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The Perils of a “Growth Mindset”

By Alfie Kohn,, 8/16/15

Focusing on a growth mindset diverts attention from what’s being taught and how.

[Michael’s note: He’s done it again. Alfie Kohn goes “against the grain” by challenging a principle widely accepted in education: the growth mindset. You may agree or disagree but Kohn always makes you think.]

One of the most popular ideas in education these days can be summarized in a single sentence: “Kids tend to fare better when they regard intelligence not as a fixed trait they either have or lack, but as an attribute that can be improved through effort.”

Psychologist Carol Dweck…described the self-fulfilling belief that one can become smarter…as the “growth mindset”….

By now, the growth mindset has approached the status of a cultural meme…repeated with uncritical enthusiasm…to the point that one half expects supporters to start referring to their smartphones as “effortphones.” But, like the buzz over the related concept known as “grit” (a form of self-discipline involving long-term persistence), there’s something disconcerting about how the idea has been used….

Unlike grit — which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is driven more by conservative ideology than by solid research — Dweck’s thesis is supported by decades’ worth of good data. It’s not just the habit of attributing your failure to being stupid that holds you back, but also the habit of attributing your success to being smart. Regardless of their track record, kids tend to do better in the future if they believe that how well they did in the past was primarily a result of effort.

But “how well they did” at what?

The problem with sweeping…claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).

An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. The kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing, even though genuine excitement about (and proficiency at) learning rises when they’re brought into the process, invited to search for answers to their own questions, and to engage in extended projects…. But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic….

Small wonder that this idea goes down so easily. All we have to do is get kids…to think optimistically about their ability to handle whatever they’ve been given to do. Even if, quite frankly, it’s not worth doing.

The most common bit of concrete advice offered by Dweck and others enamored of the growth mindset is to praise kids for their effort (“You tried really hard”) rather than for their ability (“You’re really smart”) in order to get them to persevere…. But the first problem with this seductively simple script change is that praising children for their effort carries problems of its own…. It can communicate that they’re really not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks. (“If you’re complimenting me just for trying hard, I must really be a loser.”)…

What’s really problematic…is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation…. Kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise. As I’ve explained in books and articles, the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that…our approval is conditional on the child’s continuing to impress us or do what we say. What kids actually need from us, along with nonjudgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support — the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops.

The solution, therefore, goes well beyond…merely switching from commending ability to commending effort. Praise for [effort] is likely to be experienced as every bit as controlling and conditional as praise for [ability]. Tellingly,…Dweck’s [1990s] studies on which she still relies to support the idea of praising effort…included no condition in which students received nonevaluative feedback….

Thus, the challenge for a teacher or parent is to consider a moratorium on offering verbal doggie biscuits, period. We need to attend to deeper differences: between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and between “doing to” and “working with” strategies. Unfortunately, we’re discouraged from thinking about these more meaningful distinctions — and from questioning the whole carrot-and-stick model (of which praise is an example) — when we’re assured that it’s sufficient just to offer a different kind of carrot.

Here’s another part of the bigger picture that’s eclipsed when we get too caught up in the “growth vs. fixed”…dichotomy: If students are preoccupied with how well they’re doing in school, then their interest in what they’re doing may suffer. A 2010 study found that when students whose self-worth hinges on their performance face the prospect of failure, it doesn’t help for them to adopt a growth mindset. In fact, those who did so were even more likely to give themselves an excuse for screwing up — a strategy known as “self-handicapping” — as compared to those with the dreaded fixed mindset.

Even when a growth mindset doesn’t make things worse, it can help only so much if students have been led — by things like grades, tests, and, worst of all, competition — to become more focused on achievement than on the learning itself. Training them to think about effort more than ability does nothing to address the factthat too much emphasis on performance undermines intellectual engagement….

And this brings us to the biggest blind spot of all — the whole idea of focusing on the mindsets of individuals. Dweck’s work nestles comfortably in a long self-help tradition, the American can-do, just-adopt-a-positive-attitude spirit…. The message of that tradition has always been to adjust yourself to conditions as you find them because those conditions are immutable…. Ironically, the more we occupy ourselves with getting kids to attribute outcomes to their own effort, the more we communicate that the conditions they face are, well, fixed….

Why, for example, do relatively few young women choose to study or work in the fields of math and science? Is it because of entrenched sexism and “the way the science career structure works”?  Well, to someone sold on Dweck’s formula, the answer is no: It’s “all a matter of mindset.” We need only “shift widespread perceptions over to the ‘growth mindset’” —to the perceptions of girls and women who are just trapped by their own faulty thinking. This is similar to the perspective that encourages us to blame a “culture of poverty” in the inner city rather than examine economic and political barriers — a very appealing explanation to those who benefit from those barriers and would rather fault their victims for failing to pull themselves up by their mindset….

Dweck…has allied herself with gritmeister Angela Duckworth and made… pronouncements about the underappreciated value of hard work and the perils of making things too easy for kids, pronouncements that wouldn’t be out of place at the Republican National Convention or in a small-town Sunday sermon. Indeed, Dweck has endorsed a larger conservative narrative, claiming that “the self-esteem movement led parents to think they could hand their children self-esteem on a silver platter by telling them how smart and talented they are.” (Of course, most purveyors of that narrative would be just as contemptuous of praising kids for how hard they’d tried, [as] Dweck recommends.)

Moreover,…Dweck has never criticized a fix-the-kid, ignore-the-structure mentality or raised concerns about the “bunch o’ facts” traditionalism in schools. Along with many other education critics, I’d argue that the appropriate student response to much of what’s assigned isn’t “By golly, with enough effort, I can do this!” but “Why the hell should anyone have to do this?”

I’m not suggesting we go back to promoting an innate, fixed theory of intelligence and talent, which, as Dweck points out, can leave people feeling helpless and inclined to give up. But the real alternative to that isn’t a different attitude about oneself; it’s a willingness to go beyond individual attitudes, to realize that no mindset is a magic elixir that can dissolve the toxicity of structural arrangements. Until those arrangements have been changed, mindset will get you only so far. And too much focus on mindset discourages us from making such changes.

Alfie Kohn is the author of 14 books on education, parenting, and human behavior, including, most recently, The Myth of the Spoiled Child and Schooling Beyond Measure. See more:

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“Mindset” Author Carol Dweck on Student Motivation

from the website EducationWorld

[Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford and best known for her pioneering book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She is a leading researcher in the field of motivation.]

Education World: Some students are mastery-oriented–they readily seek challenges and pour effort into them. Have you found any direct relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities?

Carol Dweck: No. Some of the brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected. Being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset, not about how smart you are.

EW: What can teachers do to help students face a challenge rather than be overwhelmed by it?

Dweck: Students who are mastery-oriented think about learning, not about proving how smart they are. When they experience a setback, they focus on effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent.

When students succeed, praise their efforts or strategies, not their intelligence. When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do now. Too many students think effort is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to outstanding achievement.

Rather than praising students for doing well on easy tasks, teachers should transmit the joy of confronting a challenge and of struggling to find strategies that work.

Finally, teachers can help students value learning. Too many students are hung up on proving their worth through grades. Grades often matter a lot. Problems arise when students start to care so much about their performance that they sacrifice important learning opportunities and limit their intellectual growth.

Problems also arise when students equate their grades with their intelligence or worth. This can be damaging, for when students hit difficulty, they may quickly feel inadequate, become discouraged, and lose their desire to perform well in that area.

EW: How can teachers change students who have a fixed view of their intelligence so that they do better when facing a challenge?

Dweck: Students who believe intelligence is a potential that they can develop fare better when faced with challenge. We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that they can be taught that their intellectual skills can be cultivated — through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles. Students’ grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed.

EW: Can a classroom that is very performance-oriented succeed in developing learners who welcome challenges?

Dweck: A classroom that teaches students to equate their intelligence and their worth with their performance will, in general, stifle the desire to learn and will make students afraid of challenges. After all, the next challenge may show you up and lead you to be branded as less intelligent or less worthy.

However, this doesn’t mean that a classroom that stresses performance can’t also stress the importance of facing learning challenges. It must be made clear to students that their performance reflects their current skills and efforts, not their intelligence or worth. If students are disappointed in their performance, there is a clear implication: Work harder, learn to study better, ask for more help.

By the way, this stance characterizes many top athletes. They are very performance-oriented during a game. However, they don’t see a negative outcome as reflecting their underlying skills or potential to learn. Moreover, in between games they are very learning-oriented. They review tapes of past games, trying to learn from their mistakes, they talk to their coaches about how to improve, and they work ceaselessly on new skills.

EW: In your research, have you seen a correlation between a student’s history of success and his or her ability to face future challenges?

Dweck: There is no relation between a history of success and seeking or coping with challenges. This is one of the great surprises in my research. It shows that the ability to face challenges is not about your actual skills; it’s about the mindset you bring to a challenge.

EW: Educators praise students’ intelligence because they believe that helping them feel smart will help them achieve their potential. Are there better messages educators could send students?

Dweck: I was aware of the widespread belief that praising students’ intelligence would help them feel smart. Yet, I had years of research showing that students who had fragile self-esteem and motivation were the ones obsessed with their intelligence. They worried about it all the time: Will this task make me look smart? Will that task show I’m dumb? So it struck us that praising intelligence could actually do harm by conveying to students that intelligence can be measured from their performance.

We set out to test this in our research. In these studies, later grade school students worked on a task, succeeded nicely on the first set of problems, and received praise. Some received praise for their intelligence, and others received praise for their effort. It turned out that praising students’ intelligence, even after truly admirable performance, made them feel good in the short run, but it had many negative effects. In contrast, praising students’ effort had many positive effects.

First, when students were praised for their intelligence, they became so invested in looking smart that they became afraid of challenge. Most of them preferred a sure-fire success over a challenging opportunity to learn something important. When students were praised for their effort, 90% of them wanted the challenging learning opportunity.

Second, when students then experienced a second, difficult set of problems, those who had been praised for their intelligence now told us they felt dumb. In other words, if the success meant they were smart, the failure meant to them that they were dumb. Any self-esteem that had been promoted by the praise was very fragile. In contrast, the students who had been praised for their effort saw the setback not as a condemnation of their intellect, but as simply a signal for more effort.

Third, the students who were praised for their intelligence told us they no longer enjoyed the task. A feeling of failure made them reject a chance to practice their skills and improve. In contrast, the ones who were praised for their effort enjoyed the second task just as much as the first. In fact, some of them liked the harder task even better and were more determined to master it.

Fourth, we gave the students a third set of problems, similar to the first set (the one on which they had succeeded). The students who were praised for their intelligence now did significantly worse than they had initially; the students who were praised for their effort did significantly better than they had done before. This means that two groups of students, who had started off with similar performance, were now far apart.

We should praise our students, but we should praise the right things. Praise the process (the effort, the strategies, the ideas, what went into the work), not the person.

EW: Is self-esteem something that teachers can “give” to students?

Dweck: No. It’s important to show students respect and give them a sense they are cared for, but apart from that, the best thing teachers can do for students is to put them in charge of their own self-esteem. This is by teaching students how to love challenges and learning and how to cope with setbacks.

EW: In all your years of research, what findings have intrigued you the most?

Dweck: The power of motivation. Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact, many creative geniuses were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated. By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve but also the love of learning, the love of challenge, and the ability to handle obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students.

EducationWorld provides education news, lesson plans, tech tips, and professional development materials.

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