The Need to Combat a False Growth Mind-Set

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Babies and young children are typically eager, resilient and adept learners. They master the complexities of language without ever seeing a worksheet or being assigned a grade. They absorb — and quickly manipulate — the subtle rules of social interactions. And they harness the abilities of their initially clumsy bodies with an enthusiasm that lasts for years.

Take a child who is learning how to walk. If that child falls after a few attempts, they don’t then decide, “Well, maybe this whole walking thing isn’t for me.” Instead, they persist as though there’s no alternative — not walking is simply not an option.

And yet, over time, something happens. We lose the drive to learn new things. We become more sensitive to failure (or more reliant on success), and we tend to give up on long-term tasks more easily. How often do we hear “I’m just not a math person” and find that students begin to disengage from their learning? The question is: Why does this happen?

This year, students’ sensitivity to failure has been heightened by social unrest and a global pandemic, which have raised the stakes of education while making it harder for students to succeed. Amid these challenges, the core motivational forces that we have traditionally relied on to help students through the college experience, such as the informal support from instructors during classroom interactions, have also come into question. Consequently, we must think about what motivates students to learn so that we, as parents, educators, administrators and policy makers, can create more engaging and meaningful learning experiences.

More than 30 years ago, Carol S. Dweck was interested in the same question — one that would not only shape her entire career but also transform the way we think about student motivation. In her early work, she observed that, after having failed at a puzzle, some 10-year-old children seemed devastated and quickly became discouraged by the prospect of additional effort. That was consistent with the predictions at the time, which offered insights about motivation from the early Skinner box experiments on learned helplessness.

And yet a subset of those children responded in a surprising fashion. These children, rather than becoming deflated from discouragement, responded to the same failure with a genuine sense of excitement and a desire to stay engaged — with some of them saying things like “I love a challenge” or “I was hoping this would be informative.”

The distinction between the two groups of children, Dweck discovered, was related to their differing beliefs about the malleability of their intelligence. When students believe that their intelligence can be developed, they understand that investing effort, employing effective strategies and seeking help from other people makes them smarter — a belief Dweck has called a “growth mind-set.” In contrast, when students view intelligence as an unchangeable trait, or a “fixed mind-set,” they interpret their difficulty or setbacks as evidence that they aren’t smart and therefore shouldn’t bother trying.

Over the past few decades, the research on mind-set has shown converging support for this notion. For instance, in a series of independent large studies and meta-analyses, students with more of a growth mind-set tended to demonstrate moderately higher academic achievement. What’s exciting about this work is that early research has shown that growth mind-sets can also be taught and that the kind of praise and feedback that students receive can impact their mind-set and motivation.

These results, however, should be treated with caution. Mind-set research usually includes some word of caution about the widespread scalability of these interventions. And most of the empirical studies are careful to not oversell the impact of their results, noting the importance of subgroup characteristics or contextual affordances necessary for the seeds of a growth mind-set to take root and flourish.

An Overly Simplistic Understanding

Despite these red flags, the mind-set concept, perhaps because of its intuitive appeal and apparent simplicity, now enjoys widespread acceptance among educators — in some places, almost bordering on gospel. Alas, this nearly ubiquitous faith in the concept conflicts with the absence of data showing that heightened awareness of mind-set principles has contributed to an increase in a growth mind-set among students over the past 20 years.

In part, that may reflect variations in instructor practices. These variations may occur because some important nuances in the mind-set theory at times get overlooked or aren’t conveyed effectively when training teachers — either due to limited training opportunities or training that focuses on superficial aspects of the mind-set theory.

The result is an overly simplistic understanding and application of the mind-set principles. And gaining superficial awareness of the mind-set concept and related terminology may actually prevent teachers from revising and deepening their view during subsequent learning opportunities. When faced with new information, educators with a shallow understanding of the mind-set principles may now dismiss important training opportunities with convenient rationalizations, such as, “It’s OK, I already know about growth mind-set.”

Recent research has shown that instructors’ own mind-sets are closely related to student success. For instance, in a recent paper, Elizabeth Canning and her colleagues examined the longitudinal association between faculty mind-set and performance among college students from underrepresented minority groups. Looking at data from more than 150 STEM professors and over 15,000 students, the researchers found that courses taught by faculty with a fixed mind-set had achievement gaps that were twice as large as courses taught by faculty with a growth mind-set.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen such results based on instructors’ attitudes. In a classic 1965 study by Rosenthal and Jacobson, researchers went into classrooms of second graders with the cover story of wanting to test students for IQ. After implementing the IQ tests to the students, they gave the teachers a list with names of the students whom they’d presumably identified as “bloomers” — those predicted to make gains that year — as well as those they identified as less talented. Without any other intervention, the researchers returned about a year later and, sure enough, found that the students who had originally been on their list of bloomers were, in fact, blooming compared to the other students.

What the researchers hadn’t told the teachers, however, was that the IQ test they used was bogus, and the names of the students they’d identified as bloomers were picked entirely at random. So what happened? The teachers claimed the list of names had not impacted their interactions with students. Chances are, they were being honest. But it’s also likely that their new expectations about the potential of various students had influenced how they responded to them, especially when working through a student’s struggle or disappointing performance. It’s likely that the teachers invested a little more energy in the students they viewed as having more potential. It’s also likely that these perceptions affected the way that student saw themselves.

False Practices

This story underscores that, at best, a dulled understanding of the mind-set principles has a blunt, but still positive, effect on students. But, at worst, misperceptions among both K-12 and college teachers may actually be harming some of those students in their moments of greatest need. In fact, so common is this false understanding of the mind-set principles that Dweck refers to it as a “false growth mind-set.” This false understanding of the mind-set principles tends to reveal itself as a handful of common, but clearly observable, practices. They include:

  • Overemphasis on effort. When educators suggest that students can do anything as long as they apply more effort, such guidance can lead students astray, because the truth is that achievement calls for more. Students who are encouraged to “just try harder” may end up doubling down on their studying, but if they are using ineffective learning strategies, they may not earn better outcomes. Instead, their disappointment may further crystallize into a fixed mind-set, because now the student concludes, “Even when I try harder, I’m still not able to do better, so I must not be one of the smart ones. Why bother!” Instead, students might benefit from knowing that, while effort is necessary, it’s also important to use effective strategies (e.g., note taking, frequent practice, deep processing) and to take advantage of the collective knowledge of peers, teachers, tutors and others.
  • Offering praise as a consolation for poor performance. The second common practice can be observed when educators praise students without providing insight as to whether the student has increased their effort, employed effective strategies or demonstrated improved performance. When praise feels insincere, unfounded or too general — even if well intended or positive — students learn not to trust the feedback they receive. Similarly, educators sometimes praise their students’ efforts as a way to comfort them for a poor grade or a failed goal. As Dweck points out, “‘Great effort’ became the consolation prize for those who weren’t learning.” Instead, educators who praise effort while still being honest with students about their performance and offer strategies to help them achieve their goals may foster increased trust and mitigate the harmful effects of a false growth mind-set.
  • Blaming the student’s mind-set for poor performance. Before widespread awareness of mind-set research, some educators may have believed that a student who was not performing well was simply not smart enough, and they would therefore focus their attention on students they perceived had greater potential for success. Now, rather than identifying innate intelligence as the sole determinant of students’ performance, educators might instead associate a student’s performance with their mind-set. In this case, an instructor may attribute poor performance with the belief that a student is willfully not following the mind-set principles they were taught. Regardless of the rationalization, the effect is the same: those students in greatest need of support may be left feeling abandoned and disparaged. Teaching a growth mind-set is not just about describing it to students; it is mostly about supporting their struggles and fostering and appreciating their progress.

Ultimately, effective teaching requires an embrace of the never-ending and bidirectional process of learning between students and teachers. And with that comes the recognition that our own beliefs as teachers can be strengthened and developed. As Carol Dweck sometimes reminds me, “We all have a combination of both growth and fixed mind-sets.” The goal is not to “arrive” at the right set of beliefs or practices; it’s to embark on the voyage of moving toward endless growth.

The deep work that is necessary to foster a meaningful growth mind-set has implications not only for how we support our students’ academic achievements, but also how we support our students’ holistic health. In the midst of social tensions around the topics of race, class and politics, many students may feel alienated or uncertain about their belonging in the classroom. During such sensitive times, students look to their teachers and administrators to create the space needed for healing. Naturally, these are contentious topics, and instructors may be tempted to avoid such conversations at the risk of saying something wrong or unintentionally causing more harm. It turns out that mind-set is also at the root of this temptation to avoid engaging in difficult conversations.

In a 2012 paper, Priyanka B. Carr, Dweck and Kristin Pauker found that our beliefs about the nature of prejudice impact our willingness to engage or disengage in such situations. Specifically, if we think that people are either prejudiced or not and don’t usually change (i.e., fixed mind-set), then we will be more worried about saying something that makes us seem prejudiced, regardless of how many prejudiced beliefs we may actually hold. If, however, if we recognize that prejudice is a quality that is malleable (i.e., growth mind-set), then we also see that there may be a need for difficult, and at times uncomfortable, conversations in order to create a safe learning environment where students can trust that teachers have their best intentions in mind.

I now commit much of my work to providing professional development training to educators and administrators so they can more effectively support their students’ advancement and success. As part of this training, I work with faculty to engage in authentic self-reflection and critical self-evaluation in order to effectively break down their own maladaptive beliefs. That can often be difficult work, because a core function of the training is to get faculty to identify their mind-set about not only their students’ potential to grow and learn but their own such potential, as well. In essence, this training acts like an intervention for faculty members, helping to foster more of a growth mind-set.

As we reflect on the way that a child learns how to walk, it’s also interesting to consider the role parents play in the child’s learning process. Just as the child never thinks to doubt themselves (despite repeated stumbles along the way), the parents also don’t question their child’s potential for walking. So it’s possible that walking happens because both child and parent have full faith in the process that will lead to progress and eventual success.

How then can we remind ourselves and our students of the same possibilities for them in our classrooms? Maybe there is no simple answer. But perhaps part of it begins with us believing that a better learning experience is possible for our students — and then starting to take the first steps together toward that goal.

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