The human mind has historically been the subject of research on cognitive ability and ways to measure intelligence. In the early 1900s and throughout the twentieth century, an increased interest in this field would lead to the development of theories by prominent psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Alfred Binet, Charles Spearman, and William Stern who coined the term “intelligence quotient” or “IQ” as it is commonly known. Recent offerings to this ever-expanding field, are Robert J Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (1985), Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory (1983) and Growth Mindset Theory, the brainchild of Dr. Carol S Dweck. In Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, published by Ballantine books in 2006, the author offers a study of intelligence as a malleable trait that all people can develop. Since its inception, the Growth Mindset Theory has been both widely acclaimed and criticized.
A noted researcher, and professor of psychology at such prestigious universities as Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia, Dweck (2006), asserts that the idea behind teaching growth mindset over a fixed mindset is to “give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence.” She presents this growth mindset theory with the intention of training a generation of educators and learners to adopt a new way of thinking. In doing so, Dweck(2006) uses GMT[footnoteRef:1] to help its practitioners push beyond self-imposed limitations which reinforce what she describes as the “tyranny of no” and hinder the “power of yet”.
While reviewing the TED talk presented by Dr. Dweck, I was initially a proponent of the theory. However, after several views, a few comments made by Dr. Dweck did not sit right with me. The research centers around developing a mindset aligned with positive affirmations of effort. With the “power of yet” or “not yet,” as described by Dweck, viewing problems as challenges to be accepted (growth mindset) opens multiple lanes to success for the practitioner by not associating their successes (or failures), with a grade. This theory seemed akin to motivational speeches I had heard as a teen playing sports but repurposed for the classroom. The study also suggests that one who operates from a “fixed mindset” is more likely to fail because they believe their limitations cannot be improved. According to the TED talk, students who underperformed would “probably cheat the next time instead of studying more if they failed“(Dweck, TED 2014). Per the study, underperforming students admit to making themselves feel better about failing by looking for other students whose performance was worse than theirs.
Dweck’s approach to solving these issues is to correct negative thoughts by steering praise away from achieving perfect grades to praising good effort. Reading the video transcript, however, made me immediately draw comparisons of Dr. Dweck’s theory with that of Rhonda Byrne’s once wildly popular and (often) refuted book The Secret. Byrne, whose “Law of Attraction” theorem proposes one should simply believe in the power of their mind to “manifest their wishes,” treads a similar path to Dweck’s. The problem with both ideas is that, although a person consciously builds a belief in any mindset, it does not mean their brain will comply. Critics in various academic circles, tend to agree.
Further reading on Dweck’s research reveals that the study’s results have not been easily replicated except by Dweck, and her colleagues. In fact, many critics of Dweck’s extensive examination take issue with the fact that the growth mindset theory falls apart if even one parameter diverges from the controls in the original study. In the essay “The growth mindset problem,“[footnoteRef:4] its author, Carl Hendrick concurs. In his critical review of Dweck’s theory, Hendrick writes, “the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned”(Hendrick, p.6). This statement seems to support that while Dweck’s research might be applicable to help struggling students with fixed mindsets, the inability to replicate results consistently could potentially set educators up for failure.
While there is no lack of articles supporting Dweck’s theories, the work on its own cannot drown out the cries of its naysayers. Dweck, however, persists presenting her data confidently, even if portions of the academic population simply “don’t buy it.” A search through recent academic journals discussing GMT quickly produced articles that dismiss the psychologist’s theories using traditional research methods and no small amount of empirical data. One such article“To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses” (Victoria F Sisk, et al., 2018), published by the Association for Psychological Science, attempted to identify what factors strengthened or weakened the relationship between mindsets and academic achievement. The research article quantified and qualified its findings to ultimately conclude
“The evidence suggests that the “mindset revolution” might not be the best avenue to reshape our education system.”(Sisk, et al, p.569).
In Alfie Kohn’s Salon Magazine article “The perils of ‘Growth Mindset’ education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system” the author wastes no time in outlining a similar position against implementing an “oversimplified idea…coopted by conservative ideology”(Kohn, p.1). This author’s article, while not completely discounting the work of Dweck and her colleagues, deftly addresses factors that are not clearly identified in their research. For example, little attention is given by Dweck on the day to day factors that might influence performance. This is particularly true of inner-city students facing issues they and their parents do not often report. In truth, the data presented by Dweck seems almost sanitized, presenting only the bright and shiny wins over the losses that must undoubtedly exist.
in Dweck’s TED talk. In a moment highlighting GMT in practical use, she speaks about the accomplishments of Bronx and Harlem students in umbrella terms but never quite reveals her numbers or provides insight into how she measured their achievements. The trope of “underdog” city students outperforming the “Microsoft kids” (Dweck, TED 2014) is unashamedly used and the audience (feeling great about saving inner-city kids) can all but help to nod their approval.
With few ways to gauge true learning other than the system Dweck denounces as tyranny (but selectively uses), teachers are left responsible for a larger systemic issue which can result in failing students and punitive action for themselves. Kohn responds to this plight when stating;
The problem with sweeping, generic claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).
As Kohn suggests, some teachers are complicit in the problem and contribute to the continued breakdown of a failing system. In light of this fact, school districts and administrators should be wary of how they package and implement GMT. This is not an indictment of the practice as positive attitudes towards learning are clearly important to student motivation, however, the ability of those instructors to hide their own failures within this model should be addressed. To be effective, GMT can work hand in hand with the development of culturally relevant curriculum and wholistic teaching practices that address the needs of students with diverse backgrounds at all levels. In short, the Growth Mindset Theory must be used in conjunction with effective pedagogy to achieve its greatest impact.
The initial draw to theories like the Growth Mindset is understandable. Student motivation plays an important role in learning. At its core, GMT seeks to foster an attitude that will make students successful and resilient learners. However, as students often move between the growth and fixed mindset, how do we provide them with adequate support for when they inevitably fail? For some students, failure can result in inescapable consequences. As many of the researchers referenced in this review have indicated, the system itself is broken. In this system, some students’ failures follow them throughout their entire academic career. Educators, who care about their students, should ask how they are expected to embrace a growth mindset when they are limited by traumas (in and outside of school), labels (learning disabilities and behavioral issues), tracking (regents, honors, and AP course), and standardized testing? Additionally, these educators need to be acknowledged for being on the front lines, often fighting their own administrations, who at times undermine good teaching practice. Carl Hendrick summarizes this sentiment when he writes;
Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instill it. Yet creating a culture in which students can believe in the possibility of improving their intelligence through their own purposeful effort is something few would disagree with. Perhaps growth mindset works best as a philosophy and not an intervention (Hendrick p.9).
Hendrick’s statements strike accurately at the core of this debate. In plain language, he stresses that the real growth mindset needed must come from within the administration of failing schools. Those that have adopted Dweck’s theories in hopes that the “elixir” will cure their ailing curriculum, must reassess and come back to the drawing board with something more realistic.
Given arguments against the implementation of GMT into school curriculums across the globe, a return to proven strategies modified for diverse students in a new century appears to be in order. Whatever the path, one thing is certain, a change is needed. If asking the hard questions is the first step, then a united voice rejecting practices that historically underserve the population most in need should follow. Until this united voice presents viable cooperative solutions to decades-old problems, the coming generations of students will find themselves in the same predicaments as their predecessors. The path forward is not an easy one, but seeing successful students achieving their goals without the aid of gimmicky educational fads is in itself a reward. Responsible educators should, therefore, ask themselves if they are willing to keep supporting the status quo or take up the mantle of leadership on behalf of those who need it most.
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