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Classroom fad or fix? Growth mindset goes under the microscope

Classroom fad or fix? Growth mindset goes under the microscope

What is it?

Doctor Carol Dweck

Growth mindset is Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck's theory that learners need to move away from the belief that skills are innate and unchanging – a "fixed mindset". Instead, the thinking goes, students must move towards a "growth mindset", where they believe their capabilities and skills can be developed through effort and challenge.

This outlook supposedly enables students to persevere when facing setbacks in their learning. The concept is ubiquitous throughout the education sector; it is a fixture on teacher training courses and schools across the world offer growth mindset training to their pupils.

What do supporters say?

Dweck's 2006 book, Mindset, has sold more than a million copies and her 2014 Ted talk on the topic has been viewed more than five million times. Bill Gates has praised the "skillful coaching" offered by the tome, and the concept is even used by Nasa, who found their top engineers demonstrate a growth mindset.

What do critics say?

The tide is beginning to turn on the reign of the growth mindset, however. Some scientists have raised questions about the foundations of the theory, which has its roots in a 1998 study carried out by Dweck and Claudia Mueller. The pair found that children who had been praised for working hard on a test performed better in subsequent tests compared with those who had been praised for being naturally clever.

Part of the problem, however, is that these game-changing results have not been replicated. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh, told Buzzfeed News: "We're running a third study in China now with 200 12-year-olds and the results are just null... If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn't make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren't getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study."

Others have questioned the data underpinning Dweck and Mueller's work. Nick Brown, a psychology PhD student, found inconsistencies in Dweck's 1998 article, 'Praise For Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance'. Dweck addressed these directly with Brown, and has offered a retort to critics more widely in her blog.

"The growth mindset story does not rest on a handful of isolated studies," she said. "A meta-analysis published in 2013 found 113 studies conducted by many authors and concluded that mindsets are a significant factor in people's self-regulation toward goals."

She added: "My colleagues and I have created a body of work we are very proud of. Of course, the house is still being renovated — because science is a process, a long process. However, with collaboration and input from colleagues across many fields, we plan to make a lasting contribution to science and to people's lives."

In August 2019, the associated resource website MindsetOnline.com was taken down. This November 2019 article, by People Managing People, examines why this happened. 

What now?

Psychologists at the University of Portsmouth are currently researching growth mindset in a study involving 6,000 pupils at 100 schools across England. Year 5 and 6 teachers from each of the schools were trained in growth mindset interventions, and pupils were shown inspirational films about overcoming challenges. The key stage 2 test results of the year 6 intervention group will be compared with those from a control group. Sherria Hoskins, head of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, says she hopes the study will "provide a clearer picture about the process and its impact".

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