George Lucas Educational Foundation

Growth Mindset is Dead

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Teacher writing on a chalkboard

Growth mindset is dead. Really.

If you are an educator and haven’t heard about Carol Dweck and the concept of growth mindset, then you have been sleeping through the past five years of professional development. These days, I rarely go to a meeting involving teachers where someone doesn’t extol the virtue of having a growth mindset. I heard about growth mindset’s redemptive power no less than daily last week.

Let’s start with a quick review lesson. Dweck’s research asserts that human beings can generally be divided into two categories. Those with a “fixed” mindset are those who see their intelligence as a static, non-changing commodity that is continually tested or proved. In other words, tests or challenges don’t develop intelligence, they reveal it. It should come as no surprise then, that those with a fixed mindset really only want problems they already have the skills and knowledge to solve. Anything more challenging is just a trap to make them look bad. 

Then there are those with the “growth” mindset. These people see a puzzle or test as an opportunity to learn and develop. They see their brain as a muscle that gets stronger with each use. Their sense of success is not in proving they are smart over and over again, but in the act of engaging challenging tasks.

Here’s the problem. It’s dangerous for educators to have a growth mindset. Teachers are rarely rewarded for taking risks and pushing themselves to learn new strategies and techniques. We expect teachers to perform. The “dog and pony show” is a ubiquitous term describing classroom observations and principal walkthroughs. Time to look good. Unless an administrator has earned a tremendous amount of trust, it is rare for a teacher to invite visitors to the classroom to provide feedback on what needs improvement. Close the door. Let me do my thing.

The problem is even more pronounced in how it applies to students. Few educators would admit publicly that they don’t believe all children can learn. Yet there is a difference between assuming all kids can learn and applying a growth mindset to the potential of our students. We attribute static characteristics to kids and then layer on labels to make grouping as easy as possible. “Smart” is a dangerous word both for those who are deemed worthy of its bestowal, and even more so for those who experience childhood without it.

Frankly, I think we’ve inoculated ourselves against considering the implications of truly having a growth mindset, both for ourselves and our students. We don’t necessarily want to change – our practices, our beliefs, our security, our prejudices. We don’t want your critical feedback. In fairness, few of us would stay in a relationship where we only received mean-spirited observations from our partner. We can only take so many invitations for improvement before we need to hear that we are appreciated and valued. I’ve often said that the most difficult aspect of being an administrator is balancing genuine and authentic appreciation with meaningful and honest critical feedback. Yet I still can’t help but cringe a bit when I’m in a meeting where we make a passing reference to the importance of a growth mindset. The more we use the term, the further we seem to get from what it really means.

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Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Martin Diaz Alvarez EDU Profile Page

The growth mindset, where you believe the natural talent life deals you is just a starting point, and that everyone can change and grow their abilities through application and experience.

Daniel Allen's picture
Daniel Allen
Developing transformational school leaders

I'm particularly interested in how growth mindset interacts with formative assessment - and our willingness as teachers to either give useful feedback to promote student learning.

Daniel Allen's picture
Daniel Allen
Developing transformational school leaders

I'll admit to the click bait - but what author doesn't? In any case I appreciated your comment, and definitely think there are organizations out there where authentic feedback and growth are a priority and not buzzwords. However, I happen to be skeptical - especially in the context of "high performing districts." Most urban schools with lower test scores suffer from accountability regimes that prioritize performance evaluation over professional learning. Perhaps where the growth mindset is needed the most - disrupting our mental models around what students - especially poor students of color - are capable of achieving.

Sue J's picture

I'm afraid I went from "attentively read" to "oh, just skim this one" where people get lumped into two categories, though I was primed for it from the clickbait title.
It's painfully true that it's easier to adopt a growth mindset in theory than in practice, with the judgments teachers have to make (grouping, etc.) You seem to think assigning those static variables to students is a given. Too bad.

Asikaa Cosgrove's picture
Asikaa Cosgrove
Faculty member at Drury University, Springfield, Missouri, USA

@Pino Esposito: That is not an accurate characterization of mindset theory at all. Mindset theory (and Dweck's empirical evidence) simply holds that students who are inculcated with the concept that effort yields results (as opposed to some inherent "gift") are more likely to persist and perform measurably better than students that did not receive the growth mindset intervention. This isn't about people being thin-skinned or receiving unearned praise. It's about fostering positive self-efficacy perceptions for increased tenacity in the face of academic challenges.

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

I would just add that after our district started to subscribe to growth mindset, I totally changed my parenting. Now, my wife and I celebrate our children's success through the work it took for them to experience that success. While we do believe our children are intelligent, we no longer tell them that because we want them to arrive at that distinction on their own. With that said, I would argue the growth mindset is alive and well.

M Tracey Jones's picture

So what would be the best way to start the Growth Mindset in a district school? How would teachers be trained? Would you start this in Kindergarten? Would you include parents in this training? When can/should harvest be expected from this? What would the COST be?

I have not heard of this yet and don't speak too loudly. My district loves to try new strategies then abandon them before they take root.

I can see this being a possibility of working, but it would take great follow-through for it's success, if there would be any at all. If it opens the child's 'eye' to him/her learning regardless of circumstances, then GREAT! But the parents MUST be trained in this as well. This would take MIND- changing across the board!

But then who would monitor and collect the data for longevity purposes?
So many questions!

And to the OP-
I hear the frustration. Your teaching situation is similar to a school where I once worked. The ball gets dropped when it comes to the urban schools and NO ONE cares to pick it up & RUN with it!! It's sad but true!

But it has got to start somewhere & with someone.
Maybe YOU are the one who could spark some change in that situation....

Pino Esposito's picture
Pino Esposito
Special Education and Music, Kitchener, Ontario

@Asikaa Cosgrove: What is the growth mindset intervention?

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi M Tracey Jones,
I was really struck by your comments. I think that you are asking all the right kinds of questions about developing Growth Mindset. I think the idea of involving parents in something like this could potentially be huge!

And, for what it's worth, I too know what it's like when new initiatives get abandoned as soon as it gets difficult. I guess my thoughts on this are that this is where leadership comes in. Good leaders - and I'm not necessarily talking about principals and senior managers - have a vision, and plan to achieve that vision. This vision isn't cast aside at the first hurdle.

Easier said than done, I know.

DTingen's picture

I was saddened by the line in the article that states we as educators won't open our classroom doors and ourselves to critical feedback. I have been blessed in most buildings to have great administrators with who I can trust to praise me and direct me to better instruction. I welcome critical feedback-not criticism- that makes me a stronger teacher. That is what I believe Dweck is proposing. First, we have to trust...and be trusted.

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