Why the 'false growth mindset' explains so much

//Why the 'false growth mindset' explains so much

Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. – Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

In the same way that I learned nothing from listening to the polished performance of Ken Robinson at yesterday’s Education Festival at Wellington College, I found myself surprised at just how challenging Carol Dweck’s slightly awkward delivery and clunky slides turned out to be. And to think I nearly didn’t bother staying. After reading Self Theories and Mindset I thought I knew as much about Dweck’s theories as anyone could ever reasonably want to know, but it turned out I was dead wrong. (A recurrent theme in my life!)
She began her presentation with a rehash of the same old same old: you tell students about the growth mindset and hey presto! their test performance improves. This has always seemed a little magical; how on earth can simply telling students about the way in which persisting in challenging tasks makes us form and strengthen synaptic connections (and therefore make us cleverer) possibly have such a profound effect? Through long and bitter experience, I’ve found that when an idea seems too good to be true, it usually is. And I’m not alone. Scott Alexander, author of Slate Star Codex, (according to Andrew Sabisky, the best blog in the world, ever!) is also sceptical. On the universal love and acclaim of Dweck’s work he writes,

It’s unnatural, is what it is. A popular psychological finding that doesn’t have gruff people dismissing it as a fad? That doesn’t have politicians condemning it as a feel-good justification for everything wrong with society? That doesn’t have a host of smarmy researchers saying that what, you still believe that, didn’t you know it failed to replicate and has since been entirely superseded by a new study out of Belarus? I’m not saying Carol Dweck has definitely made a pact with the Devil, I’m just saying I don’t have a good alternative explanation.

Alexander has looked in vain for evidence of falsification of research findings and publication bias and has come up if not empty handed then at least with very little in the way of pocket change, despite having looked really hard. He ends with this:

But I remain agnostic. There are some really good – diabolically good? – studies showing that it works in certain lab situations. There’s a lot of excellent research behind it and a lot of brilliant people giving it their support. But there are also other studies showing that it has no long-term real-world effects that we can measure, and others that might (or might not?) contradict its predictions in other ways.

Back to Dweck’s presentation. After her intro, she began talking about the development of growth mindsets as a journey. It really isn’t enough to simply be told about mindset theory, you have to believe it. At first glance, this sounds a little like religious faith – it only ‘works’ if you’re a true believer. But then I started thinking about my recent experience of attending a speed awareness course. Attending a 4-hour workshop on the faulty thinking inherent in the belief that it’s ever worth breaking the speed limit seems to have had a permanent effect on the way I drive. The change was immediate, durable and flexible: no matter the conditions, I now deliberately and intentionally keep below the legal limit. When I’ve explained this to friends they’ve tended to express scepticism but maybe that’s because they’ve not been on the same journey as me? Maybe they’re only able to intellectually appreciate the message without it really having any emotional resonance?
Dweck then dropped a bombshell. She’s identified a phenomenon she calls the ‘false growth mindset’. Because we’ve unanimously agreed that having a fixed mindset is egregious and a growth mindset makes you a better all-round human being, no one wants to fess up to being ‘fixed’. When asked, we tend to say, “Yes of course I have a growth mindset,” because the alternative is to say, “No, I’m afraid I’m a terrible person.” It seems reasonable to suggest teachers are at least as prone to this as anyone; we tend to know more about the perceived benefits of growth mindset than most other people and so there’s a huge social pressure to fall into line. But just saying you have a growth mindset does not (quelle surprise!) mean you actually have one. What you actually have is a false growth mindset. This goes some way to explaining why schools are so bad at allowing teachers to behave in a way consistent with the growth mindset. And it may well explain some of the rather flimsy findings in the EEF’s recent report, Changing Mindsets.
So what should we do? Dweck suggests the first step is to validate and explore the fixed mindset and admit that we probably all have fixed and inflexible beliefs about something. A while back I wrote a defence of the fixed mindset and it’s gratifying to find out this kind of thinking is useful. I didn’t manage to write down all of Carol’s advice for acknowledging our fixed beliefs but it seems probable that by honestly exploring our prejudices and biases that we’re much more likely to embark on the kind of journey necessary to genuinely changing our beliefs about intelligence and ability.
There are two ways to take this. One, we could shrug cynically and point out that all snake oil peddlers say we need to be true believers before we’ll feel the benefit. Or we could, if we were open minded enough, really try to interrogate our prejudices and reservations to find out why we don’t believe developing a growth mindset might work with ‘kids like these’.
The other point that seems worth making is that there’s almost certainly an element of heritability in our capacity to take on a growth mindset. On Thursday, I listened to Robert Plomin explaining that all human characteristics seems to have a high degree of genetic heritability and why would this be any different. In a follow-up post, Alexander writes;

If fixed mindset = smart people, than might the reason they react poorly to challenges and failure be that they have no experience with them? Might it be that the more challenges and failures you’ve encountered before, the better you are at dealing with them?

Maybe because teachers are, on the whole, academically successful, we’ve experienced less in the way of academic struggle and therefore are not so good at overcoming struggle? Perhaps it’s harder for some of us to take on new beliefs? Perhaps you don’t have the same capacity for suspending doubt as others? Or maybe you just don’t have a growth mindset… yet.

2015-06-20T12:42:30+00:00June 20th, 2015|psychology|


  1. johockey1234 June 20, 2015 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    I have a fixed mindset about history. I have never understood it, never liked it and I often find myself saying that, because I have so little knowledge I have nothing to pin new knowledge on. I also blame having had the dullest history teacher in the world back when I was at school. I know this is wrong and doesn’t tie in with my belief that Carol Dweck is right. The best way I can explain it is that it isn’t important enough to me YET to do anything about it. However, when I tackle the things that are important to me – learning to swim aged 40, running a marathon, writing a book (nearly there after 12 years!) to name but a few, I most certainly do have a growth mindset.

    • David Didau June 21, 2015 at 11:02 am - Reply

      I think this is true of all of us, but there’s more: I believe that with effort, I could learn to play the clarinet. I just can’t be bothered to try. Desire and inclination are important preconditions without which a growth mindset is worthless.

  2. julietgreen June 20, 2015 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Are you sure? I’ve read the report and yes, you’re right, the findings are indeed very flimsy. But what is this predicated on? We are bilaterally sorted and that we can overcome this with something… training teachers (the evidence shows not), talking to pupils (a kind of bluff?)? We’re not getting any better because of our ‘mindset’? Is it worth revisiting Pinker to put into perspective the world of ‘interventions’?

    • David Didau June 20, 2015 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      Am I sure about what? As I think I made clear in this post, I’m not at all sure about mindsets. Dweck’s science seems unimpeachable and while there are some muted dissenting voices, it seems *he*r intervention works. Trouble is, it appears that if you’re not a true believer, you’re intervention won’t work. Make of that what you will.

  3. julietgreen June 20, 2015 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    Yes – that bit. It’s reminiscent of the Freudian cop out which is that if you disagree with his psychoanalysis, it’s because you’re actually repressing the truth. I can see that you’re skeptical and I think you are right to be. I don’t believe the science is unimpeachable – nor can the findings be conclusive. As you and others have pointed out before, this is not really possible in this field. I think she has a good point and I agree that in practice a ‘fixed mindset’ is a barrier. But I think your final point is the key. Fixed mindset or not, our characteristics have a biological basis, some of which (many of which?) really ARE fixed. Our propensity for attainment may have nothing at all to do with our mindset and it may be unfair to suppose so.

    • David Didau June 21, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

      I agree that there is a biological basis for attainment, but also I do still think that we can all improve with the right set of beliefs about effort and ability. I just struggle with the idea that improvement is impossible without the growth mindset.

  4. Alex June 20, 2015 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    I have been trialing Growth Mindset within a Primary setting for the past year. Although incredibly hard/impossible to measure with any questionnaire or test I do feel incorporating this in to our class ethos has had a very positive impact. I do think with overusing and overhyping the Growth Mindset message – it can become clichéd and just another buzz word. In my opinion it has worked because I have successfully modelled my own mindset/ approach, I have moved away from groups whenever possible and have looked more at personal/targeted improvement and we have integrated the key messages from Growth Mindset e.g learning from mistakes, purposeful practice and promoting persistence and resilience. I think there is a major issue with schools that are doing 6 week interventions and celebrating improvements after brow beating Growth Mindset messages. There is an issue with educators promoting Growth Mindset messages and modelling the opposite view. In my (limited) experience I think explicit teaching of Growth Mindset sets students on a path, however this is the very beginning and the class and school ethos/ input from parents and peers help take students on their journey. My rambled thoughts anyway…

  5. ephemeral321 June 21, 2015 at 3:02 am - Reply

    In a separate talk we were warned off Dweck as someone who only advocates ‘try harder’. I turned up anyway to hear about the growth mindset in the researcher’s own words which I understood to be:
    Journey Pt.1 – Dweck wanted to be clear, particularly to the Gifted movement, that the view of effort (trying harder/mindless practice) needs to be expanded: sheer effort, plus strategy, help, and guidance from others are required for effort, i.e. review/ reflection – what have you tried/what will you do next?
    Dweck said devaluing praise is unhelpful and panders to the self-esteem movement. Praise needs to be honest; this includes the educator/parent’s own reaction and assessement (see Journey Pt.2) in giving praise to the child’s actions – did the child really work hard, and make progress or learn anything [failing yet understanding the reason for the fail is still learning].
    This reminded me of my son’s music teachers who state there is no point practising repeatedly for hours. The point is to do good practice that works for the individual (as Dweck said, whilst growth mindset is universal, its application is not).
    So far, so sensible. People take on challenges, learn perseverance, and complete tasks by visible hard work, trying new strategies, and being able to recover from failings.
    Journey Pt.2 – (Educator/Parent) – The journey of our mindset requires us to reflect on our thoughts, emotions, actions. Dweck addressed the False Growth Mindset who align with the latest ‘positive’ thinking because of external judgments rather than experimenting authentically and then deciding for themselves.
    Henry Ford once said ‘whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. It succinctly captures two beliefs. We know nothing about the application. Immersing ourselves in the growth mindset, at the very least, we get to know ourselves, our bias, develop or strengthen strong practices, learn that we can try and fail and recover. The only way to personally assess is to set yourself a challenge.
    I listened to Dweck and thought it made sense. I know my work study practices are scrappy. So, I will take a look at them, introduce more discipline and new strategies to improve my effort, and work on recovering faster from setbacks.
    Dweck responded to a parent interested in whether they can make a difference if a school isn’t using growth mindset. Dweck said both school and parents impact, parents can have great influence by modelling the growth mindset behaviour. She didn’t peddle that parent influence is enough on its own.
    I disagree with Alexander and suggest that the more extensive the experience of challenge and repeat failures without adequate support the more likely it is to lead to a fixed mindset of not being able to do it, irrespective of ability.
    I would suggest that teacher assumptions/bias about more able/clever children mean that adequate strategies, help, and guidance are not in place, i.e. the child has reached a plateau in their learning so no further stretch or teacher input is required, the child is just being lazy, the child clearly isn’t as bright as the parents or we thought so we need to drop them down a level, the child didn’t try and spent the session being disruptive or talking or looking out the window, etc.

    • Jude June 21, 2015 at 9:42 am - Reply

      Thanks for this David. I admire your reflexivity and your commitment to challenge your beliefs.
      I think that there is real value in Dweck’s work on beliefs and I tend to think that much of the scepticism relates to oversimplified and ‘quick fix’ interpretations.
      My view is that in trying to make this work more accessible (and therefore more lucrative?) people can be left with the impression that if they simply do x, y will happen. This is never going to be the case with changing beliefs.
      I am amazed and cynical about the ‘new’ idea of a ‘false growth mindset’. The notion of false beliefs should be fundemental to any programme based on changing mindsets. The concept of institutional racism may provide a useful analogy here. Organisational research has shown that people in organisations may believe that they are not racist, they may be committed to promoting tolerance yet many of their policies and practices may well promote or sustain racism. If the same research was undertaken in schools with regard to growth mindsets I would expect we may produce similar findings. I go into schools that ‘champion’ growth minsdets yet witness many practices that reinforce a fixed mindset.
      There is plenty of compelling research that provides evidence to show how factors outside of conscious awareness can have an enhancing or limiting impact on learning (beliefs and habits, in my view, being key factors). Although very difficult to do well, I believe it is worth trying to chip away at this stuff. I do not think it is worth doing if it is going to be tackled in a ‘surface’ manner that fails to honour the complexity of what is at play.
      I usually disengage from the ‘progressive v traditionalist’ debates. I think knowledge is vitally important and that our young people need to both gain knowledge and generate new knowledge. I think this can best be achieved through doing what we can to cultivate the beliefs and habits that will help them gain and generate knowledge. The fact that doing so is very complex should not put us off this endevour because, in my view, it is a very worthwhile one. The fact that this complexity is rarely acknowledged in debate or practice is disappointing.
      Many thanks David for providing the stimulus that dragged me out of lurking mode!
      I am not suggesting that the issue of organisations espousing the promotion of growth mindsets whilst unwittingly promoting/facilitating fixed ones is in any way as serious as those promoting/facilitating racism. I drew the analogy to highlight the complexity of changing mindsets within organisations!

    • David Didau June 21, 2015 at 11:06 am - Reply

      Nice summary, thanks. You were clearly paying better attention than me. (And why didn’t you introduce yourself?)
      Not sure what you’re disagreeing with Alexander about. You don’t think experience of overcoming challenge makes you better at it?

      • ephemeral321 June 21, 2015 at 3:29 pm - Reply

        If fixed mindset = smart people, than might the reason they react poorly to challenges and failure be that they have no experience with them? Might it be that the more challenges and failures you’ve encountered before, the better you are at dealing with them?
        I disagreed with the premise that smart people react poorly to challenge and failures because they do not experience them. I think everyone on the parabola of learning experiences challenge and failure (although the quality and number of challenges is likely to diminish if failures increase without learning anything).
        A pupil’s reaction to failure is based on their existing beliefs but it is also informed by the educator’s/parent’s reaction (we are evolving, too) and peers (academic performance and behaviour – Iroise Dumentheil). Belief in own ability is part of a fluid identity and requires positive experiences to sustain it (ego outstripping ability is another discussion!).
        I do agree ‘experience of overcoming challenge makes you better at it’. I was saying Increasing the number of challenges and failures is not enough in itself (I haven’t read Andrews and it seems you are suggesting he addresses this point?).
        It is about the quality of the challenge and failure, the mindset a pupil starts out with, and the mindset they encounter as feedback on their learning along with the opportunity to learn from the failure that develops their mindset (often internalised as part of a fluid identity, informing their approach to challenge and failure next time).
        My ‘smart’ son was put through L6 SATs prep-testing almost daily for weeks after Easter: challenge and experience. He worked hard on each paper but each time was a couple of points off passing it. His belief in his ability to do maths reduced with each failed test paper.
        In discussing it with him it became clear that when the test was returned to him the teacher skimmed over the answers and then retested them without reviewing learning and practice between tests.
        Our son still did not understand why he failed and there was no guidance on strategies for ‘good’ practice before he sat the test again. Isn’t this a fixed mindset in a teacher?: you have the ability, we covered this in a lesson, I’ve verbally explained to the group where you went wrong (but not why) and I’ll see if you understand when I test you again (without any practice). Okay? No! Let’s test you again – from what I’ve seen it’s a vicious cycle.
        Our school likes to promote a positive message that they encourage children to fail; headteacher likely believes he has created a growth mindset in school. In reality their application is a fixed mindset with a narrow understanding of how effort looks (simply try harder).
        To conclude, while I’m sure we were wobbly in application perhaps our approach in assisting our son at home was closer to a surrogate growth mindset required in that moment: we challenged his viewpoint that an 11yo stops being able to learn (the idea of topping out at 11 is hilarious), we suggested we look at some maths problems together, modelled and worked through it together (confidence had bombed). After a couple of sessions we asked him to try some on his own with the understanding that he was might get some wrong and we’d go over it together to understand why if that happened.
        The teachers didn’t see him struggling – they were too focused on the test scores with a fearful fixed mindset determined to drive the score higher and un/consciously communicating their mindset to him on top of his falling confidence. We helped him reclaim his learning by feeling confident enough to try and learn from failure (ending his need for a surrogate growth mindset). He returned to being able to deal with the challenges and failures that he was already daily encountering.
        As a parent I find the education sector to be deeply confusing with its extensive contradictions and disconnects – oh and change, so much change. The Growth mindset seems like a way of teasing out the bias and assumptions inherent in education.

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  11. @headucator July 6, 2015 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    A very useful consideration of growth mindset in my view. I agree that growth mindset is not a precondition for success. It will work in some cases and not in others, of that I am certain. I feel frustrated by colleagues convinced it is some sort of magic pill, and equally annoyed by those who ignorantly dismiss it’s potential. As ever David provides the “hold on a minute people, have you actually thought this through?” which so many seem to skip.

    • Aerin R. August 30, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this wording – I was struggling to articulate similar. I will say that introducing a concept of growth mindset has worked quite well in my middle school English Language Learners – many of whom were born in this country and have just repeatedly been dismissed, intelligence-wise, because of their language barriers (which are so much more than mere vocabulary acquisition.) Have I always applied it in such a way that purists would applaud? Certainly not. However, the framework has been helpful in my toolbox for differentiation.

  12. […] Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. – Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida In the same way that I learned nothing from listening to the polished performance of Ken Robinson at yesterday’s Education Festival at Wellington College, I found myself surprised at just how challenging Carol Dweck’s slightly awkward delivery and clunky slides turned out to  […]

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  16. […] One noted problem with the theory has been termed “false growth mindset” and has been acknowledged by Dweck and discussed here: https://www.learningspy.co.uk/psychology/why-the-false-growth-mindset-explains-so-much/ […]

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