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Does Growth Mindset Work?

The silhouette of a human head with a dial turned to high indicating brain power.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Harry Fletcher-Wood first heard the concept of a growth mindset at a conference in New Orleans a little more than a decade ago. 

Like many other educators, he was intrigued by the idea that if students adopted a growth mindset – the belief that academic skills such as math were not talent-based – they could increase their academic performance over students with a fixed mindset. 

“It sounds great,” says Fletcher-Wood, author of Habits of Success: Getting Every Student Learning. “I loved it. I was like, ‘This is an explanation for how your kids are struggling. And this is the thing that's going to solve it.’ And I was like, ‘Sign me up.’” 

However, since then, the research around growth mindset and Fletcher-Wood’s thinking on it have become more complicated. Fletcher-Wood, a former history teacher who is now head of school surveys for Teacher Tapp, a United Kingdom-based survey app, recently wrote on his blog, “I have no idea if growth mindset is real. I’ve read robust studies showing it has no effect – and robust studies showing it does.”

Growth Mindset Gains Traction–And Challenges  

In one key 2007 study, researchers found that students who were taught a growth mindset in a randomized control trial outperformed those who were not. This study helped bring the concept to the mainstream, and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University and one of the study’s authors, became a bestseller.

However, over the years, researchers have begun to question some of the original findings in support of growth mindset. For instance, some of the early growth mindset studies were small – the 2007 paper was based in part on a study looking at just under 100 students – and the findings haven’t been replicated in later research.

Brooke N. Macnamara, associate professor of Cognitive Psychology at Case Western Reserve University, has conducted research with colleagues that challenges the efficacy of growth mindset. For a 2018 study, Macnamara and her co-authors conducted two meta-analyses looking at the connection between student mindset and mindset interventions and academic achievement. They found little impact. 

In addition, a 2020 study co-authored by Macnamara found little evidence for some of the core assumptions of growth mindset. For instance, growth-mindset models predict that a student with a growth mindset will be focused on learning. “We found a pretty weak relationship there,” Macnamara said. “One's mindset explained about 1 percent of the variance of how focused you are on learning.” 

Another tenet of mindset thinking is that students with a fixed mindset are focused on performance goals – looking smart – while those with a growth mindset seek out and embrace challenges. “We actually found no evidence for that,” Macnamara said. 

Finally, growth mindset students are thought to be more resilient following failure. “For that one, we found a weak relationship, just over 1 percent of the variance, but in the opposite direction as mindset would predict,” Macnamara said. “So if anything, people with a growth mindset did a little bit worse following failure feedback than people with a fixed mindset.” 

However, she stressed this association, though the strongest observed in the study, was still quite small and likely insignificant. 

Growth Mindset Strikes Back  

In 2019, a robust national study examining the impact of growth mindset training in 12,000 9th graders was published in Nature. For the study, researchers randomly assigned certain students to complete a 50-minute module during the school day that explained intelligence is not fixed and that you can improve by putting in more effort and trying different strategies. The study was rigorously designed. Teachers were “blinded,” so they didn’t know which students received the growth mindset training and which did not, and therefore did not treat them differently. The data was sent to third-party analysts who were unaware of the intervention being studied to eliminate potential bias. 

Ultimately, the study found that growth mindset training had an impact on specific children: those who were struggling in school but attended a school that supports a growth mindset. The growth mindset training didn’t play much of a role for students who were on track to graduate anyhow and/or who went to schools without supportive cultures. It worked for, “vulnerable kids in supportive places,” says David S. Yeager the lead author of the study, which had more than 20 co-authors including growth mindset pioneer Dweck. 

“The huge misunderstanding is when I say, ‘Okay, it works for these people in this context,’ what some people want to say is, ‘Oh, see you're admitting your thing only works for this tiny group and it's not important.’ And I'm like, ‘No, nothing works for everyone,’” says Yeager, an associate professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “We took the most systematic possible approach, a national random sample, used super-advanced statistics, and unlike almost anything else in education, we discovered where it works and for whom.” 

Yeager says one of the clear takeaways from the debate around growth mindset is that nothing is a magic bullet in education. “Growth mindset is not the curriculum, it doesn't teach you physics. Physics class teaches you physics,” he says. “Growth mindset is like, ‘Here's the path through which you can become better at this.’ There is reason for hope and optimism, but hope and optimism is not physics knowledge and math knowledge.” 

He says that he and many other growth mindset proponents have always been wary of some of the loftier claims around the concept. “We have always said there's a hype cycle – like don't buy the hype, but do use this really powerful idea, and embed it in your culture as a complement to your most rigorous coursework. And when you do that, it actually does inspire students,” he says. 

Growth Mindset Takeaways  

One explanation for the mixed findings around growth mindset would be that the studies showing that it works is because of other factors that go beyond growth mindset. This is what Fletcher-Wood now believes. “My sense just from reading the growth mindset experiments is they do a load of things that we know work in and of themselves,” he says. For instance, the growth mindset training in Yeager’s 2019 study featured stories from “older students and admired adults” about growth mindset. “We know that presenting people with the right role models in the right way has a really big effect on their belief and their effort,” Fletcher-Wood says. “So I think if you chop the onion and you get down to the middle, there's probably nothing there that is growth mindset that's separate from everything else.” 

Yeager disagrees. “Are there mysteries about how growth mindset works? Absolutely, but it's not whether it changes growth mindset, that's reliable, it happens every time,” he says. 

However, teachers looking to incorporate a growth mindset lesson should use a research-tested method instead of just Googling growth mindset and finding an unvetted lesson plan, Yeager says. 

For his part, Fletcher-Wood would like to see a better understanding of exactly what is happening around growth mindset. “If we’re misattributing the causes of student success, I think that's problematic,” he says. 

In the meantime, he isn’t worried about encouraging the growth mindset basics in children. “Fundamentally, the message that we can all get smarter is a great message,” he says. “And it's one I very happily tell students I teach or tell my own kids.” 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.