The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems

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I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something about “growth mindset” bothers the ear. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, I take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms over “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Alina,
Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts growth mindset forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all embody perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

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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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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.

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