Growth mindset is an educational idea which has taken on a life and a momentum of its own, far beyond what it was initially intended for. It is important that teachers understand what the theory means and what it was intended for if they are to be able to use it effectively.
Carol Dweck’s idea of ‘growth mindset’ is that children benefit from the belief that their intelligence is malleable, and that it can be improved through effort and practice. Equally, a ‘fixed mindset’ – that intelligence is set in stone – leads quickly to setbacks being attributed to a lack of intelligence rather than any other factors. It is clear to see why this optimistic idea is attractive for teachers. Firstly, if we can encourage children to develop growth mindsets about themselves then they are likely to achieve better academically. Secondly, as a side-effect, they are likely to develop into far more resilient, determined individuals; ones who respond to failures by rolling up their sleeves and trying harder rather than throwing up their hands and bemoaning their lack of ability.
The enthusiasm that this has generated is part of the problem for the use of growth mindsets in modern classrooms. Growth mindset theory has been taken far beyond what it was designed to do. The theory has been used to justify pointlessly praising every small action that students do, relating every failure to a ‘lack of effort’ (a frankly patronising and irritating thing for a child to hear repeatedly), and even to suggest that mindset is more important than innate intelligence, which is sadly nonsense.
The basic theory of growth mindset is potentially a useful one for improving students motivation towards their work… as long as it is used in the way it was designed!
Suggestions for practice:
- When it feels useful and truthful to do so, emphasise effort over ability in feedback to students.
Ideas which may be labelled ‘growth mindset’ to avoid:
- Just praising everything. This is at best pointless and may in fact be counter-productive