Growth Mindset – More Evidence

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley13 Comments

If you are a school teacher and you haven’t heard of Carol Dweck’s ubiquitous growth and fixed mindset concept then… quite frankly, where the hell have you been for the past few years?

No doubt lots of good has emerged from this common-sense psychological framework, with a few dodgy approaches too. The growing evidence base, showing the limitations, flaws and best bets relating to these popular psychological interventions, is important to help improve what we do in schools.

More recent evidence related to growth mindset interventions is emerging – developing our knowledge and adapting our practice. Only this week, the Education Endowment Foundation published its Changing Mindsets EEF report, based on the trial conducted by the University of Portsmouth. It reveals some really interesting insights. Please do read the report yourself, but I did find some of the findings interesting and worthy of further discussion:

– Clearly, the interventions aimed at training the students, helping them understand about a growth mindset, brain plasticity etc. had more of a positive impact than the intervention aimed at training teachers. Relevance for schools: Attempting to change the life-long attitudes of teachers may prove a fool’s errand. Better to attempt to directly change the attitudes of students who, ultimately, are the captain of their own learning. Growth mindset interventions will likely best benefit those students who need to better self-regulate their learning. 

– I would hypothesise a couple of teacher INSET training sessions, however useful, are simply not going to change teacher beliefs and habits in any meaningful way, no matter how potent the message. Relevance for schools: one off INSET training for ‘growth mindset’, or whatever aspect of teacher practice, rarely changes teacher habits. CPD only works when it is sustained over time, supported by school structures, whilst being embedded into the fabric of planning and training in a series of sessions focused on teaching and learning and student outcomes. 

– “Intervention and control schools were already using some aspects of the growth mindsets approach. This may have weakened any impact of the interventions.” Relevance for schools: given that growth mindset is now pretty much common knowledge in schools, it is tricky to fairly evaluate interventions. Not only that, but schools struggle to evaluate with anything like the controls of a independent study like this one. Still, we can surely evaluate better and ask questions about our interventions, being honest when their impact is negligible. 

There were some positive findings of two months gain in learning relative to those students who didn’t receive the growth mindset message intervention. Overall though, there is doubt that the results showed definitive statistical significance. That is to say that the growth mindset interventions may not be the cause of the improvement made by students of a couple of months. Still, given the relatively light intervention (six short sessions on study skills with a growth mindset emphasis – in comparison with a control group who had the equivalent sessions, but on general study skills), it provides us with enough reason to further pursue ‘growth mindset interventions’. Relevance for schools: Psychological interventions can be slippy things. Finding a ‘growth mindset attitude’ as being the direct cause of improvements in student attainment is no doubt tricky, but as such interventions can prove very quick, cheap and easy, then we don’t stand to lose much in the pursuit. Investing too much time and money in ‘growth mindset programmes’ won’t likely prove a silver bullet – as research has found: ‘they are not magic‘. Perhaps then better stealthy, short interventions are the best bet. 

Changing Mindsets‘ key conclusions:


The data findings are helpfully broken down into sub-groups:


This ‘Changing Mindsets‘ study isn’t the only recent growth mindset orientated research. The study, ‘Mind-Set Interventions Are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement’, by Paunesku, Walton, Romero, Smith, Yeager, Dweck (2015), has also shown promise regarding the impact and scalability for growth mindset focused interventions. Some of the messages are similar to the study above: both were student focused interventions; they were both relatively short interventions (though the Dweck study used technology); they both focused on the message that intelligence is malleable etc.

The striking focus of the Dweck study was that students ‘at risk of dropping out of high schools’ benefitted much more from the interventions:


Now, both studies recognise their limitations and, like most good research, they recommend replication, better future studies that stand on their shoulders and testing their findings in different contexts. My view: the message of the malleability of the human brain and the power of effort and resilience is, as the Americans would say, a no brainer. How we convey that message, however, may need work and some subtle design and application. Quick, well targeted and stealthy growth mindset interventions may well prove our best bet given the growing evidence.


Related reading:

– I have written here about some of the problems that attend growth mindset: The Problem with Growth Mindset

– I think we can better embed growth mindset principles into teaching and learning. I think twinning it with metacognition is key: Growth Mindset – SO What’s Next?

– Considering what ‘stealthy psychological interventions’ might look like? Give this a read: Successful Learning by Stealth


  1. I am slightly puzzled by all this. I think the growth mindset approach boils down to not capping expectations. Basically we are all capable of achieving more than we think, but this is more marked for students as they have further to go. It is very unlikely that a student will achieve their full potential whilst at school (and really difficult to tell what a student’s full potential actually might be). Hence, schools and teachers shouldn’t make assumptions. This should result in high expectations being communicated to all students. Communicating the same message to their parents will be more difficult.

    1. Author

      You aren’t far wrong. I wrote abut teacher expectations recently and there is significant overlap. If you look at EEF trail though is hints at the intractability of changing teacher attitudes, whereas growth mindset interventions are about changing student attitudes. A core message for me is that children understand they can exceed the expectations of others or themselves, but also that the plasticity of the brain adds weigh to the notion.

      It is all good common sense and Emperor’s new clothes – yes – but it is a good shared language and proves useful in my opinion. Down well, you quickly hide GM labels and follow the principles and create your own authentic messages.

    2. Chemistry Poet: “I am slightly puzzled by all this”.

      If you don’t mind me asking, what is it exactly that you are puzzled about? That the principles of it aren’t more obvious and in place anyway?

      The truth is that it just isn’t obvious to many teachers I speak to, who are very quick to categorise children according to initial academic assessments and close the door, and it particularly isn’t obvious to children themselves, who are quick to judge that they are ‘great’ or ‘crap’.

      Perhaps the most powerful thing behind my own interest in this area is the experience of my own schooling, which I now look back on as being MASSIVELY influenced by my own fixed mindset of what I was academically capable of (and partly due to that of my teachers).

      1. Yes. I’m fairly surprised that this stuff isn’t seen as obvious. You’re right, of course, teachers need to know that carrying around low expectations for some students will be very detrimental to those students.

  2. Thanks Alex as ever for ensuring there is a vibrant forum around these emerging ideas. Whether Growth Mindset, School of Hard knocks, Carrot/Stick or any other motivational methods, they are but that. Tell me; this last recruiting series, we have interviewed a goodly number of applicants from state schools, all still report using the target setting, decimal incremental pont improvement approach which as a school leader I have never espoused or given house room to in our school. If ever there is a negative motivational tool, it seems to the target grade plus 1 approach, which checking every five minutes that peeps are on target. So does that mean whatever Ofsted sat about moving away from demonstrating children make progress every lesson (which of course they do not) actually schools are afraid to move for fear of ‘judgement day’ appraisal of their work?

    1. Author

      The target setting and OFSTED obsession is alive and well. No doubt some schools are under more pressure than others, but the compliance demanded by these approaches I think are appealing to many school managers. It is the easy proxy to say leadership is being undertaken and supposed improvement is happening. Of course, anything like lesson observation grades is rather fanciful data.

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  5. Hi Alex,
    I wondered what your thoughts were with regards fixed and growth mindset teachers and how the language that they use on a daily basis can have contrasting effects on pupils perceptions of their own ability and therefore the effort that they put in. I suppose I am wondering if fixed mindset teachers invariably produce fixed mindset pupils. Emotional contagion and all that! If this were the case then it would be very important to not only make staff aware of positive mindsets but to try and change fixed into positive.

    1. Author

      I think we can overestimate the impact of teachers somewhat. Of course, the language we use matters, but I am wary it is a definitive factor. I wonder encourage teachers having a growth mindset, but they can be fixed and be a good teacher. It is complex, nuanced stuff!

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