Too Much of a Good Thing: Growth Mindset Overkill

Here we go again. Like most fads in education, school districts across the country are implementing the ‘growth mindset’ approach to learning in a manic and frenzied fashion.

Schools are promoting themselves to families as ‘growth’ schools, adorning practically every square inch of their precious wall space with ‘I Can’ posters, and encouraging teachers to recite inspirational quotes in a mantra-like fashion. “Believe you can and you are halfway there!” and “Change your words, change your mindset!”

In the midst of the well-intentioned hysteria, growth mindset has essentially been diluted into a fancy term for positive thinking.

The unfortunate result is the oversimplification of Dr. Carol Dweck’s careful and precise research, who–it’s important to note– has never once claimed in her academic writings that a state of mind called ‘growth mindset’ even exists. She has even gone so far as to say that “developing a growth mindset is the most fixed mindset idea.”

Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and one of the world’s most quoted education academics, has said that people are misinterpreting the ‘growth mindset’ theory by thinking it is a ‘general state’ to be aimed for.

In a blog for the US website Education Week, Professor Hattie recounts a recent meeting he had with Professor Dweck.“Over the time we spoke, we discussed our mutual disappointment, not surprising, that so many took her work and applied it in many haphazard ways,” he writes.

What is Growth Mindset, Anyway?

After years of research, Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues revealed that children who use a growth mindset welcome challenges as opportunities to improve, believing that their abilities can change with focused effort. Kids who use a fixed mindset, on the other hand, believe they have a finite amount of talent that can’t be altered.

Essentially, the study asserts that when students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. These students realize that if they put in extra time and effort, then it will lead to higher achievement.

It’s about here in her study where most districts must have stopped reading because growth mindset is not merely about effort. The single most common problem in many ‘growth’ schools is simply equating the growth mindset with student effort. ‘Praise the effort, not the outcome.’ Easy peasy. Start reciting those affirmations, kids.

Not so fast.

Stop Praising the Effort Alone

Yes, effort is critical for student achievement. But students also need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. Sheer effort will not help most students learn and improve.

Far too much praise is given to students who are simply putting forth effort—even when they’re not learning. This praise makes both the student and the teacher feel good in the moment: “Great job! You tried your best!” And yes, it is good that the student tried, but it’s not good that he’s not learning.

As a matter of fact, this type of empty praise actually exacerbates some of the very problems that growth mindset is intended to counter. Students know that when a teacher says “Wow, you tried really hard!” that she’s essentially giving them a participation ribbon.

They start to think that you’re praising their effort because you think they can’t do any better. Ahem, fixed mindset.

We cannot let our students continue to practice on tasks using already failed strategies by repeating ‘I can.’ Keep trying is not good enough. We must stop asking them to positive-think their way through difficult problems or praising them just for showing up.

How Can We Fix This?

We can start by stopping the practice of throwing praise at our students and calling it growth-mindset thinking. Growth mindset is not praise; it is a way of thinking in a particular circumstance. It is a coping strategy. The growth-mindset approach, when taught correctly, helps teachers and children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them effectively deal with challenges and setbacks as they are learning.

The appropriate situations for growth-mindset thinking are for when a student:
-does not know an answer
-experiences failure
-is feeling anxious.

In these cases, teachers should encourage the student’s work done so far, but needs to add: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” In doing so, the teacher is helping the student move forward instead of resting on effort.

“I tried my best” isn’t good enough. Students must be able to recognize when they’re stuck and then feel comfortable enough to seek out alternative strategies from teachers or peers.

Some Kids Don’t Need It

Here’s the most important thing to remember: Not every student needs this coping strategy all the time. Nobody needs a growth mindset all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.

Instead of demanding our students strive for an impossible and unnecessary state of being called “I have a growth mindset,” let’s teach them to recognize when to invoke this line of thinking.

Otherwise, all we are doing is encouraging them to rah-rah their way through life….until the next fad.

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