The Problem with Growth Mindset

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley33 Comments

I was brought up by my family to believe that you got your just rewards for working hard. It is a belief that has stayed with me and nourished me throughout my life. Well, with some important qualifications. You see, we weren’t very good at mathematics in my family. In fact, nor were we naturally any good at the sciences. That was fine though – as we were naturally good at English, History and Art – that sort of thing.

I think you can start to see the problem.  Of course, I worked harder at those subjects I could ‘do‘, whilst sidelining the stuff I ‘naturally‘ wasn’t any good at. My school qualifications became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In truth, though we valued hard work, we didn’t have much of a growth mindset in my household – at least when it came to mathematics etc. In the interim of well over a decade I have learnt much about the plastic capacity of the brain to learn. The ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ dichotomy, propounded by Carol Dweck, proved something of a milestone for me. I sometimes wish I had my chance again to study those subjects I had neglected with this knowledge in mind.

The term ‘growth mindset’ is now veritable short-hand for a vast number of teachers and students. It has given a language to some of the issues that plagued me and our wider education system. The very concept can help challenge low expectations and fills us all with hope that with effort we can achieve what we may not have thought possible.

The simple but potent notion has caught on and no doubt is the subject of many an assembly and motivational talk. A thousand posters are now bedaubed with celebrations and protestations regarding possessing a ‘growth mindset’. The commercialisation of the concept continues apace.

Despite some of the mawkishness that can describe the growth mindset concept, I agree whole-heartedly with the value it places on effort and the importance of how we think about our capacity to learn.

So what is my problem?

Unlike many gimmicks and fads that whistle through our classrooms and corridors, there is a rich seam of good research to prove the efficacy of a growth mindset. The very notion is apolitical and broaches all ideological divides. Importantly, it is cheap. It is possibly the ultimate low cost & high impact ‘intervention’.

Its strength is the tremendous simplicity of the message. Everyone can understand the basic premise of effort and application; however, its simplicity is also its weakness. You can interpret the growth mindset quite broadly and you can synthesise it into what you already do so easily that you can actually change little to nothing of your existing daily practice. This is a fundamental problem.

Yes – confidence and motivation is crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air. Even if we eschew the praising of intelligence, we can just as easily fall prey to empty bombast about hard work and fetishizing failure. We are also in danger of repeating the essential importance of effort for our students, but without providing students with the strategies to apply their efforts with the required degree of skill.

Will this current ‘growth mindset’ craze prove all style and little substance?

A significant problem is the superficial implementation of the concept in schools. There is a real need to dig beneath the easy and slick branding to understand the complex factors that attend the growth mindset. At Huntington School we hold ourselves up as being a ‘growth mindset school’. Of course, you may ask: ‘what does that actually mean?’ In truth, we are still finding out.

There are lots of support factors that attend being a school imbued with the values of the ‘growth mindset’. In the coming months I am intent on exploring exactly how these areas sync up with a growth mindset ethos. These support factors include:

  • The composition and communication of student groupings;
  • Approaches to written and oral feedback;
  • KS3 Assessment;
  • Student target setting;
  • Consistent approaches to the language of praise;
  • The implementation of behaviour management systems;
  • Approaches to metacognition and the development of independent learning;
  • The teaching and learning of self-control and drivers of motivation (often popularised as GRIT or ‘character education’);
  • Skilled subject specific knowledge that knows what the students know and don’t know;
  • A focus of the  impact of parents and the home environment, linking learning in school to learning at home.  

In short, being a growth mindset school means much more than having an assembly or two. It permeates every school system and structure. When I hear people say ‘we have done growth mindset’ I know that they really haven’t – as they appear to misunderstand the concept at a fundamental level. In reality, you have never ‘done‘ growth mindset.

A growth mindset concept can be reduced down to a cluster of motivational assemblies spewing out YouTube videos, or it could prove a nexus for something potentially transformational in the culture of a school. I suspect the latter will prove really difficult and therefore a rare occurrence, but we should approach the problem with…well, a growth mindset!




  1. Definitely a culture and ethos thing here which I think goes to more than just growth mindset. Agree it is an important element of the big picture though! Thanks Alex.

    1. The key is that the work harder element must be focused. Deliberate practice needs to be emphasised. The link to effective assessment is crucial.

  2. That’s really interesting, thanks Alex. I couldn’t ‘do’ maths either as a child, just like you I felt I put equal effort into everything at school but that I had a facility for some things, and not for others. I’ve had the chance to revisit the subject in recent years, because I have to help run our preschool cashflow and interpret the accounts. And despite a very keen desire to learn, I still find this subject much much harder than others. For some reason I have a kind of number blindness. I can have a mathematical concept explained to me (e.g. ‘cash is not profit’) and while I kind of understand it, I find it really really hard to conceptualise and retain it. Even though I do work hard at growing my ability in this area, it’s much harder for me to ‘grow’ mathematically than for example as a writer.

    I also have some concerns about the use of the term, mainly around the idea that if you just work hard enough, you will always learn how to do something. I think this places a lot of emphasis on the children, rather than on the school/teachers. I also wonder whether this is a bit unfair, as for some children, the academic ‘growth’ bit will be much harder than for others. I’m still pondering my reactions and reading around to try and figure out where I stand. I’ve had some very interesting conversations with my son who is at a school that is implementing this idea throughout, in a similar way to what you describe here. It’s very interesting to me to consider how the children react to this concept, and not just the teachers.

    1. Author

      We have found that our students really like the message – particularly the brain aspect – but that, like with any message, familiarity can breed some contempt. I agree with reservations. I shelved issues about issues like working memory etc. that can make learning harder for some regardless of how hard they work. There is something of Boxer in ‘Animal Farm’ about it (I originally started my post with that but deleted it) that is uncritical and too simplistic. Again, much of the problem is interpretations and implementation.

      I think that the concept can nourish confidence and raise the expectations of the students, teachers and the parents. That is the core for me. Yet, the issues you raise are no doubt problematic. I just hope that more debate around the problems takes place – that would be a positive step forward.

    2. The idea has had a really positive effect on our children. Lilly for example has a completely different attitude to being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at school subjects than the generation of her mum and dad. She sees it only as a matter of application. As a consequence she’s chosen History, English Lit, Psychology, Physics, and Maths to study at A Level. I’m sure, like many strategies, developing GM as a disposition will be problematic. However, unlike much nonsense promoted over the last 20yrs, GM is a positive thing.

      1. Author

        I think I make my point in agreeing that it has massive potential for good. I just warn about implementation and interpretation.

  3. The idea of assessing all aspects of a school’s practices to align them with a growth mindset is a very important one and I’ll be interested to see what conclusions you come to about, for example, grouping and target setting, and how you go about implementing changes.

    You note that “confidence without competence is simply hot air…” Given that growth mindset research grew in response, among other things, to the self-esteem trend in education, it would be exceptionally depressing if it were to become seen as a panacea designed to boost students confidence without changing anything else. I would argue that anyone doing something like this is not introducing growth mindset, because they have misunderstood the fundamentals. But then, having seen what happened to AfL, perhaps its inevitable… To end on a positive, hopefully schools like Huntington can provide a lead that doesn’t just manipulate and devalue the concept.

    1. Author

      Yes – AfL is a prime example. I think the whole area of self-esteem, self-confidence & self-efficacy is very nuanced. So much so I am going to write a book about confidence and self-efficacy! It must be allied with the tools to develop confidence. In real terms, Beijing confident is becoming expert. We should hone in on that.

  4. Motivation matters. In UK culture there tends to be a bit of an aversion to emotion – stiff upper lip and all that – but the research evidence in social psychology is pretty overwhelming. Motivation is at the heart of the education class divide. If you have a comfortable middle class life and your parents did well as a result of schools and qualifications you are going to be more intrinsically inclined to do the same things yourself and commit the time and effort needed. If you are in poverty with parents that derived little benefit from school why would you be motivated to put in a lot of time and effort if you don’t believe it will make much difference and isn’t doing to anything immediately around you? The problem with politicians is that they have been successful as a result of “the system” so they say it was good for me it will be good for you. Deferred gratification is associated with the middle classes for a reason.

    In my way of thinking a lot of the pedagogical wars over traditional vs progressive or a shift to evidence based ed focused on cognitive development are not necessarily wrong, but fundamentally misplaced. What really matters is motivating weakly motivated children or ones that have far higher personal priorities than learning academic subject, to want to learn. It’s a very difficult nut to crack – if it wasn’t we’d have solved it already. Coercion through strict discipline might be one partial solution but in the end in a liberal society there will be rebellion and casualties of that too. Intrinsic motivation is much better and working out how to achieve that is really the holy grail for schools. Unfortunately it is a very variable factor often linked to individual interests so a “factory” approach to education does not lend itself to solving the problem.

  5. In a truest ‘growth mindset’ I see ‘the problem’ as you’ve aptly conveyed here Alex, as ‘a challenge’- you take up a challenge, with determination, with spirit, with hope and courage. There is something about the positive psychological, solution-focused elements of cultural change that are needed here, and can be delivered in practical ways. Plus an ethos is driven by ‘output’, or ‘what the collective does'(purpose); a fondamental question for education.

    1. Author

      Yes – the ‘problem’ posed is complex but not beyond us. I agree, for me it is a challenge. The potential rewards are such that we must persevere.

  6. Interesting, though personally I think this is more in agreement with Dweck than first suggested. From my reading, it’s never been suggested that hard work can’t be futile but rather a child who holds a preconceived idea that they were born less able will never pursue mastery.

    1. Author

      Yes – the title is very much a hook. I don’t deny the evidence hat proves the efficacy of possessing a growth mindset, more so the botched implementation and shallow understanding. These are not insurmountable barriers. I hope many schools take up the challenge to deeply embed the concoet in the culture of their school community.

    2. “…a child who holds a preconceived idea that they were born less able will never pursue mastery.” I would venture to take this a bit further and say that a child who holds a preconceived idea that they were born less able may never even attempt to explore the subject area on a foundational level.

      What role does society play in the mindset of a child? As an instructor in a Career and Technical Education Center I often wonder about gender roles and identification in choice of programs of study. Where do these preconceptions begin and how are they reinforced?

      This goes beyond gender to include socioeconomic status, race, religion, and beyond.

  7. Thanks Alex

    Your point about “You can interpret the growth mindset quite broadly and you can synthesise it into what you already do so easily that you can actually change little to nothing of your existing daily practice.” got me thinking of a recent report by the Sutton Trust and Durham University.

    They assert that whenever we can help clarify broad ‘good ideas’ by naming specific teaching practices that aren’t examples of the idea.

    For example, writing ‘Shaun is a conscientious, hard working student’ on an end of year report card is not in line with the growth mindset, while ‘Shaun has worked hard this semester’ is. In a similar vein, telling kids they will be able to ‘do it if they work hard’ is not a growth mindset, telling students they will evenually be able to do it if they work hard ‘at learning’ is (eg your example of confidence without competence). Learning takes hard work, but hard work does not always lead to learning.

    You’ve got me thinking.Thanks again Alex!

    1. Author

      That is a great point: “Learning takes hard working, but hard work does not always lead to learning.” It is nuances like these we need to tackle and explore.

  8. Anecdote about motivation to illustrate the point. Young adolescent boy, smallest in the year group and August birthday. Top set grammar school aspiring to anything sports related. Starts weightlifting and finds he is as strong as kids twice his size. What does he do? Spends most of his time getting stronger even though adult records seem miles out of reach and he finds school work pretty easy. Suddenly gains status in the peer group so trains harder and gets better. Uses university as a means of keeping the training going. It’s hard graft 3 or 4 hours a day in the gym (Not in the library). Represents GB and gets by with the academic work without really thinking about becoming anything academic at all. He could do it but its of no real interest.

    So first of all, it makes no difference how talented you are you still need graft and graft will compensate for lack of talent but talent can reduce the amount of graft needed if you are content to just get by. In order to put the energy and effort into graft to really fulfil a potential you have to be motivated to do it. That motivation could be avoidance of sanction, through a sense of duty or because of intrinsic desire. The latter is likely to be most effective and it is difficult to give any general formula that will cover any individual. Teachers tend to have that intrinsic desire in their own subject but find it difficult to understand why others might not share the same. (Politicians tend to do this too). What motivates a 5 year old, 10 year old or 15 year old is likely to be different and very different from a 50 year old. Yet we have mantras from 50 year olds about what will and motivate a 5 year old which are basically about what would or would not motivate them or did or did not motivate them. Repetitive learning is something 5 year olds really do seem to like if it is in an interesting context as Sesame Street producers found out. Rote learning? Well not quite, rote learning in an interesting context. Context is everything yet it is the one thing most syllabuses or SOL say nothing about.

    So the easy things to pursue are wisdom on traditional or progressive, this knowledge or that, skills or memory but the really difficult bit that would have the biggest effect, the development of intrinsic motivation is largely unexplored, perhaps because it is difficult, maybe impossible to pin down. Of course it happens by chance and some kids really fall immediately in love with Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein but that is not the great majority. When weak children make an effort to get a low grade, the amazing thing is that they do it at all really.

  9. I had a lecture on this concept the other day and I would like to implement it more and embed the theory into my teaching. Can I ask how the growth mindset theory informs your ‘composition and communication of student groupings’? Does it affect your differentiation differently in English and Maths? Thanks for helping as I am aware that my knowledge of the growth mindset is still pretty basic!

    1. Author

      Individually, I don’t decide upon groupings. For me, if you follow GM concoet and ideals, then grouping should be flexible and responsive. Setting is problematic if it isn’t tied to genuine flexibility.

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