The problem with growth mindset.

I think I might be a little late to this party but I want to reflect on my thinking about growth mindset and resilience.  Views about the usefulness of growth mindset seem to be polarised as it is seen as either a magic wand or a passing fad.  It is probably neither and it’s usefulness may be weakened by an inconclusive evidence base.  It may remain an important piece of the puzzle of learning but as with all puzzles, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. I wondered whether it was time to evaluate my use of this concept and approach.

My Dweckian conversion.

By the 2010s, I had become a Dweckian convert, and I attributed much of the academic success of my classes to my awareness and sensitivity to the growth mindset agenda.  I had developed a range of assemblies,  interventions and feedback strategies that used the language of resilience.  Student voice feedback on these interventions was positive and my value-added was good.  Therefore it works, right? Well, maybe and maybe not.

My gosh, it seemed like a silver bullet, the purpose-built panacea to the challenges of the education system. Carol Dweck had given us a language to explain motivation, the importance of effort and a psychology of success.




The idea of a growth mindset is a simple idea that was guaranteed to make all the difference.  People with a fixed mindset attribute their success as a product of their innate talent – without effort.  Whilst those with a more growth mindset believe success is down to hard work dedication and responding to failure and feedback.  This approach suggests that a growth mindset can be taught and that failure should be seen as an opportunity to improve.  We should praise effort and perseverance rather than innate qualities or talents.  Seems a positive thing, isn’t it?

Many years ago, I had a poster in my classroom that had the tagline ‘attitude determines altitude’. I have never really believed that students who are struggling look up at the poster with the inspirational quote and decide in that moment to turn their lives around. Real life is not a Robin Williams movie. Moreover, the poster was there for my benefit as well as making the room more aesthetically pleasing. Whilst I was not an early adopter of her research, it gradually began to seep into my consciousness, my teaching and my own psyche. All of a sudden, we had a language that seemed to tie up all the loose ends left over from the debates surrounding labelling, self-fulfilling prophecy and cultural deprivation or what contemporary sociologists might call ‘habitus’.

To be fair, I was not the only one who had become super excited about the concept of growth mindset. It appeared on CPD brochures, regular slots in the education press as well as an essential criterion in job descriptions and school mission statements.  I began to use Dweck’s words in my feedback to students, carefully praising the effort. Focusing on the dialogic feedback about how to improve. I planned assemblies to look at these ideas along with the case studies from Matt Syed in Bounce, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the inspiration from Erikson’s 10,000 hour rule.

So there I was, a card-carrying member of the growth mindset club, on a mission to use the psychology of success to improve my practice.  Yet, and yet a strange knot began to grow in the pit of my stomach, where was the evidence to support this new-found belief.

 Evidence that growth mindset approach works?

Results from the largest UK trial of resilience training in schools (the UK Resilience Project) continue to be disappointing and largely ignored.  Despite my desire to find evidence to support my ideas, it has not been easy to prove.  Without evidence, should we abandon this on the educational scrap heap along with brain gym and learning styles?  I am not sure I am ready to do that yet but what value is left?

 What is good about a growth mindset approach?

 A renewed focus on attitudes and learning behaviours can be helpful. We have a common language to use with students and with each other. The message that application and effort are the keys to success can only be helpful particularly against the backdrop of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy.  There seems to be a connection between mindset, a coaching approach to teaching and learning and the growth of independent study methods.  But my cynical side suggests this is all too neat. We know that many problems of the education sector are both structural and institutional. How significant is this piece of the puzzle?  Are we all talking about the same thing?

Variations on a theme: Whose concept is it anyway?

 Angela Duckworth (2012) – Grit.

Resilience seems to be narrowly defined as the ability to cope with adversity or disappointment. Perseverance tends to be about the ability to keep going, to complete a task and be committed to learning. Whereas grit, is defined by Angela Duckworth as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long-term goals.

Marc Smith (2016) – Academic Buoyancy

Smith points out that much of the research and discussion about resilience investigates cases of extreme adversity rather than the everyday problems that students face. This ability to cope with daily hassles, setbacks and minor adversities can be reconceptualised as ‘academic buoyancy’ in order to distinguish the term from the traditional view of resilience.

Academic buoyancy contains the so-called 5Cs: Confidence (self-efficacy), Coordination (planning), Control (low uncertain control), Composure (low anxiety) and Commitment (persistence). Smith (2016) suggests we should use the 5Cs as the starting point of planning any interventions.

The problems of growth mindset.

I am anxious about the conflict between our use of ALPS target grades and the concept of a growth mindset. It seems to me that the process of setting target grades is antithetical and even undermines the growth mindset approach. I have attempted to fudge this paradox by quietly making students aware of their target grades but their feedback in class has been developmental and dialogic.

The use of praise.

As a social scientist, I have been long aware of the concepts of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and the often forgotten vicarious reinforcement. We see these in action in schools all the time. The growth mindset approach has reminded me to praise the effort rather than the person, or some innate abilities. However, the usefulness of praise is contested. From a psychological perspective, the praisers status, age, gender, ethnicity and the students own experience of attachment and praise in early childhood may have an impact on whether the praise will have any impact at all.  Again, are we looking at part of the puzzle and if so, what part does this represent for each individual learner?

Problem 1: The problem of definition and understanding.

The age-old problem of definition means that there can be a blurred understanding of what Dweck means by growth mindset. People often confuse it with being flexible or open-minded as well as assuming they already have one.   It is perhaps better to consider that everyone is a mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets and that we oscillate with experience. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ growth mindset or a fortunate individual who achieves this nirvana in all walks of life.

Dweck is worried that some educators misunderstand or misapply the concepts. Praising effort alone is useless when the student is getting everything wrong and making no progress. Praise must be tied to a student’s process and strategies and tied to an outcome. Hollow praise convey our low expectations and praising effort without the coaching and critical feedback.

Problem 2: The problem of the poster and going through the motions.

You cannot just skip the process. A poster or assembly alone without the changes to everyday practice will not work. It is not enough for us to mouth the platitudes of growth mindset. Effort alone will not make students successful, out teaching practice needs to embed critical AFL and strategies for improvement.  Furthermore, these concepts are open to expropriation by other agendas. Look at Nicky Morgan’s emphasise on ‘character education’ and how that is absorbed much of the language of resilience and grit.

Problem 3: The problem of measurement.

 A concept that is complex to define will be even more difficult to measure. I have noted that a range of private companies are developing questionnaires and self-report measures that are being targeted at schools to provide evidence (for Ofsted) of how resilient students are. The idea is that you measure them before, during and after to prove how fantastic your interventions are.

Whilst I approve of the increased use of evidence in education, I cannot see how this type of enterprise could add any benefit. In the complex story of school-life, how can you isolate a notion of mindset over metacognition.

Problem 4: The infrastructure of education is in conflict with these concepts.

The use of target grades and ALPS data seems antithetical to a growth mindset approach. Clearly, you can approach target grades with caution with a ‘this is a minimum-grade’ expectation but once you have opened that Pandora’s box there is no going back. This thinking has led me to wonder how useful target grades are to the students? I understand how they are useful as a stick to beat me and measure class and department performance with but how depressing is it to be told your target grade is a D. Perhaps more useful to be told the average grade at AS in the UK is a D?  Furthermore, in an accountability culture that encourages us all to play educational triage, what space is there for growth mindset work?

Problem 5: Correlation does not imply causation.

David Didau usefully reminds us that the relationship between mindset and academic performance is not a straightforward one. It is intuitive to believe that changing a person’s beliefs will alter their behavior but the evidence is much more complex.

He cites a range of studies where mindset interventions have backfired due to the confounding effects of variables such as direct experience vs the indirect experience, social norms and cultural traditions. He concludes that,

“Mindset interventions don’t work by trying to browbeat pupils into believing in the merits of hard work or that their ‘brain can grow’. Direct appeals and information alone don’t change behaviour very effectively at all. In fact, effective psychological interventions involve a subtle, well-aimed nudge, which initiates a more complex social process.”

Problem 6: Does growth mindset individualise failure?

 David James, professor of social sciences at Cardiff argues that the limitations of mindset outweigh its uses. When students fail it can be explained away by the fact they did not have enough of the right mindset, they failed to adapt the way they think about life, they do not have the right character to be successful.

British psychologist Tim O’Brien says Professor Dweck’s theories could be “used against certain groups of learners as a tool for labelling, blame and exclusion”.

“The adolescent learner with emotional difficulties who used to get criticised in the staffroom for ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ now has a far more respectable research-based label to use against her – she’s got a fixed mindset,” Dr O’Brien writes.

We must resist the myth of cultural deprivation when explaining the attainment gap. The patterns of inequality in our society are mirrored and exacerbated by our education system.   Rather than question our systems and structures we are able to explain educational failure away as the result of poor attitude. This unconscious bias is insidious, pervasive and a shame on our profession.


It seems healthy to maintain a critical approach to the use of growth mindset. Although there are many problems with its implementation, not least how it might clash with institutional culture, it does seem to give us a language about learning, application and motivation. It clearly cannot be the only tool in the toolkit. Perhaps its real value, despite its poor operationalisation is the adoption of a shared language of learning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but as with most things the complex phenomenon of learning is more than the mere sum of its parts.   As long as we do not use it as a stick to beat underperformance but rather as a aide-memoir to the type of feedback and the journey we are all on together.



David Didau


Critiques of mindset.