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in actual case studies with students in the schools. University College London education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, even lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings, codified the approach as  Talent = Hard Work + Persistence, and applied it to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment.

From 2015 to 2017, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie alerted researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what was termed a “false growth mindset”  in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as in the U.S. and the UK. Too many teachers and parents, they pointed out in an influential 2016 article in The Atlantic, had either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept,.

Dweck discovered that in many classrooms it had been reduced to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it was educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.” “Growth mindset disciples,” Dweck acknowledged, had reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

Defenders of mindset research now concede that the concept was disseminated far too fast. “Any popular idea in education gets spread way ahead of how ready the science is,” David Yeager told Scientific American in August 2019. Much like Dweck, he acknowledges that growth mindset is far more complex and subject to misinterpretation in schools and misapplication in classrooms.

Yeager, Dweck and members of their Mindset Scholars Network have fought back against the skeptics.  A massive study, based upon a randomized control trial of 12,000 students from across the United States, published in August 2019 in Nature demonstrated that mindset interventions can work in certain contexts. In this case, at the grade 9 level, and with lower-achieving students.  Exposure to two short, low cost online programs led to higher grades for lower-achieving Grade 9 students (an average improvement of 0.1 grade point) and many students chose more challenging math courses in the next grade. While showing positive signs, critics questioned whether, given the investment of resources, a 0.1 point boost was meaningful and whether the claims for such programs are inflated by the marketers.

Growth mindset may not have been debunked but the psychological theory has lost its lustre.  Successful implementation of mindset interventions appear to require finesse in the classroom. The national study showed that it could work with Grade 9 students supplied with study materials designed for that purpose. The latest 2022 research study on “Teacher Mindsets” in Psychological Science identifies where and why growth-mindset interventions do and do not work.  At the risk of oversimplifying, it essentially comes down to this: first year high school students supported by mathematics teachers with more highly-developed growth mindsets perform better. That is, to say the least, hardly earth-shaking.

What’s the litmus test for successful educational interventions? The bar, we now know, is set relatively low.  What is clear: Growth mindsets have proven very hard to instill and harder than its inventors ever imagined. It requires a laser-focused growth mindset to persevere and overcome the next set of obstacles. Even modest effects, Yeager confessed in March of 2018 in Wired Magazine, are “somewhat amazing” given the fact that “many, or even most very extensive and expensive educational programs have no effect at all.”

Why are school change theorists and system leaders so susceptible to the latest panacea?  How did “Growth Mindset” achieve its exalted status in North American K-12 education?  What happened to undercut its legitimacy?  How have lead proponents Carol Dweck and David Yeager responded to shore up support for the theory?  What does the whole controversy over “mindset theory:  teach us?

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