psychology

The nail in Growth Mindset’s coffin?

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As I’m sure everybody already knows, mind sets are beliefs about the nature of characteristics like intelligence. The theory is that students with growth mindsets believe their ability can be changed with effort and therefore do better academically than their peers who have fixed mindsets. Given the appeal of this theory, it’s small wonder that schools around the world have rushed to intervene with their students in order to mould their mindsets.

In January last year I wrote one of my most popular blog posts to date, the controversially titled, Is Growth Mindset Bollocks? In it I detailed the reasons for doubting the efficacy of what has become probably the most over-hyped, go-to intervention in the last ten years. In discussing a high profile failure to replicate, and Carol Dweck response that, “Not anyone can do a replication,” I concluded: “It could be that they’re just doing it wrong and have a ‘false growth mindset’, or it could be that such appealingly simplistic ideas about making profound changes to children’s academic attainment are bollocks?”

So, what’s changed? Well, a new, preregistered*, study of the effects of Growth Mindset on students’ Grade Point Averages in the US has been released. The study has a huge sample of over 12,500 students in 65 different American schools with the result that the “intervention reduced by 3% the rate at which adolescents in the U.S. were off-track for graduation at the end of the year”.

This is good news, right? Growth Mindset interventions actually work! As ever, we should proceed with caution. The study appears to show that giving students two 25 minute sessions on how the brain forms synaptic connections when we struggle has a small, but real effect on students’ outcomes for a very low cost. The authors also note that some students benefitted far more than others, and those who seemed to benefit most were lower achieving students and students in schools with “supportive behavioral norms”. What this might suggest is that students who have previously underachieved improve when told that if they took more responsibility and worked harder they might do better, and that good behaviour makes a positive difference to any intervention. Neither of which are all that surprising.

This is important because, as Timothy Bates – one of the researcher Dweck accused of going about replicating her studies in a “willy nilly” way – points out, whether the results where down to believing that basic ability is malleable, or that working harder improves results. The first option – the growth Mindset hypothesis asks us to believe in magical thinking where as the second is about how conscientiousness we are. He says of his research, “We find beliefs about the malleability of basic ability are irrelevant: it’s all about work”.

In other news, this paper, reports on two meta-analyses into the circumstances in which growth mindset interventions are effective. From the abstract:

In our first meta-analysis (k = 273, N = 365,915), we examined the strength of the relationship between mind-set and academic achievement and potential moderating factors. In our second meta-analysis (k = 43, N = 57,155), we examined the effectiveness of mind-set interventions on academic achievement and potential moderating factors. Overall effects were weak for both meta-analyses. However, some results supported specific tenets of the theory, namely, that students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.

The paper is behind a paywall, but Stuart Ritchie shared this figure showing the effects of over 40 studies into the effects of mindset interventions. He summarises the main findings of the study thus:

1) Correlation of growth mindset with achievement is small, r = .1
2) Effect of growth mindset interventions on achievement is tiny, d = .08.


What can we salvage from all of this?
Well, one conclusion is that maybe it’s worth giving “students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk” 50 minutes worth of animated bobbins about synapses and brain cells. Certainly, there’s not too much of an opportunity cost. But we should all reflect on the fact that, as things stand, there’s no reason to believe spending more time on this sort of intervention is likely to be worthwhile. If nothing else, maybe we should take away the well-worn truths that well-behaved students in orderly, supportive environments, and students who understand the relationship between effort and outcomes are things we should continue to strive for.

What ought to be obvious to anyone who’s spent anytime reflecting on their own habits and behaviour is that we all try hard at things we believe we are good at, and we all quit things we think we suck at. This is human nature. If we’re serious about changing students’ beliefs about their ability we ought to commit far more time to ensuring they can be successful at the subjects we teach.

Of course this won’t be the last word on growth mindset interventions. Like so many other ‘good ideas’ they’ll lurch, zombie-like, around the educational environment for years to come. Many will carry on with what they think to be right, no matter what the evidence turns up. As for all true believers, faith trumps reality. For those who are concerned but not yet ready to let go the belief in the power of the growth mindset, ask yourself, what sort of evidence would convince you to change your mind?

* For those who don’t know, a preregistered study is one where the research team register their plans before the trial so that they cannot manipulate the data later. It’s also worth noting that this is a preprint – a version of a paper that precedes publication in a peer-reviewed journal. This might suggest it hasn’t yet been fully validated through the peer review process. The authors say, “The findings and manuscript will almost certainly change before publication. The investigative team welcomes suggestions for clarifying or improving the research or the documentation of the findings.”

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