Growth Mindset: Essential, But There's More to Learning

Anders Ericsson, the renowned expert on expertise, and Robert Pool introduced their 2017 book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise with a chapter titled “The Gift.” The gift they describe isn't the one typically associated with being "gifted" or having some special innate ability. No, the gift they discovered through years of research on how people become good at things—all kinds of things—is "the incredible adaptability of the human brain and body." All of us can learn and develop our skills, and how much we grow is up to us. That's a great gift.

The path to getting better starts with believing we can. Without a growth mindset—a recognition that our abilities aren't fixed, that we have the gift of being able to learn—we might be stopped before we even get started. Ericsson repeatedly acknowledges this need, and the research mostly backs it up. The results of a large-scale experimental study of more than 12,000 ninth graders at public schools published in 2019, for instance, revealed that an online mindset intervention that took less than an hour led to “improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased overall enrollment [in] advanced mathematics courses.” Moving the needle in a positive direction, even if only moderately, with a low-cost, scalable, simple-to-implement intervention, is impressive.

However, the positive results were not uniform across all schools. According to the study, “The intervention changed grades when peer norms aligned with the messages of the intervention.” Basically, context and resources matter. In settings where the existing culture already embraced students taking on challenges, the mindset intervention had a positive amplifying impact. In schools that didn’t share this norm—that may have valued, say, talent over effort—the effects of the intervention were muted.

A growth mindset may be essential for seeking and embracing challenges, but growth mindset messages alone are not a magic bullet. There is nuance in the research, and it’s clear that more is needed to create sustained improvement in student performance.

Dr. Carol Dweck has been working hard to make that point herself. In a piece in The Atlantic, for instance, Dweck identified the risks of what she termed "false growth mindset." It isn't that someone is either a growth mindset person or a fixed mindset person. We are all both, and either the fixed or growth mindset identity in each of us can be triggered by different circumstances. We may feel like we can learn anything when the stakes are low and we feel well supported, but put us in a competition where we risk being embarrassed by our struggles, and we may back away from challenges. And, of course, it helps if we're interested in the learning; a disengaged learner isn't likely to invest much effort into persevering to overcome obstacles.

The Three Learning Mindsets

It's no surprise, then, that the Mindset Scholars Network, a group of academics from more than a dozen universities who are committed to scholarly research in this area, describes three learning mindsets that underlie learning: 

  • Growth Mindset: The belief that intelligence can be developed 
  • Belonging: The belief that one is respected and valued by teachers and peers and fits in culturally in one's learning environment 
  • Purpose and Relevance: The belief that one's schoolwork is valuable because it is personally relevant and/or connected to a larger purpose 

For learning to occur, it's important to believe that, whatever it is, it's worth learning—that we can learn it and will be supported in that effort. These learning mindsets combine to drive the behaviors that fuel performance.

Going Beyond Learning Mindsets as an Instructor

However, these three beliefs are still not enough. Both Ericsson and Dweck note that just any old effort won't lead to growth. Dweck talks about strategic effort and praising the work that led to successful learning. We shouldn't praise trying "harder" if it's ineffective. And Ericsson focuses on deliberate practice, having a path to improvement, knowing what to work on next, and how to develop that skill or acquire that knowledge. Beliefs can get us started, but we need to know how to act on those beliefs. Growth mindset won't, by itself, give us the skills and knowledge to play the guitar, speak Italian, or fly-fish

These mindset beliefs need to be accompanied by good instruction, mentorship, coaching, and the metacognitive behaviors of good learners. We need to monitor our learning to know when we're stuck. We need to know how to seek support or alternative actions. We need to reflect on our learning process to tease out strategies we might use again. (I’m currently involved in a bold program to explore the intersection of math and skills related to executive function. We have some great resources available.)

I am a huge advocate of growth mindset. It's an essential component of turning students (and their teachers) into learners who seek out and persevere through challenges. But we can't stop there. Let's make sure we apply the whole package illuminated by the research. Beliefs drive behaviors. We need to foster them together.

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Dr. David Dockterman is an author of MATH 180, a math intervention program for Grades 5-12 that focuses on the essential skills and concepts necessary to unlock algebra and advanced mathematics.

This blog post was updated in January 2020.

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