Why Growth Mindset Isn't What You Think It Is


Why Growth Mindset Isn't What You Think It Is

Growth mindset is one of the most well-known psychological theories in education. But in the rush to embrace it, have most people misunderstood what it actually is?

Most articles and blogs about growth mindset will have a brief growth mindset definition that goes along the lines of ‘growth mindset is knowing that ability or intelligence is not fixed and can be improved with effort’.

Only the first half of that definition is accurate. Growth mindset is the belief that they can improve their intelligence. Effort may be one strategy that can be employed in order to do so. It is not the only one. Equating growth mindset just with effort is a mistake for several reasons and could potentially do more harm than good.  So before I outline some of the potential reasons why this is bad, it is important to explain how this misconception came about.

Growth Mindset Misunderstood

In the seminal growth mindset study, researchers found that students who were praised for their ability instead of their processes (in this case effort) were more likely to:

  • Choose easier tasks in the future (to protect their self-image)
  • Enjoy difficult tasks less
  • Seek out lower quality feedback
  • Be less likely to persist in challenging tasks
  • Perform worse in subsequent tasks
  • Lie about their achievements

You can see how by praising effort in this study, many equated it to the only way to developing a growth mindset. However, that misses the point of the study. The research really looks at the impact that praising the process/strategy/technique/behaviour has on yours mindset.  In this particular case, it was effort. But that does not mean that it always has to be effort. It might sometimes be right to praise effort, but in other times, different strategies are more appropriate to focus on.

There are many problems with equating growth mindset to just ‘praising effort’. Here are four of them:

Growth Mindset: More Than Just Effort

Leads to misinformed criticism of Growth Mindset. At its heart, Growth Mindset is a theory about learning. Learning is complex and messy.  If people make it sound as simple as ‘trying harder’, it becomes something it’s not. This then becomes something that is easy to criticise and morphs into a straw man argument. As the Growth Mindset theory becomes ever more mainstream in schools, it is important that we are all discussing, measuring and critiquing the same thing.

Unhelpful for students who try hard and still fail. Equating Growth Mindset to effort is not going to help students who are already trying hard and failing. Their effort levels are unlikely to be the cause of their shortcoming. Advising them to try harder will not yield better results if they are already trying their hardest. These children need to change their process. They would gain more from reflecting on the strategies they employed. Perhaps they revised hard, but didn’t know the best techniques to help improve their memory. Essentially, getting them work smarter, not harder, would help more.

Effort is not the aim. Growth mindset is about how we see ourselves and how can we most improve and learn.  Carol Dweck recently cautioned against praising effort too much. She says, ‘Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: “Great effort! You tried your best!” It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning’. Learning is the focus of growth mindset, not simply just trying hard.

It can lead to victim blaming – If growth mindset = effort, than if someone fails it must be because they didn’t try hard enough. They must not have wanted it enough. This is a classic form of victim blaming. It is important that as educators, we have a growth mindset ourselves and constantly look to how we can help improve both our practices and the structures that we teach in

How Can I Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset?

Growth Mindset is associated with a range of positive benefits, that include coping better with transitions, higher self-regulation, higher levels of resilience, grit, wellbeing and self-esteem and a reduction in helplessness, stress and aggression. It’s also particularly beneficial for disengaged or ‘at risk’ students. So how can teachers help students develop a growth mindset?

There is a time and a place to praise effort. These include when effort is the direct cause of their learning or when students are attributing their success to their natural abilities. There are many other strategies that can be employed to develop a growth mindset. These include:

  • Asking the students good questions that help develop growth mindset and metacognition – you can read our blog on this here
  • Praising their persistence, choosing challenging tasks and encouraging them to ask for feedback – You can read our blog on this here
  • Teaching with multiple methods, being ‘subtle and stealthy’ and having a growth mindset yourself –You can read our blog on this here
  • And if you teach maths, you may like our blog specifically on why so many students have a fixed mindset for maths here

For even more info take a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset, where you'll find links to blogs and research.

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