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How not to teach Growth Mindset

How not to teach Growth Mindset

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset is arguably one of the most popular psych theories in education. Teachers seemed to have widely embraced the concepts behind growth mindset.  Most who work in education would agree that if you if you turn up, work hard, learn from your mistakes and keep turning up, you will probably get a bit better.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset explainer graphic

Carol Dweck herself has flagged how sometimes in their eagerness, educators don’t teach students about growth mindset very effectively. As our understanding of the research grows, we are left pondering, is the graphic to the right, which is one of the most popular image when googling ‘growth mindset’, something that we actually shouldn’t be showing our students?

The case for this graphic

The best part of this graphic is that it distills the seminal growth mindset study (in fact it is actually comprised of 6 detailed little studies) into one simple easy to digest visual. This makes it easy to understand, and in an age of gifs and memes, this certainly appeals to the twitter generation.

The other nice thing about the graphic is that it offers a contrast. We know that contrasting concepts can help people understand key components. I can grasp the offside rule if I can see an example of when someone is on side and when someone is offside. Likewise, concepts such as Heaven and Hell, Communism and Capitalism, Labour and Tory offer a good illustration of this.

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The case against

So what is the case against showing students the original fixed vs growth mindset graphic?  What is the downside? On reflection, I think there are 4 potential issues:

It isn’t stealthy

In this article about how best to design and deliver growth mindset interventions (which we recommend everyone reads), researchers have suggested that they need to be subtle and stealthy. This is done to ensure students don’t get ‘growth mindset fatigue’. You know they have this fatigue when the mere mention of growth mindset is met with eye rolls and groans.

Time is a limited resource

Teaching time in school is in short supply. Time to teach students about how to develop their mindset is very limited. Why spend half that time telling the students ‘what not to be’ (i.e. having a fixed mindset). I am a psychologist and not a teacher (so apologies to teachers if I get the next sentence wrong), but it seems to me that you wouldn’t spend half the maths lessons telling students how not to work out long division or half an English lesson explaining what iambic pentameter isn’t. Why not just focus on what you want, not on what you want to avoid?

It focus on consequences not strategies

It’s all very well telling students that to have a growth mindset they should put in lots of effort, embrace challenges and learn from criticism, but these are outcomes and consequences, not the actual behaviours and habits we want them to acquire.

It’s like saying that in order to beat Barcelona, you have to score more goals than them. It may be true, but it doesn’t tell you how to do that. With regards to growth mindset it would be far better to teach them how to ask for and embrace feedback, how to maintain effort in spite of a minor setback and how to appropriately weigh up what is a good vs a bad risk.

People aren’t binary

By offering students this graphic, we are, even if we don’t mean to be, inviting them to identify with one side or the other. For some students, this may help improve their self-awareness of where they currently are. However, it is important to remind them that we are much more nuanced than that. Things are rarely black or white. As anyone who has taken a growth mindset questionnaire will realise, it is marked on a spectrum and not as a simple yes or no. You are not 100% ‘growth mindset’ or 100% ‘fixed mindset’.

Final thought

Growth Mindset is an exciting psychological theory, as it offers us an insight and potential framework for long term learning and development. Check out our other blogs on how to develop a Growth Mindset, the language of a Growth Mindset and four questions that encourage a Growth Mindset.

For us, growth mindset has to be more than just an assembly or showing students this graphic. It has to be stealthy, it has to maximise the time we have with your students and it has to focus on the implementation strategies. This graphic works well as an oversimplified summary of research, but not one that is going to help students actually develop their mindset very much.

For even more info on how to teach Growth Mindset, take a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset, where you’ll find links to blogs and research.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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