Challenging a Growth Mindset

Alfie Kohn published a Salon opinion piece August 16th imploring educators (and others) to take a closer look at the current fad in education: Growth vs. Fixed mindset.

Carol Dweck’s research about the impact of growth versus fixed mindsets (with regard to children achieving their full potential) seemed to sweep quickly through the education landscape. There’s a lot of good in the idea: what we focus on in the learning process ought to focus on improving knowledge and skills rather than simply aiming for a specific score on an assessment. Dweck’s 2007 book, Mindset, perseverates on that point though examples and in my personal opinion, contains about seven really great pages that get to the core of the idea (you can skip the rest).

Kohn points out that the fundamental principles of the growth mindset focus aren’t inherently bad, but he offers this, which to me sums up everything (everything) about education reform, trends, and change:

Having spent a few decades watching one idea after another light up the night sky and then flame out — in the field of education and in the culture at large — I realize this pattern often has less to do with the original (promising) idea than with the way it has been oversimplified and poorly implemented. (Source)

“Oversimplified and poorly implemented” is exactly how I’d characterize pretty much every new idea, trend, or attempt at reform that has swept through schools. Think of the biggest of our generation: No Child Left Behind. Do we want 100% of students to read and do math at grade-level standard? Of course! A horrifying oversimplification, though. And poorly implemented, yes that too: the best way to compel a “failing” school to improve is to threaten it with sanctions. Yeah, that’s a great plan.

When I read those seven meaningful pages of Mindset a few years ago, it did dramatically transform the way I interact with my students, my colleagues, and most importantly my own offspring. I believe that one of the pervasive faults of recent generations of Americans is that too many (not all) have been lulled into the beliefs that one, achievement trumps effort, and two, achievement is an entitlement (everyone gets a ribbon). The results run the gamut, from scholars who fall into depression or worse over failure to meet a certain high academic score to young employees who show up to work feeling like their boss ought to praise them just for making it in to work less late than yesterday.

Kohn’s critique of the growth mindset is valid and worth the read. For me it illustrated our cultural tendency to reduce all concepts to the binary: fixed vs. growth, republican vs. democrat, good vs. bad, and so on. Kohn points out that an emphasis on growth discounts the very real fact that achievement actually does matter, too. “Achievement” need not mean test scores or scaling the ivy walls of a university, mind you: it can certainly mean the achievement of a meaningful learning goal or objective.

We as teachers need to be careful about how we implement the concepts of growth mindset. Have we oversimplified it to focus on improvement and growth so we now scrawl “great effort!” in the margins of a paper so we can teach with a “growth mindset”?

To me the way to balance this all is not by focusing on growth versus fixed, but by ensuring that students recognize cause and effect in their own behaviors and habits. The result is deliberate feedback from me to help my students or colleagues deconstruct their effort and analyze whether and how those efforts contributed toward the desired effect.

That takes more time than simply “praising the effort.”

But, as we in education know, doing the right thing the right way almost always takes little longer than it would if we took the oversimplified and poorly implemented way.

4 thoughts on “Challenging a Growth Mindset

      1. Irene Smith

        I really like your reflections here. The value of students’ growth mindset is absolutely observable, but how it is encouraged in the classroom will be the issue. I’ve already seen Facebook posts about how it’s going to ruin education when kids are told “trying is better than succeeding.” It’s so easy to over simplify and weakly implement useful strategies. Skilled educators will always consider their knowledge of students rather than just jumping on a bandwagon.

  1. Ken Mach

    Another great post! Balance is always the key. Combine that with teaching the kids how to self-reflect on their work creates their ability to see that “cause and effect” you discuss. Thanks for being part of the WA ed world!

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