Is There Still a Case for Teaching Fixed vs. Growth Mindset?

As mindset theory becomes more nuanced, it’s clear school climate is key.

Posted Oct 17, 2020

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Those who applied a growth mindset were more resilient, persisted longer at tasks, and pursued greater challenges.
Source: Adam Winger/Unsplash

Psychologist Carol Dweck has made waves with her research on mindset theory.  Her book entitled Mindset describes the benefits of developing a growth mindset where ability is seen as malleable.  This is the opposite of a fixed mindset where ability is viewed as innate and unchangeable. Recent studies have put some of her classic work into question. 

Dweck’s work has been taught all over the world.  The message that intelligence can change with effort is a popular idea that instilled a sense of hope and motivation to keep trying.  Viewing the brain as a muscle that could be strengthened with practice helped students gain control over their learning.  Those who applied a growth mindset were more resilient, persisted longer at tasks, and pursued greater challenges.

Or so we thought.

Recently, some of the pillars of Dweck’s research have failed to replicate or had smaller effect sizes than originally believed. A new study published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology randomly assigned college students to receive a mindset message or one endorsing study skills.  Contrary to previous claims by Dweck, there was no difference between the groups in course grade, term GPA, term credit hours earned, or retention in later terms.  This held, even when comparing only at-risk samples.

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Mindset interventions must be done with the utmost precision, and adaptive beliefs must be reinforced by a climate of curiosity.
Source: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

However, the prestigious journal Nature also published a study on growth mindset.  This study is notable for its methods which included preregistered hypotheses and planned analyses, and a randomized controlled trial of more than 12,000 students from across the US.  The intervention was administered by an independent research firm, the analyses were reviewed independently, and the work was replicated by a separate set of researchers using participants in Norway.

It revealed that for mindset approaches to be successful, the environment matters.  Using two online programs, lower-achieving students saw an average gain of .1 grade point. However, students gained another half a point or more if their school fostered a climate that celebrated academic success and curiosity.  Both high- and low-achieving students went on to choose more challenging math courses in the subsequent year. 

While some have criticized these effects as falling short of John Hattie’s rigorous standards, the intervention programs were short and inexpensive.  As the authors note,

The intervention produced gains in the consequential outcome of advanced mathematics course-taking for students overall, which is meaningful because the rigor of mathematics courses taken in high school strongly predicts later educational attainment, and educational attainment is one of the leading predictors of longevity and health…The finding that the growth mindset intervention could redirect critical academic outcomes to such an extent—with no training of teachers…is a major advance.

The researchers also emphasized that not all interventions will show differences.  Interventions must be done with the utmost precision and validation processes, and adaptive beliefs must be reinforced with a supportive environment.

Read how to apply a growth mindset in your own life here.