The Latest on Building and Maintaining the Growth Mindset

By Scott Sterling

If you’re in the field of mindset management, business has been very good.

To recap, the current thinking in education is that people, in general, have one of two mindsets. In a “fixed mindset,” you believe people are born with certain attributes and they will never change. People will always be smart or not, hard workers or slackers, etc. The alternative, a “growth mindset” in which people can change under the right conditions, is much more desirable. The trick is in creating those correct conditions.

“Growth mindset” might be the single most popular buzzword in education right now, probably because it is all encompassing. If you can believe and embrace the idea that people can grow in their skills, ideas, and feelings, it will become true. Everyone can relate. In theory, it should be applicable to every student, teacher, parent, and person under the sun.

The current landscape of that theory, how best to instill the growth mindset in students, and the potential oversimplification of education as a whole because of it, have all been recently discussed.

Carol Dweck Surveys the Current State of the Movement

Recently, Carol Dweck (the “mother” of the growth mindset movement) revisited some of her thoughts in a column for Education Week. Although she is happy with how the concept has grown since she first started publishing her work, she’s afraid she has created a monster.

In particular, it seems as if she is taking exception to the idea that the growth mindset can be cultivated just through sheer grit. If a student tries hard enough, he or she will grow. In particular, simply praising students for their effort is not enough to instill a growth-mindset culture in your classroom.

Her idea for the next step in the growth-mindset movement? Start acknowledging that everyone has a fixed mindset in certain circumstances; they probably always will, and the goal is to help growth and fixed mindsets work together.

For example, what happens when a student faces an obstacle? In the growth-mindset model that simply praises effort, students will just sit there struggling on things that, for whatever reason, they have no ability to understand. The fixed mindset on the topic—the acknowledgement that they simply cannot perform this skill—is what will lead them to seek help. Then, students grow.

A Lesson Plan that Reflects the New Thinking

Some of these concepts appear in this comprehensive lesson plan, produced by the Khan Academy and Dweck’s own center at Stanford University. In fact, it starts with two corrections to the misconceptions:

  • Simply telling students to have a growth mindset can backfire. People don’t like being told how to think—students included. Instead, get into the science about how the brain can grow and nothing is set in stone.
  • “Just try harder” is problematic. Understanding where that effort should go is just as important as making the effort itself.

New Criticism of the Growth Mindset

Then there are those who believe the mindset business, in general, is not much more than a cop-out. Education commentator Alfie Kohn is particularly vociferous in this regard.

His point is illuminated much more thoroughly in this piece he wrote for Salon, but his problem with both growth mindset and the idea of grit is that it lets educational leaders off the hook. If they can simply teach kids to believe in themselves and try harder, they don’t have to do the hard work, like improve non-rigorous curricula or fund schools in a more equitable way.

The body of the new criticism of the growth mindset can be summarized like this: if a child can persevere through meaningless homework, an underfunded school, and a broken home, they are definitely gritty and are definitely trying to grow as a person. They just won’t have the tools to succeed in that goal.

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