Just a few days ago, a very interesting new research paper on growth mindset was published. We think it offers a good opportunity to pause for thought on this much-discussed area of education, and where these findings leave growth mindset interventions in schools…
A refresher on growth mindset in education
Growth mindset swept through the education landscape several years ago, riding a wave of optimism and hope. Teachers scarred from interventions such as learning styles (which weren’t based on any research whatsoever) could now point to a research theory that seemed to be evidence-based, simple to understand and potentially life changing for students.
Our very first ever blog at InnerDrive was actually on how this area of research offered promise, but with a warning that it could mutate into somewhat of a fad. Indeed, over the years, the initial message from the research of “anyone can improve” (which we think nearly everyone in education would agree with) morphed into “anyone can do anything” (a very dubious and somewhat disingenuous claim). This led to people trying to develop growth mindset in a range of different ways - with some achieving more success than others.
Does Growth Mindset Help?
Researchers matched the interest in applying Growth Mindset in the classroom, wanting to measure and explore its impact. For example, various researchers found that it was linked to students:
- Seeking out better feedback and persisting for longer;
- Coping better with transitions and developing better self-regulation;
- Experiencing lower levels of stress and aggression as well as increased well-being and emotional functioning;
- Experiencing improved self-esteem, learning orientation and reduced helplessness;
- Developing grit and pro-social behaviours.
But what about grades? Helping students do better in their exams isn’t the only measure of success in schools, but it is an important one.
This is where some of the growth mindset research gets tricky. The short answer: it depends. A whole range of studies found it is associated with better grades. And a whole range found it didn’t. Some say it might. You can read about some of these studies here (this blog was accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time, though we have no doubt more has been said on both sides of the argument).
The Context For This New Study
So if we know that having a growth mindset has been associated with a range of benefits (which may include better grades), it is interesting to explore under what conditions it works best. Previous studies, using very thorough scientific rigour and methods have found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that growth mindset interventions work best where a school has a culture that supports these interventions. This may partly explain the variation in results: a one hour intervention within a culture that clashes with growth mindset philosophies is unlikely to make significant impact.
However, these interventions are often delivered by a researcher. For educational research to be useful, these strategies have to be delivered by teachers, or else they are difficult to scale across a whole school. This latest study specifically tested this. They found that when teachers delivered growth mindset interventions within a supportive environment, student grades improved significantly.
What is also interesting to note that the students who made the most progress in this study were the ones who had previously been struggling. This chimes with other research that has suggested growth mindset may be most beneficial for this group. Arguably, this could be because students who have done well previously have a larger evidence body of success that they can draw on, whereas this struggling group may be more likely to fall into a learned helplessness state based on their previous experiences.
So What Do We Now “Know” About Growth Mindset?
As quickly as some were to praise and embrace growth mindset, others were just as swift to criticise and reject it. One of the interesting challenges of applying psychological research to education is that one study can never give us a definitive answer. We at InnerDrive call this the “Trip Advisor Effect”: people only log on to that website to give either a one-star review or a five-star review. No-one has the energy and motivation to take time out of their day to give a three-star review.
Likewise, growth mindset isn’t everything: believing you can improve isn’t enough, as it has to be supported with skills and strategies that help develop competencies. This is why we are so enthusiastic about the research on cognitive science and Rosenshine’s Principles.
And on the flip side, the existence of some studies suggesting it doesn’t make an impact on grades doesn’t “debunk” it. Each study simply adds to our previous understanding of the body research.
So in terms of growth mindset, what this latest study found was that interventions delivered by a teacher could help students improve their grades, with under-achieving students potentially benefiting the most. This, along with other research suggest that some may have been too quick to dismiss it, with the next step now being the continued exploration about how it may work best.