Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want to grow as a writer, but if the poems don’t hold up, who cares about my growth? A person needs a combination of growth and fixity.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I believe it does. Not only do we have a mixture of mindsets, but the mixture may be the best of all states. Who’s to say that everyone needs more, more, more growth mindset? An excess of it would be maddening. A bit of fixed mindset allows a person to go to sleep or to set something aside.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be better off if the professor focuses on what we are learning.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. They should also guard against psychological cheerleading.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.


I don’t think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” In any case, she implies that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

Note: I edited this piece in several stages after posting it.

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

Leave a comment


  1. Susan

     /  January 19, 2017

    3 thoughts:

    First, “growth mindset” is not the first idea to be mangled by educators and parents; Howard Gardner lamented this problem in his 1999 book “Intelligence Reframed”. He clearly states that MI is not a technique or tool, it is a way of thinking. Reducing MI to a technique robs it of its power. One ‘gets this’ after studying the theory behind his idea. In my work as a private education consultant I was OFTEN told by those organizing the sessions to leave theory out of the workshop – no time, no interest; need to have immediate take aways – teachers are too busy to be bothered with the theory of the idea. Yet, without at least some knowledge of the theory(s) behind the takeaway, the new concept/idea is doomed – mangled beyond recognition, in the mindset of the “quick fix”.

    Senge’s diagram of the archetype “fixes that backfire” (1999) is a useful visual of the cycle of quick fixes and the havoc this wrecks on system problems.

    Second, (and building on Gardner’s lament), “mindset” is not something you teach separately from teaching the disciplines. It is a way of thinking and as such, is built into the learning process. Persistence, patience, resilience – self-efficacy are woven through the lessons – modelled, led and encouraged by the teacher. The “mindset” cheer is yet another technique that actually does more harm (in my opinion) than good. In the minds of young children, “mindset” is a separate subject from ELA or Music…

    Third, I am fearful for the children – yet another label! Aka, another way to simplify, explain away what is ‘wrong’ with some children. I agree that humanity is highly complex and not a simple “either/or” – life would be so much simpler if we could neatly categorize everyone in this way (and not just for mindsets). The complexity of the human being is an irritant in a system that puts efficiency over effectiveness.

    I continue to appreciate how you and others like Jesse keep digging and sharing.


    • Thank you, Susan, for this thoughtful and informative comment. Yes, I remember the days of “multiple intelligences”: teachers were expected to address every learning style in their lessons, and students were given quizzes to help them identify what kind of learner they were. So very silly. Of course we have different learning styles, but this does not mean that we *have* to learn in that mode or that a lesson should employ that mode when it does not suit the topic. (I am thinking of all those math lessons directed at “kinesthetic learners.” Here’s a “kinesthetic algebra” lesson, for instance:

      Yes, I agree that people may use the neat categories to explain away what is “wrong” with some children. (“The problem is that you’re still in fixed mindset. You need to adopt a growth mindset.”)

      Some people with symptoms of “fixed mindset” actually have a clear idea of excellence; when they fall short of it, they see the discrepancy and feel discouraged for a while. Yet that very clarity of vision, which led to the discouragement, may guide them when they pick up again. Also, the period of discouragement allows for a needed retreat. The person has a chance to withdraw from public judgment, reassess, grapple with emotions and ideas, and then resume the work. I am not saying that discouragement is great; I just suspect that it plays an important role in a person’s progress and accomplishments.

  2. AlexaR

     /  January 19, 2017

    This is beautiful – and I give the answer no. But I don’t think teaching mindsets are so deplorable.

    In a broader sense: we cannot all think alike and as much as we try to convey to others in words, art, debate, etc. how we think, the combination of events, experiences, and people encountered in an individual’s life will never result in a single, package able mindset. With large ideas such as “growth” mindset, and even (perhaps) smaller, less disagreeable ones like “open” mindedness, they are ideals. I think it can be helpful in certain contexts to lean towards an ideal, such as a limit approaching infinity, to continue with the math teacher analogy. But they are unattainable. The idea themselves are important not in transferring a mindset, in teaching others HOW to think things with a boxed lens, but in applying different lenses in any given moment, switching between them as perspective and context and relationships change.

    • Thank you for this beautiful comment! That makes a lot of sense: If you teach how to apply different lenses at different times, you are essentially teaching mindsets, not in a rigid or dogmatic way, but in a way that encourages imagination and flexibility.

  1. The Fixed Mindset of “Growth Mindset” | Take Away the Takeaway
  2. The Benefits of Complex Mindsets | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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