InnerDrive Blog

Growth Mindset: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

It’s been an interesting week on Twitter for all those interested in growth mindset. Two important studies were published. The first, that girls by the age of 6 report feeling ‘less talented’ than boys. The other, was that mindset wasn’t linked to grades, which contradicted several earlier studies in this field.

This led to lots of interesting discussion (both for and against) about growth mindset on Twitter. Therefore, we thought it was a good time to consider: Growth Mindset - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

The good part about growth mindset is that it based on a wealth of peer-reviewed research in psychology over the past twenty years. To highlight just a few, growth mindset has been associated with:

  • Seeking out better feedback and persisting for longer – You can read the study here
  • Coping better with transitions – You can read the study here
  • Improved self-regulation – This study was a very large meta-analysis which analyses over one hundred studies on the topic
  • Most beneficial for disengaged students – You can read the study here
  • Reduces stress and aggression – You can read the study here
  • Increases wellbeing – You can read the studies here and here

As well as that, there is evidence from schools emerging that growth mindset is associated with grit and prosocial behaviours (you can read about this here and here). I think all teachers would agree that these are the sort of behaviours and skills we would want to help our students develop.

The Bad

But does having a growth mindset improve student grades? It depends who you ask and what study you read. A recent study found that there was no association between growth mindset and grades (you can read this study here). This has caused quite a stir in growth mindset circles.

This in contrast to a large scale study conducted by Carol Dweck (of over 160,000 students) which found that growth mindset predicts grades across every socio-economic level, as well this study of 1500 students found that combining a growth mindset and a sense of purpose intervention improved the likelihood of students completing Maths, English and Science courses. Finally, this study of 115 students found that students with a growth mindset went on to achieve higher grades.

Confused yet? You soon will be. The Sutton Trust commissioned a study that found that students who received a growth mindset intervention made, on average, two months additional progress in English and Maths, though these results weren’t statistically significant.

They have a new one currently in the pipeline, though having seen some of the materials being used in it, I would strongly doubt that it would lead to great improvements in grades. To give an example of this, the students will watch a series of videos about historical figures who were said to have a growth mindset. Translating this into grades will be difficult, especially as it doesn’t sound particularly subtle and stealthy as recommended here.

So to conclude, does having a growth mindset help students improve their grades? Yes. Maybe. Probably. Possibly. No. The truth is, we don’t know for sure. I have no doubt that more studies will come out in the future that says it does, and some will come out and say they don’t. This is certainly an age of ‘alternative facts’.

The Ugly

It has been interesting to see how people have reacted over the past week or so since Buzzfeed published their article reporting (amongst other things) one of the studies about growth mindset not impacting on exam results. It wasn’t very balanced, had a clickbait headline and used quotation marks around the word ‘growth mindset’ and ‘revolution’ as a way to belittle the topic.

One of the psychiatrists cited in the Buzzfeed article, who has some genuine concerns about this area of psychology, raises some concerns about this style and nature of the article (his response is definitely worth reading here). The New York Magazine, who had initially supported the article magazine published a retraction when it realised that it did not discuss some of the major findings on growth mindset that did not fit its narrative.

The ugliest part of this can be found on each end of the supporter/sceptic spectrum. Some growth mindset fans have not acknowledged the importance of this study. This is poor science and not how advances in psychology occur. Likewise, those who were sceptical have used this study to proclaim the death of growth mindset, and as such are probably throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Either side claiming growth mindset is 100% the answer to everything or 100% a waste of time are probably both guilty of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is when people are overly confident with about what they say (experts usually know that nothing is totally certain).  I think Carol Dweck strikes a great balance here.

Final Thought

Scottish Poet Andrew Lang once remarked that ‘politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses a lamp-post – for support rather than illumination’. We think teachers and coaches should avoid using each study in psychology the same way.

If a school wanted the sole focus of growth mindset to improve grades, then they would probably be better spent spending time on some of other areas (i.e. strategies that effectively ingrain knowledge into long term memory would be one). 

However, in our experience, most schools are doing so with the view of creating a culture of excellence, with the idea of developing resilient learners at the forefront of their thinking. The area of growth mindset has had teachers debating how best to give feedback, what their reward systems are and some of the labels they give to students. Translating this in to better grades has to remain the pinnacle objective. As we learn more about how best to help develop a growth mindset, schools may get there. But we are not there yet.