What do the collapse of Enron and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have in common? You might reasonably guess some nascent political or economic concept. But actually it’s a psychological one – they can both apparently be explained by a lack of growth mindset.

Growth Mindset is a powerful idea; and its absolutely everywhere. Sports teams, Silicon Valley, schools, self-help bestsellers, board rooms of major international conglomerates, recruitment agencies – any area of human activity that implements the management and development of people seems to have embraced the concept wholesale.

Its easy to see why. The idea is intuitive, inspiring and easily understood. In fact, the bare bones of the theory can be summed up by this simple maxim: People who believe their abilities can be developed and improved in a given area tend to be more successful in that area, whereas those who believe their abilities in a given area are fixed and incapable of improvement tend to be less successful in that area.

“Well, duh” some may reply. Is this just common sense masquerading as cognitive science? Not exactly. In its diminutive form, popular with teachers, growth mindset is a vacuous redeployment of the Protestant ethic – work hard, be optimistic and you’ll be fine. In its more developed form, faithful to its theoretical origins, it is a much more nuanced set of claims on what’s necessary for success in education. I want to share three of the most striking distortions of the theory, as wielded especially by educators, focusing on where they go wrong and how they’re damaging to students.

Its not just about effort

This is probably the misunderstanding I encounter most in teachers and on pop education blogs – as long as students try hard and are praised for their efforts they’ll develop a growth mindset and are guaranteed academic success. Of course this is foolishness, as growth mindset’s progenitor Carol Dweck has pointed out in recent editions of the book. When confronted with failure, redoubling your efforts in service to the same strategy is pretty unlikely to get anyone anywhere. Instead students need to understand, in as much detail as possible, where and why they went wrong on a given task. A growth plan can then be drawn up for how to remedy these issues – what resources in their environment can they summon to plug gaps in their lack of understanding, what revision or exam techniques may they try etc. There’s a significant cognitive dimension to growth mindset that often gets totally overlooked: students need to understand what general approaches lead to success, not just feel that their efforts are valued.

Its not about telling kids they can achieve anything they set their mind to

The implicit optimism of growth mindset can lead some to stumble beyond its ken into the claim that students can achieve ‘anything they set their mind to’. Whether or not there’s any truth to this pseudospiritual slogan, there’s certainly no endorsement from growth mindset theory. What growth mindset theory shows is that students’ abilities can improve, and are more likely to do so when they believe this proposition. But that does not mean that students’ abilities can improve indefinitely. Nor does it mean that students can ‘achieve anything’, primarily because lots of achievement is not determined exclusively by an individual’s ability or mindset. Anybody who knows a fantastic band struggling to make it, an aspiring professional footballer who outplays everyone or an entrepreneur who slaves hard yet remains on the fringes of the business world understands that the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t often has very little to do with an individual’s psychological traits or work ethic and a lot more to do with other complex factors, among them brute luck.

This might seem like quite a striking claim, but its important. Any educator who tells a student that growth mindset shows then can achieve anything, without inserting the appropriate caveats, is wielding growth mindset irresponsibly and doing damage to student’s future confidence. Because the inverse implication of ‘you can achieve anything you set your mind to’ is ‘if you didn’t achieve, its because you didn’t set your mind to it enough’. And that’s an extremely misleading and damaging perspective to send students out into the world with.

It doesn’t explain everything

“Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances” observed the legendary historian, Herodotus. It’s a wise message that’s easily forgotten by many when growth mindset comes into play. Suddenly mindset explains all success and failure, while the complex network of social, cultural, political and biological factors that we usually appeal to for explanation of complex phenomena becomes redundant. The two examples that open this article are a perfect illustration of this excessive explanatory evangelism for growth mindset, although Dweck’s own website is full of this sort of stretching.  No one could deny that these claims are interesting and offer potentially fruitful areas for future research, but they consistently outrun the evidence available for the generalisability of growth mindset to areas outside of school education.

This is important for educators too. Even after we eliminate talent from our arsenal of diagnostic tools, there are still lots of reasons why students might fail, not just mindset. The list of other reasons is too numerous to rehearse here, but a quick flex of common sense rather than cognitive science should quickly furnish you with a strong list. Lets not forget it.

A Tale of Caution

I’ve avoided going into details about growth mindset’s spurious connection to neuroscience as well as the failure of its foundational experiments to replicate across contexts as they go beyond the remit of a blog for educators. But they are relevant for cutting Growth Mindset down to size.

For even in its fully fleshed out form, Growth Mindset is still only a useful heuristic for encouraging students, and probably does more harm than good given its propensity to being wielded thoughtlessly. By steering teachers away from a nuanced understanding of achievement, under the spell of novelty, it prevents them using the most robust tools an educator has when making judgements about their students: experience, the informal lore of the profession and of course, good old fashioned professional judgement.

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