Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mind-sets’ in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) took motivational theory in a specific direction around a specific attitude that, she claims, leads to accelerated learning. For Dweck, students can too often see school as the place where they perform for teachers, who then judge them, whereas, for Dweck, growth is what education should be about and keeping up momentum by encouraging growth mindsets, is an essential teaching skill.
Fixed and growth mindsets
Drawing on animal studies in ‘learner helplessness’ where animals became passive in response to adverse stimuli, Dweck found that humans were much more complex and variable. She has observed that many educators still believe that praising intelligence builds esteem, confidence and motivation to learn. This, she claims is false. There is also the belief that innate intelligence is the main factor in achievement. This, she believes is harmful, even for successful students. Teachers and learners have two forms of mindset: fixed or growth. With fixed mindsets, you believe in innate abilities, fear failure and often stop prematurely in learning and development. With a growth mindset, you welcome failure and persist at work, in learning and life, through hard work and effort.
She doesn’t deny that nature is important but believes, through the evidence of her own research, that nurture wins out most of the time. This may seem rather obvious but the orthodoxy in parenting books was to pump up a child’s self-esteem by praising them as talented individuals not as hard working learners. Dweck is careful to see this as a complex problem in that beliefs about intelligence are not the only factor at work and that context matters.
Reaction to failure
For Dweck, a learner’s beliefs on intelligence and goals, significantly influences their learning success. What happens when you come across an error – fight or flight? Using models of goal-directed behaviour, she sees the reaction to problems and failure as a key marker for success in learning. Her conclusions are drawn from cognitive psychology, especially attention and reactions to feedback (negative, positive and type). When she gave 10 year-olds problems that were challenging, some reacted with relish and got stuck in, others reacted badly and failed. On analysis, she found that those with fixed mindsets found it harder to overcome setbacks and failures, compared to those with growth mindsets, who were more resilient.
Fixed mindset students, who believe in intrinsic ability and intelligence, on encountering problems, can avoid opportunities to learn further. Their beliefs may lead them to be discouraged, setbacks as a reason to halt effort. They may even hide their mistakes. In addition, 'effort’ is seen as a weakness, to be disparaged and avoided, leading to a lack of progress. Fixed mindset learners see cheating and identifying people weaker than them as strategies.
Growth mindset learners, learn from errors. It is when learners encounter challenges and difficulties that the mindsets swing into action. They persist and develop resilience when faced with challenges ad difficulties. She has also looked at the sort of self-handicapping that hold back women and people of colour, when faced with challenge and failure.
In research with 4 year-olds to adolescents, growth feedback through praising effort (you must have worked hard at these problems) leads to consistently better outcomes than fixed feedback, praising ability (you must be smart at these problems). The language of teachers is therefore important. Growth mindsets can be encouraged and fixed mindsets avoided by the judicious use of appropriate feedback. Don’t praise intelligence, abilities or talent but effort, strategy, focus, improvement. Don’t praise the child, praise the work and effort. For example You really tried hard in preference toYou’re really good at this. Process-oriented praise should also focus on specific feedback about that task. This joint strategy of effort and process praise is clear and prescriptive. Tell them what they’ve done to achieve the result is good and encourage that approach in the future. You really studied and … you really tried and…. you stuck to it… you took on…. As well as being precise in naming the process, task or approach they took, such as; research, reading, repeated tries, corrections, looking at alternatives, concentration, staying on task and so on. Even with high achievers, pushing these learners towards more challenge is important.
Dweck has also developed a computer tool, Brainology, where students learn about the brain and learning through doing experiments and seeing how the brain changes with acquired memories to get smarter. This led to increased self-awareness of the value of effort and study.
She believes that growth mindset results in better school transitions, for example from school to college. It is particularly relevant for students who struggle and underperform. Growth mindset classrooms result in practical equality, as attitudes to failure are shifted from acceptance to resilience. She claims that schools in Harlem, the Bronx as well as native American students have all benefited from this approach. And it is not just achievement that results from growth mindsets but more enjoyment of learning and more respect for teachers.
There is some evidence that the growth approach may suffer over time or, if too premature and overcooked, lead to an expectation of unwarranted praise or, as Hyland and Hyland (2006) found or that early and inappropriate praise led to puzzlement in students, Skipper & Douglas (2011). Praise effects also vary with gender and age (stronger on upper-elementary girls). Praise may even lead to suspicions by learners that they lack ability or are in need of help. In other words, the overzealous implementation by teachers may undo the intended benefits. On the whole, however, these may be tactical issues that need to be solved within an overall successful growth mind-set strategy.
More worrying is a growing set of studies that show no significant effects. Gorard, S., See, B.H. and Davies (2012) found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes”.Bahník and Vranka (2017) found a slightly negative correlation and Siks et al (2018) in two meta-analyses reported little or no effect for growth mindsets. The University of Portsmouth study (2019) in 36 schools found no significant statistical significance, either when teachers were trained in or learners subjected to growth mindset.
Hattie confirms that Dweck’s research is exactly what has been found to have a significant effect on learner performance and she has similar theories to Black & Wiliam research and recommendations on feedback. The work of Anderson on deliberate practice can also be seen as an extension of her theories. Teachers, in particular, have found her recommendations ethical, practical and leading to marked changes in motivation and improved results. However, more recent research has begun to see the theory as having been overplayed.
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