Will Altering Growth Mindsets Improve Student Performance? Research Says No.

As schools are transformed from academic institutions into mental-health facilities, various theories have arisen about how to engineer students’ personalities to improve their performance (or to create the Ideal Citizens desired by the government, but that’s another topic). One theory that has swept schools in the U.S. and globally is called “growth mindset.” But Science Daily reports on a new study from Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University which finds that altering students’ mindsets in this way has no meaningful effect on anything.

The theory, associated with Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, goes as follows: An individual with a “fixed mindset” believes his intelligence and talent are fixed traits and not particularly responsive to hard work and perseverance, whereas an individual with a “growth mindset” believes his basic abilities can be developed and improved with effort. “This [latter] view,” according to proponents, “creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” So the idea is for teachers to spend precious class time on “interventions” that create a growth mindset in students and increase their achievement.

But the new meta-study finds that such interventions generally don’t work. 

The study involved two massive meta-analyses (aggregating and assessing the results of hundreds of previous studies). Both analyses – with a combined sample size of almost 460,000 students – evaluated whether growth-mindset interventions improved academic achievement.

The answer, as one author told Science Daily: “Our results show that the academic benefits of [growth-mindset] interventions have been largely overstated. . . . [T]here was little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students, or for other groups who some have claimed benefit substantially from these interventions . . . .”

Overall, the meta-study concluded that “on average, academic achievement increased when the growth mindset programs failed to change students’ mindsets and didn’t increase when the growth mindset programs worked [i.e., when they did change mindsets].”

Some of the studies examined in these meta-analyses have found that growth-mindset interventions are more effective with economically disadvantaged students or those at high risk of failure. But the metastudy authors cautioned that only a few studies reached these conclusions, and so should be viewed skeptically.

Other researchers have challenged, specifically, Dweck’s own research. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Columbia University statistics professor Andrew Gelman described Dweck’s seminal 1998 study as “riddled with poor statistical practice.” Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh has tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to replicate Dweck’s results. As he told BuzzFeed, “People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.” 

Bates cites the essential difference between showing that students who work hard generally have better grades, and showing that students who have been exposed to mindset-alteration generally have better grades. He says the former idea is really “a very conservative, old-fashioned one: ‘If you don’t work at it you won’t get results’” – but that in her (highly lucrative) talks, books, and Brainology computer program that is sold to schools, Dweck argues that adopting her interventions will massively improve academic achievement. (She denies conflicts of interest, since her research is funded not by her profits but by grants and her university; she also points out that she disassociated herself from Mindset Works, a company she co-founded.)

Dweck has challenged Bates on his replication efforts, but he’s not alone in calling out her research. BuzzFeed quoted other psychology professors and statisticians who have cited numerous serious errors with her findings – some of which constituted statistical impossibilities, and all of which, of course, bumped up the “success” numbers for her interventions.

Much of Dweck’s work illustrates the phenomenon of “cascading amplification,” discussed in our book Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty. One study gets cited in subsequent research, which in turn is cited in even more research, ad infinitum. Before long, whatever the first study claimed – even if it’s problematic at best – becomes gospel. Thus it is with Dweck’s early studies.

But regardless of whether these mindset interventions “work,” the deeper question is whether the government, through schools, should be engaging in essentially psychological manipulation. A teacher’s encouragement of a child to boost his confidence is a far cry from putting that child on a sophisticated computer program and fed images designed to reshape his attitudes and even his personality. Accepting such a role for government opens the door to more and more “interventions” – which may be much more insidious than a digital pat on the back. 

But if the education establishment isn’t worried about that, maybe they’ll at least balk at spending money for useless programs. The metastudy may help persuade them.

One thought on “Will Altering Growth Mindsets Improve Student Performance? Research Says No.

  1. There are special people in education who are marvelous at renaming old programs that didn’t work. They make a name for themselves and make money to boot. Growth Mindset is Self-Esteem 2.0. We learned from that theory the biggest holders of positive self esteem were gang members.

    As someone who spent 19 of my 28 years in public education with “high risk” students, many of them gang wannabes, and many who figured out I was meaner than they were (which meant I had “self-esteem”), they actually discovered they could learn real math. That success was motivation to risk even more learning. THAT showed the foundation of emotional growth: doing honest, proficient work that transcends your circumstances and shows you’re not stupid or a dummy after all.

    I blame the financial waste, clear fraud, and loss of precious, limited learning time for students on lousy leadership at all levels. The chief culprits, however, are “schools of education.” Results matter. They’ve never been held accountable for their leadership role and resulting mess in education.

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