What People Keep Not Getting About Growth Mindsets

In case you haven’t been near the world of education in the past decade or so, Growth Mindset (or, “mindsets” more generally) was a term coined by Carol Dweck. It grew out of her research, in which she identified that some individuals approach learning tasks with what she called a “Fixed Mindset” and others approach them with a “Growth Mindset.” Individuals with the former mindset tend to believe that their allotment of talent or intelligence was granted to them at birth and will never change, regardless of practice or effort expended. Individuals with the latter mindset, on the other hand, believe that their allotment of intelligence or talent is unknown and potentially limitless, and therefore can grow as they practice or work at things. Dweck, along with many, many other researchers, found in her work that folks with growth mindsets tended to be much more resilient in the face of failure, and generally speaking tended to do much better in learning tasks. Big surprise, right?

I first came to these ideas when I read a study by B.P. Smith for one of my graduate classes in Music Education. Smith had done a study on a number of University Music Students in which he gave them a survey to determine whether they had what he called “Fixed Ability Beliefs” (what you could call a Fixed Mindset, a belief that talent is unchanging throughout life). Then he asked them a few questions about their goal orientation. Did they care more about looking good or being better at music than their peers, or did they care more about mastering the music for its own sake? Then, he monitored their practice sessions.

As it turned out, and pretty perfectly in line with what Dweck might have predicted, Smith discovered that individuals with Fixed Ability Beliefs cared more about looking good than mastering music. Their practice routines were also a total mess—they were much less likely to use what the researchers called “robust” practice routines that utilized multiple effective strategies to master difficult material. People without Fixed Ability Beliefs, conversely, cared much more about mastering the music for its own sake, and their practice routines were much more varied and generally effective.

When I first read this study, it was one of those rare instances when you completely read your own story in a Peer-Reviewed article that talks a lot about p-values.

You see, when I was an undergraduate, I studied classical guitar, and I used to suffer from truly crippling performance anxiety. Whenever I was called upon to perform, my hands would shake uncontrollably and my performance would inevitably be orders of magnitude worse than it had been in my worst practice session. I tried all kinds of things to calm myself down, but pretty much nothing worked.

It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized what was going on. I began to understand that in those moments when everyone was looking at me, my internal monologue went something like: “They’re all judging you, and you want to impress them—you don’t want them to realize what you know, which is that you were born without talent. Whatever you do, don’t let them see just how much you suck at music.”

This monologue would pretty much play on repeat whenever I played in front of people and knew they were paying attention, and it was absolutely debilitating. It quite frankly still is, in those moments that I let it get to me.

Even as this was happening, I would also have these sublimely beautiful moments while playing. In these moments, I thought no one was looking or judging—or when I didn’t care—and it was just me and the music. In these moments, when I would be fully experiencing the beauty of playing, I felt truly alive. It was this feeling that kept me coming back to music, even though I’ve never really felt like I was all that good at it.

So when I learned about Mindsets, suddenly my experience as a musician made tons of sense. Everything clicked, and I quickly became an evangelist. Everyone, I thought, needs to know about this stuff!

Luckily for me, of course, everyone quickly started to find out. Dweck published her book Mindsets in 2006, and it really became an instant hit on the Pop Education Writing and Teacher PD circuits. Many, many people have picked up her ideas and run with them. Unfortunately, not all of them have really gotten it right.

When I first read B.P. Smith’s article, I wanted to learn absolutely everything I could about these ideas. I wanted to know how to get my students to adopt a Growth Mindset with respect to music. I looked up and read basically every study I could find on Mindsets and Attribution Theory (which is a different name for basically the same idea); about Performance vs. Mastery orientation, and so on and so on. The great thing about being in grad school is you can read all this stuff for free. What follows are a few things I learned, with some special attention paid to things that I think the popularization gets wrong about the research.


1) It’s not about praise, it’s about what you think.

This is a really big one. The most common ideas about praise and Growth Mindsets all emerge from Carol Dweck’s most famous study, in which she gave two groups of 4th graders a math test, and told them all that they did well, regardless of how well they actually did. She then told one of the groups that they must be really smart at this sort of test, and another one of the groups that they must have put a lot of effort in. When she gave the kids a subsequent, much harder test, the kids in the first group completely fell apart and gave up; the kids in the second group kept at it until they mastered the puzzles.

Now, there’s a large (and loud) contingent of thinkers about education who think kids today are too coddled. They write columns in newspapers about how everyone gets a trophy these days and how that’s obviously bad for kids because they don’t work hard like grandpa did. They also don’t walk home uphill, three miles, in the rain, and they have iPhones. These people, already pretty accustomed to complaining about kids today, really seized on this praise piece. “You see!” they’d say, “praise is ruining our kids!”

Of course, the problem is, that lots of other research doesn’t necessarily support that praise is the ultimate kid-ruiner. What it does seem to suggest is that adults transmit their own Mindset—you know, their belief that talent is innate or developed—to the children they parent or teach. Praise is only one of many ways that adults can communicate their beliefs about talent and intelligence. Abuse is another.

And if you’re skeptical that the beliefs of adults are important to the mindsets of children, you should consider that children (and especially older elementary, say, 4th– 6th graders) are very astute about this kind of stuff. When they interact with a teacher or parent, the first thing they want to know is whether they’re being evaluated or not. Is this adult trying to judge whether I’m smart, or talented, or good enough, or whatever? In Dweck’s study, the praise served to give the kids that information. Saying “You must be smart at this” was a really effective way to communicate that the person giving the test was primarily interested in evaluating the talent or intelligence of the test-taker.

One question that always comes up when I’m in a PD session is whether we, as teachers, are developers of talent or discoverers of talent. I’ve never met a colleague who, after thinking about it for a little bit, hasn’t said that they’d at least like to think of themselves as developers of talent. But here’s the thing: if, as a teacher, you yourself approach learning with a fixed mindset, doesn’t that mean your job is to discover talent?

If that’s the case, the kids are gonna find out, no matter how you praise.


2) It’s about perception, not reality.

When I think about the beauty of adopting a Growth Mindset, I think it all comes down to the spirit of play. Children automatically adopt a Growth Mindset when they’re at play; it’s only once they think they’re being evaluated that they start to even be concerned with the idea of talent.

That’s one big reason why most advocates of focusing on student motivation (e.g., Alfie Kohn, Ryan & Deci, etc.) believe that doing away with evaluation systems like grades is the first step. Generally speaking, I might agree with them. However, I’d diverge in one respect, and that is that all the research really just points to students’ perception, not necessarily the reality.

For instance, the reality of the situation may be that every student in a school is being evaluated and judged for their talent and intelligence. However, if students don’t perceive it that way, their mindset may or may not be affected. There is significant research that shows if a student’s relationship with a teacher is strong enough—and if that teacher is sensitive enough to her students’ mindset—it doesn’t really matter what the structure of the school environment is. Or, at least, harmful school structures may be rendered un-harmful.

3) It’s really hard to change High Schoolers’ minds.

            That being said, one finding that keeps coming up in study after study is that Growth Mindsets tend to decline as students grow older and get more experience in school. One study I read recently showed that increase in grade level was the only thing that seemed to have any influence on students’ likelihood to have a Growth Mindset, and that influence was negative. Essentially, as kids get older, they get more entrenched in a belief that talent and intelligence are fixed traits.

Once kids get into high school, their beliefs about themselves are pretty firmly fixed, and don’t really change much going forward. That’s why, if you’re concerned about your child’s motivation, it really doesn’t matter much where you send them to high school. By then, your kid has probably made up his or her mind about his talent and intelligence.

However, you really need to look out for 4th – 6th grade. In those years, the research seemed to show that kids were uniquely open to influence from teachers, and that once they get into 7th grade their mindsets are pretty well-formed and difficult to change.

Given that fact, I get really concerned about the nature of most middle school band programs—particularly here in Texas, where band is basically a competitive sport. Is it really a good idea to drop 11-year-olds into a program where evaluations are constant and kids are constantly jockeying with one another for position in chair tests? If our goal is to be developers of talent, does it make sense to give middle schoolers auditions, to rank bands, to take kids to UIL, and berate them when they don’t meet our expectations at Solo & Ensemble competitions? I frequently wonder whether the benefit of these experiences is worth the possible cost to students’ long-term motivation as learners.

When people criticize this idea, I don’t necessarily disagree with them. It’s true, a Growth Mindset isn’t really going to be the panacea that solves everything in education. It’s also true that zeroing in on praise, or the idea that “kids just need to work harder,” can both be pretty crappy ways to address the iniquities and injustice in our education system. However, if we really took these ideas seriously, it really could transform education for the better. What if teachers, everywhere, asked themselves the hard questions about their own Mindsets; what if we all tried to inculcate Growth Mindsets in our own students through our own example?

I can’t help but think that we’d at least be better teachers.


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