The Growth Mindset

Over the last 5-10 years, the Growth Mindset has become a very popular feature of many schools across England. I have seen it implemented in a couple of schools, and I’m also aware that its initiator, Carol Dweck, gave an interview a couple of years ago where she criticised some implementations as “false growth mindset”.

In order to learn a bit more about the original research conducted by Dweck, I decided over the holiday to read her early book, ‘Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development’, Psychology Press, 1999. I have no background in psychology and a very limited background in educational theory, but I still want to know how much I can get from this as a parent, as an educator, and as a member of a school board.

As notes to myself, and for others who may be interested, I’m reporting the main take-away messages I got from the book in this post. I do not question the validity of any claims – I am not knowledgeable enough to do so – and I’m also very conscious that I have not had time to follow up the references to read the primary research literature. Instead, I cite below the chapters of the book in which the references can be found, should blog readers be interested in following up more deeply.

Two Theories of Intelligence

Dweck defines the seeking of challenge, the value of effort, and persistence in the face of obstacles as ‘mastery-oriented approaches’. She aims to knock down several ‘commonly held’ beliefs about what fosters such approaches: they are not more common in students with high ability, they are not necessarily improved by success in tasks, they are not improved by praise of students’ intelligence, and they are not even typically associated with students who have a high confidence in their intelligence. So what are the best approaches to fostering such qualities?

Dweck contrasts two theories of intelligence, which I’ve heard referred to in schools as “the fixed mindset” and “the growth mindset”. In the original research in this book, she refers to these as “The Theory of Fixed Intelligence” / “The Entity Theory” and “The Theory of Malleable Intelligence” / “The Incremental Theory”. In an experimental setting, failure is reported to motivate some students and demotivate others, in an apparently fairly bimodal distribution (Chapter 2).

To my mind, what’s missing from this discussion is a shared understanding of what intelligence actually is (Dweck picks this up much later in Chapter 9, on IQ tests). Intelligence, to me, describes the ability to learn and think – this seems to be a qualitative rather than a quantitative property. We could, of course, talk about speed or depth or some other quantification, and I’m aware that there’s a huge volume of work on this topic, about which I know little (any pointers for good books on this?) A principled definition of intelligence seems relevant because while I think nobody would say that a person’s knowledge is fixed, there is clearly a difference of opinion over the ability to gain such knowledge and skills – do people differ solely in the rate of development of knowledge / skills, or in the maximum level of knowledge / skills, or something else? And if there are such limits on the rate of change today for Person X, will those limits be different in the future for the same person? If the rate of change can change, can the rate of change of the rate of change change? And so, ad infinitum. And should we even care? Chapter 9 discusses pupils’ own views, with Dweck suggesting that entity theorists associate intelligence with inherent capacity or potential, while incremental theorists associate intelligence with knowledge, skills and effort. This actually surprised me – it seems that the perspective of the incremental theorists makes the very concept of intelligence – as distinct from knowledge, skills, and effort, superfluous. But it also seems to be somewhat inconsistent, because in Chapter 11 we learn that incremental theorists tend not to judge their classmates’ intelligence based on their performance in school. Perhaps the incremental theorists just have a hazier conception of intelligence in the first place?

What’s clear is that Dweck has no truck with those claiming that Growth Mindset means that “everyone can be an Einstein if you put in the effort” – it’s just that she strongly argues that potential cannot be readily measured based on current attainment – that there may well be undiscovered Einsteins in bottom set classes. These are not the same thing at all.

The Impact of Theories of Intelligence

Dweck then goes on to show that students’ theories of intelligence impact their choice of goals, with students holding the entity theory more likely to chose performance goals, given an option. She shows this to be a causal link, via appropriately designed experiments to temporarily alter students’ theories of intelligence.

Dweck shows that the goals given to students impact on whether they react with a “helpless” or a “mastery” response, even for the same task. Students given a “performance goal” are much more likely to produce a helpless response than those given a “learning goal”. Performance goals are fairly ubiquitous in the English education system, as individual target grades shared with pupils. I wonder whether her observation carries forward into this setting?

Dweck argues that pupils holding an entity model can sabotage their own attainment – withholding effort so that if they do poorly, they can blame their own lack of effort whereas if they do well, they feel validated in their innate intelligence (Chapter 6).

In Chapter 12, Dweck discusses pupils’ views of the belief in the potential to change and improve, and the impact of intelligence models on this belief – which plays out unsurprisingly. I’m more interested in similar beliefs held by teaching staff and how / whether they impact on their practice (does anyone know of any studies on this topic?)

One area where I found the book less precise is whether students can simultaneously be “more of an entity-theorist” in some subjects and “more of an incremental-theorist” in others. Often this was dealt with as if these were universal theories, but my limited experience suggests that students may, for example, hold largely incremental theories in sport while largely entity theories in maths. (Again, anyone know of studies on this topic?)

Changing Theories of Intelligence

So how do we change mindsets? One method Dweck refers to throughout, is to actually teach pupils about theories of intelligence. Another is to focus on the type of praise given: to emphasise an incremental model, praise successful strategies used on tasks they’ve clearly found challenging; quick correct answers should be responded to with apologies for wasting their time, and by setting more appropriate and challenging problems. This is subtly different advice to “praising only effort”, an approach I’ve seen some schools adopting when trying to apply the growth mindset. The best approach seems to be to ensure that challenge level is appropriate for each pupil, ensuring alignment between effort and outcome. Unfortunately, many primary schools in England are running in directly the opposite direction at the moment (see my blog post here); I do wonder what impact this is likely to have on the mindset of high-attaining pupils in the English education system.

In Chapter 15, Dweck looks at the kind of criticism and praise that reinforces these differing views. Criticism suggesting alternatives, e.g. “You’ve not quite done that completely. Maybe you should think of another way,” caused a reinforcement of incremental theories, whereas criticisms of the individual, e.g. “I’m disappointed in you”, tended to emphasise entity theories. More strikingly, Dweck argues strongly that positive praise targeted at inherent traits, e.g. “you’re smart!”, “you’re very good at this” or “I’m proud of you” can reinforce the entity theory, whereas praise such as “you’ve found a great way to do that – can you think of any other ways?” reinforces the incremental theory. While the former type of praise is definitely well received, and gives a temporary boost, Dweck argues that it sets pupils up for failure when they encounter difficulties and draw the inverse conclusion – “if I’ve not been successful, then I’m not smart, and you’re not proud of me”.

Finally, we only need to consider changing mindsets after mindsets are embedded. Dweck spends some space (Chapter 14) on arguing that the helpless-/mastery- dichotomy in responses is present even in 3.5-year-olds (where she associates this with a ‘theory of badness’ held by the children, rather than a ‘theory of intelligence’) so the mindset issue seems to be an issue for all phases of education.


Praise and Criticism. Students receive criticism and praise throughout their learning journey, and trying to change verbal feedback through training of staff is one thing to look at. However, it strikes me that one formalised arena for feedback, shared across parents, children and teachers, is in written “reports home”. I suspect it would be relatively easy to survey these reports for the type of language used, and compare this against the evidence Dweck presents on forms of criticism and praise. I’d be very interested in any schools that may have tried to survey or manage report language to align it with growth mindset principles. This also extends to grades: following Dweck’s results in Chapter 16 on “process praise”, it would seem far better to send home a report saying “worked on some great methods for X” rather than “Grade B”, or “could try alternative strategies for staying focussed” rather than “Grade C”.

Elective Remedial (Catch-up) Classes. Another interesting implication for schools and universities alike is the use of elective remedial classes. Several of Dweck’s studies seem to show that for those pupils who hold an entity theory of intelligence, it’s precisely those pupils who don’t need the remedial classes who are happy to attend them. Institutions should think about how to get around this problem.

School Transitions. There are implications for managing the transition from primary to secondary school, revealed by Dweck’s study of grade school to junior-high transition in the US; perhaps secondaries – jointly with primaries, even – could explicitly teach about theories of intelligence as part of the induction process, like the study at UC Berkeley reported in Chapter 5. I wonder whether any secondaries have tried this?

Mental Health. Mental health in educational settings is a hot topic at the moment. Given Dweck’s theories about self-esteem and its link to mindset, can recent work of schools and universities on mental health be improved by engaging with these ideas? For example, can mental health issues be avoided by trying to foster a growth mindset, and has any significant evidence been collected in this regard?

Grouping by attainment. I have seen many discussions of Growth Mindset that have suggested that grouping pupils by attainment runs counter to the principles outlined here. But interestingly, this is not what Dweck says (Chapter 17). She says that within the entity framework, this might be true, but attainment grouping within the incremental framework is not inherently problematic – it’s just an acknowledgement of fact. I would note that such groups are often referred to in education as “ability groups” rather than “attainment groups” – perhaps reflective of the entity theory. This issue potentially becomes even more acute when considering streaming and/or selective entry testing.

Gifted and Talented Programmes. There appear to be several implications for gifted and talented programmes (G&T) in schools (Dweck deals explicitly with this in Chapter 16, but does not draw out all the conclusions). Firstly, and essentially, we need to ensure all students are challenged, or they will not experience difficulty and effort; at the high-attaining end, this may or may not come from a G&T programme, depending on the pupil and the school approach to differentiation, but it cannot be absent. Secondly, perhaps the name G&T is problematic – Dweck herself says that “the term ‘gifted’ conjures up an entity theory,” and it’s not hard to imagine children in G&T programmes worrying more about losing G&T status than improving their knowledge and skills.

Teacher Mindsets. Although it would seem natural for teachers to have an incremental theory / growth mindset, my observations suggest this is not always the case. I wonder whether any schools have undertaken studies of their own teaching staff in this regard – this could be very interesting.

Beyond Intelligence

Chapter 10 shows that very similar observations apply to personal and social relationships, and Chapter 13 argues that theories of intelligence are also closely associated with the formation of stereotypes. Chapter 17 describes a link with self-esteem, and suggests that parents and teachers alike can model feeling good about effortful tasks, as a route to self-esteem within the incremental model. and that entity models are correlated with depression and anxiety (Chapter 7).

Overall, this book has given me plenty to think about as a parent, and a fair bit to think about as an educator too. I’d be really interested in hearing people’s suggestions for more reading on the topics above, especially if any of the studies I suggest above have already been done in the psychology or education literature.

Readers who enjoyed this post might be interested in my other educational posts.