Has ‘growth mindset’ been debunked? Will the million+ selling book quietly be removed from shelves, or will it reappear rebooted in teacher training in some other guise in future? 

I began writing about the promise and the problems with ‘growth mindset’ in 2014. It was a wildly popular topic that was common in school INSET, based on promising evidence from different studies – most typically conducted by Professor Carol Dweck and collaborators. 

It is a complex topic for busy teachers. It is also unlikely that teachers will be supplied with the time and support to engage with an expansive array of contradictory research messages that have emerged in recent years. As a result, like many fads (some evidence based, some not), growth mindset is likely to fade from view, until a similar concept attracts our collective attention. 

Does ‘growth mindset’ even work? 

In an excellent new podcast, entitled ‘The Studies Show’, Stuart Ritchie and Tom Chivers, expertly unpick the research on growth mindset. They puncture any inflated enthusiasm that is left for the promise of ‘growth mindset’.

At the core of their exploration is the comparison of two significant meta-analyses on growth mindset research. The first, by Macnamara & Burgoyne, entitled ‘Do growth mindset interventions impact students’ achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis with recommendations for best practices’, is highly critical of the mass of mindset research. They present that when you took potential publication bias into account, there was simply no effects to speak of for growth mindset interventions. 

Also in 2023, other research found more positive insights into the growth mindset research. Burnette and colleagues’ review is entitled, ‘A systematic review and meta-analysis of growth mindset interventions: For whom, how, and why might such interventions work?’. They found some small positive effects for “academic outcomes, mental health, and social functioning, especially when interventions are delivered to people expected to benefit the most”

The only error from the Ritchie & Chivers podcast is assuming ‘growth mindset’ is still common and popular in schools. The truth is that for busy teachers, with too little time or inclination, niche reviews of research go largely ignored. The harsh reality is that the majority of schools have long-since moved on from mindset research and practice. 

Excited early interpretations launched a thousand assemblies, but few schools will have felt the promise was realised. For me, the issue all along was that broadly sensible messages about learning and human development were much vaunted as a solution to…well, everything. Useful insights on motivation and pupils’ attitudes were weaponised into a quick-fix.

The humdrum reality proved once more that human psychology, and teenagers, are a little more complex than advice that can be shared in a book, blog, or school assembly. 

What next for growth mindset?

‘Growth mindset’ in its pure Dweckian sense may not reappear in schools anytime soon. However, the concept, and the related challenges – and teacher hopes – are likely to return. To understand why likely proves useful. 

First, it helps recognise: what problem is ‘growth mindset’ trying to solve for teachers? At its root, it is probably a hoped-for solution to improve pupil motivation and self-confidence. Every teacher knows that the psychology of effort is vital in helping pupils take on tricky challenges and succeeding in school. The issue is that there are fewer established solutions. 

The notion that we could change pupils from a ‘fixed mindset’ to a ‘growth mindset’ was well meaning but likely hopeful for what teachers can do quickly and at scale. In my view, there were too little focus on the actual strategies to get better at reading, maths problems, or writing history essays. You can have a growth mindset assembly, but then failing in maths can knock-out any tentative hopes that pupils will preserve in the face of failure, or in front of their peers. 

‘Growth mindset’ is not unlike concepts such as ‘character’, ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’. But they all prove to be simple theories for complex psychological and emotional challenges. They are theories that act as starting points for thinking, not polished programmes for practical changes.

We should probably continue to view ‘growth mindset’ through a lens of potential messaging about learning, without investing too much effort in teacher time, books, or expensive programmes. For me, it has helpful theoretical and low-effort practical implications, but it should be handled with caution and criticality. 

It will be most important to learn lessons that any intervention that promises psychological benefits should be subject to tough scrutiny and robust research before we go about implementing a host of practices and the buying of programmes. Perhaps we could label this a ‘experiment’ or ‘research mindset’. It may not sell millions of books, but it may guide cautious evaluation and school improvement.

Related Reading:

  • I have collated my ‘Growth mindset collection’ of posts HERE.
  • Stuart Ritchie has written an excellent article charting the research on ‘growth mindset’ in a piece entitled ‘How growth mindset shrank’ HERE