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.

The Fallacy of Growth Mindset

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Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that your intelligence is malleable: that, through practice and strategic problem-solving, you can become not only more skilled, but smarter. According to Dweck, the opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset (the belief that your abilities are fixed). Criticism of growth mindset has generally focused on the research. If students are exposed to the concept of growth mindset, do they perform better? Take on more challenges? Persist through failure? The jury is out–but all of this evades a basic philosophical problem: growth mindset has no ultimate superiority or autonomy. People not only have both mindsets, but need both. A world of pure growth mindset would be frenetic and absurd.

I devoted the ninth chapter of Mind over Memes to this topic; I discussed it many times on this blog. Here I will make my points briefly. Each of us has both potential and limitation; the one helps the other. To do one thing well, you have to let yourself not do certain other things. Even young people, capable of doing many things at once, need to set some limits. It should not be shameful, at some point, to say “I can’t.”

Ability itself has outer limits. Most of us can get a little better at just about anything. If I wanted to get a little better at tennis (to the point where I could hit the ball), I probably could. But it’s safe to say that I would never–and I really mean never–make it to Wimbledon, except as an audience member. The same is true even for things that I do well, such as languages. I am getting better at Hungarian by the week. I will get much better within the next few years. Yet I may never reach complete fluency: being able to say anything, accurately and expressively, on any topic within my knowledge.

But even if we could do anything and everything, we would not necessarily want to. There’s something to be said for rest. It is not necessarily lazy to lie down and sleep. It is not necessarily shameful to stop working and take a walk.

It is not a copout to work a job and consider it a job–to leave it at the end of the day. As  a teacher, I take my work home, but there’s a good argument for the contained work week. It allows you to do other things, whatever those may be.

It is not shameful to spend time with others and alone, to go through the many ups and downs of life, and to choose your attentions. But that requires letting yourself be “fixed” in some ways: admitting that you want something other than constant improvement, as important as this may be.

Growth mindset advocates have already admitted that people have a mixture of mindsets. (Are they even mindsets, I wonder?) But they have not acknowledged the possible virtues of the mixture. They have not yet acknowledged that growth mindset is anything but The Answer.

It is good to believe that one can improve, and to know how to do so. But it is also good to to allow for some focus, to acknowledge that we can’t all be everything, and (at some point) to call it a day.

The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I do not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose it.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.

Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

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.

The Fixed Mindset of “Growth Mindset”

growth_mindset_poster_0Jesse Singal strikes again. In his most recent article, he reports that the “growth mindset” theory (and raging fad) has “staggeringly little evidence” to support it. The actual research underlying it appears incomplete and flawed. (Note: Singal later corrected his assertions.)

Carol Dweck coined, investigated, and popularized the theory of “growth mindset”: namely, that those who value improvement and persistence tend to be the ones who ultimately excel, while those with “fixed mindset,” who expect themselves to succeed right away, tend to quit at the first sign of failure. Schools have seized on this, telling teachers not to praise students for their talent or even their accomplishments, but rather for their growth. Supposedly, if students start thinking in terms of growth, they will set themselves on a path of continued improvement.

There is some truth to this. You don’t do a student (or anyone) a favor by continually saying “you’re so smart” or “you play beautifully.” On the other hand, if you force yourself into growth-mindset lingo (“You’ve grown so much since your last recital; your staccato is much more precise than before”), you don’t help anyone either. This kind of dogmatism becomes a fixed mindset of its own.

In addition, if you devote school resources to the cultivation of “growth mindset,” you may take away from other things, such as literature, mathematics, music, and so on. In addition, attempts to incorporate “growth mindset” in the curriculum can lead to rigid and limited interpretations of the subject at hand.

For example, the 2016 study “Even Einstein Struggled” (conducted by researchers at Teachers College and the University of Washington) compared ninth- and tenth-grade students who read “struggle stories” of scientists with students who read “achievement stories.” It found that those who read struggle stories, especially low-performing students, saw a greater increase in their grades (which were based on “classwork, homework, quizzes, projects, and tests”) than those who read achievement stories. In addition, it found that students who read the struggle stories felt more connected to the scientists than students who read the achievement stories.

But the researchers do not consider the possibility that a “struggle story” may be intellectually interesting as well as emotionally satisfying. Students may connect with it not just because they can “relate” to struggle, but because they want to see how a scientist solved a problem.

After all, that is what scientists themselves think about, a good deal of the time. In his illuminating (and wonderfully unfaddish) book How We Reason, Philip Johnson-Laird argues that it was not simply persistence that eventually brought the Wright brothers to success, but their particular way of reasoning through errors. It is not accurate to say that they succeeded because they “never gave up” or (in growth mindset parlance) believed they could “get smarter.” I doubt they were thinking about their brains.

Another pitfall of the “growth mindset” is that it gets awfully silly awfully fast. You start seeing posters with “growth mindset praises.” You are told never to call a person smart. NYC Educator comments on such dogma:

I don’t freely call people smart. I really say that to very few kids. But if I say it, it means I’ve noticed something very special in them. Kids who think fast, who come back immediately, who aren’t afraid to say directly what’s on their mind, and who have clever, creative or impressive things on said minds really impress me. I have to tell them how smart they are. I never know whether or not anyone else has told them, whether anyone else has even noticed, and I think they need to know.

I don’t tell students they are smart, but I have told them when I thought they did something especially well (another “growth mindset” no-no, according to some). I wouldn’t do that all the time; that would give my praise too much weight. But I wouldn’t abandon it either.

I think of the times when someone has recognized my work–for its quality, not its growth. Some of these praises were pivotal in my life; they helped me see that my work could affect people. I didn’t stop working because of that. Yet I also needed people who could point out flaws. Over time, I became able to do much of this for myself–recognize when I was (or wasn’t) doing something well, and identify what I could do better.

Also, there are things I simply am not good at (like improv comedy). Sure, I can “grow” in them, but is the slow crawl toward mediocrity worth my while? It may actually help me, in some circumstances, to utter the forbidden phrase “I’m just not good at this.”

Like many ideas in education, growth mindset theory expresses a partial truth. It is neither revolution nor royalty; it deserves neither chants nor a crown. On the other hand, the “takeaway” is not that we should get rid of all vestiges of growth mindset. Take away its dogma and buzzwords, but give it a modest place among other principles.

Image credit: HR Zone.

Note: This was a preliminary piece on the topic; I edited it several times after posting it but left it mostly intact. See my later pieces “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?” and “The Benefits of Complex Mindsets,” as well as a chapter in my book Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

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    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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