Is there ‘growth mindset’ fatigue?


Is there ‘growth mindset’ fatigue in education? Are the claims, from various educators and experts, that ‘growth mindset’ practice doesn’t work justified? And are those claims cut and dry–or are the critics simply identifying flaws which can in fact be overcome by mindful practitioners?

A person with a fixed mindset, regardless of their intelligence, isn’t much about challenge or discomfort or much interested in, as the kids say it these days, ‘gains’. They believe their ability is their ability. Immovable.  

Conversely, someone with a growth mindset, regardless of ability, thrives on reaching, the art of solving a problem, or the discomfort of something new.  When I read Carol Dweck’s book in 2014 I recognised both mindsets immediately. My daughter has a growth mindset. My son, by natural disposition, a very firmly fixed one.

A few weeks ago during our professional development I heard the phrase more times in two days than I had throughout all of 2015. It was being communicated in the discussion of graduate profiles and it seemed to me that the question of how to create a ‘Growth Mindset’ in my classroom needed my focused attention.

Will wall displays and posters do it? Does it require explicit teaching? Was it just remembering to respond, ‘yet!’ to every student who says, “I can’t do it.”  Or, if we simply repeatedly use the words in our professional conversations will that be enough?

A bit of reading in the past few weeks has lead me to some helpful insights and practical suggestions. The criticisms of ‘growth mindset’ are justified. But they are not a reason to dismiss the theory altogether.

Firstly, if you want to promote a growth mindset, offer plenty of small achievable tasks. The little, regular wins for students create confidence and ambition. Seems obvious enough. We are the same as adults.  This strategy is flawed, however, if not done properly. If the task isn’t valid its futility will be amplified. Each mini-goal needs to have thoughtful curriculum purpose and excellent pedagogy. Constant reflection on this by the teacher is a must for the success of a growth mindset environment.

Further to this, praise the effort and the grit and the progress, but never the ability or the intelligence of the learner in front of you. This seems so logical. But the shape and form of this praise has hooks. If you only praise the effort, you risk disengaging the learner. For growth mindset to thrive there needs to less testing, more learning. More learning happens through more feedback. And the feedback should be structured around three things; the areas to work on, praise for the ‘gains’ and acknowledgement of effort and ‘grit’. If we only praise the effort, the futility of the effort (and the insincerity of the teacher-student relationship) will soon become acutely obvious to a learner who is not making progress.

To promote a growth mindset culture we need to stop putting kids in lanes. Or giving them labels. By all means, we need all the information and all the resourcing and all the diagnostic testing we can get our hands on to understand and know the learner in front of us. But please, for the love of teaching, don’t put any student in a box. Ever. Allow them to confound you, surprise you, or even just make a small ‘gain’. Don’t decide that they have ‘peaked’. They haven’t. No one has.

In a previous professional life I was a teacher of boys. In this respect I was interested to read that removing competition and designing tasks which are collaborative will also shift mindset in learners. Competition is so engaging for boys though! Competition was the backbone of my classroom management strategy most weeks. But, on reflection, I can see how contest works for those who consistently win or are within reach–even if they have a fixed mindset. It must be soul destroying for those who know that the gap is just too far.

And in a similar vein, growth mindset requires the class teacher to make learning the priority and not the grade or the marks. To be fair, I’ve been banging on about that one since we introduced NCEA in 2001-2002. I like the system, but it is a constant challenge to focus on what we are learning rather than not achieved-achieved-merit-excellence-criteria-credits-assessment conditions-etc. A constant challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

My most important reflection is best illustrated by my son’s Year 7 year.  No student can demonstrate a growth mindset in a classroom where the relationships are not warm, or where the generation of fear is a classroom management technique. As teachers we must have a growth mindset too. My son had the love of a teacher who saw all his qualities, saw all his challenges, watched him struggle time and time again, and never once expressed disappointment or frustration. Instead, she let him know how much she respected his grit and persistence, celebrated with him all the little wins and micro goals achieved, and quietly guided his work ons. She never demanded compliance and obedience above all else. He was too engaged in what he was doing to be distracted anyway.  He is a far more determined learner than ever before–a ‘growth mindset’ approach, implemented well, certainly can’t do any harm.


“4 Ways to Encourage a Growth Mindset in the Classroom (EdSurge News).” EdSurge. 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

“The Perils of “Growth Mindset” Education: Why We’re Trying to Fix Our Kids When We Should Be Fixing the System.” Saloncom RSS. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.