Why ‘Growth Mindset’ Isn’t the Problem, Alfie Kohn


In a recent Salon.com article, education writer and outspoken critic of grades, testing, and homework (and one of my professional heroes), Alfie Kohn, took to task a relatively new trend in education that’s been dubbed the “growth mindset.” In his article, he discusses the bastardization of this idea that, in the right context, shows promise:

…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 [of growth mindset] has been used — and about the broader assumption that what students most need is a “mindset” adjustment.

Growth mindset, first coined by author and psychologist Carol Dweck, is the notion that through concentrated effort and focus, people can improve their skills and abilities and will grow better in their areas of exerted effort over time. This is the opposite of a “fixed mindset,” which assumes that intelligence and talents cannot change, so if someone is good or bad at something that’s just the way it is; effort can’t change this, or so those with a fixed mindset would argue.

I grew up being told I was smart. All through elementary school I was in advanced or gifted classes. I’d go to college with my mom and understood a lot of what her professors were professing. One such professor even let me take the final exam and returned it with flattering comments and an A circled at the top. I liked this feeling of being smart, and I was scared to death of the opposite feeling, which is why, when my mother told me that our family just wasn’t good at math and I starting seeing signs of this family trait in my own math class, I started avoiding the subject like the plague.

This notion of our entire family being bad at math, upon further reflection, just doesn’t make any sense. After all, my father built his own computers before most people even thought home computers were possible; he taught himself computer languages and wrote his own programs. In other words, half of my genetic makeup is very good at mathematical thinking.

But my mother isn’t and so she devised a theory, a defense tactic, that some people just can’t do math. Learning disabilities aside (which my mother and I don’t have), saying that we can’t do math is like saying we can’t learn to read and write in English while living in an English speaking country. Math, like English, is all around us and is necessary to be a functional adult. And besides functional, math is just amazingly beautiful and fun if you get into it the right way. But I didn’t have such luck in school, and enough forces were telling me that I was really no good at math anyway, so to avoid feeling dumb, I ran the other way.

Until very recently, I’ve had a fixed mindset about math because of what I believed about my own intelligence and ability to learn, which permanently removed many of the options I had early in my life. A couple years ago, I wrote an article called “The Fault/Power Paradox of Traditional Schooling” that addresses this very issue, and several studies done by psychologists have determined that how we internalize what others think about us, called the “stereotype threat,” can cause serious academic consequences.

Instead of being told I was smart all the time (a fixed mindset notion), I may have been better off if the adults around me pointed out how much my effort contributed to the quality of my work and the depth of my learning (a growth mindset notion). And when I struggled with math, I would have benefited from more project-based, problem-solving focused learning (something I believe Alfie Kohn would agree with), because I needed to see how the abstract concepts in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry applied to the physical world. I’m not the only person who feels this way.

One of my writing students, a woman coming back to school after being out for thirty years, had a very different problem with fixed mindset thinking. When she was in high school, she took art classes all four years and thought she had a really good relationship with her art teacher. During one of their final art classes, the teacher decided to go around and call out the students she believed had the talent to make it as artists. Before this class period, my student had plans to go to art school and wanted to pursue art in some form as a career, but when her art teacher didn’t recognize her as talented enough, she gave up on that dream at the age of seventeen. That teacher, operating under the fixed mindset that some students had talent and the others were wasting their time, subtly persuaded one girl not to follow her passion.

Of course, as a teacher, writer, and human being who wishes to be a better version of herself in the future, I prefer to think that I have a growth mindset about most things, and I want my students to have one, too. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Growth mindset requires courage, patience, and resources, and more importantly, it requires that the person trying to grow understands why s/he is engaging in the challenging task to begin with and how it relates to her/his life in meaningful ways.

It’s this last requirement that Kohn seems to be fixated on, and for good reason. Unfortunately, his article also implies that we should throw out growth mindset with the bathwater when it’s a vital aspect of good teaching and lifelong learning. The problem is that the ideas associated with growth mindset often get oversimplified in the sales pitch.

When I got stuck on a math problem, I needed more than someone telling me that I could do it if I just didn’t give up or that I just needed to try harder (growth mindset notions). Sometimes working harder isn’t the answer, especially for many community college students (who I teach) who are already overworking and/or raising children while trying to complete degrees. Nearly 70% of community college students work while going to school, and 26% of all undergraduate students in the United States are raising dependent children. The very fact that these students have chosen to take college classes means that they want to better themselves.

But the growth mindset that Dweck has uncovered through decades of research is a little more nuanced than just wanting a better life. It requires people to push themselves further when they’re ready to give up, to ask for help when they’re confused or frustrated, and to find more than one way to approach problem solving when their go-to method isn’t working. For any of this to work, people need a support system, resources like advisors, tutors, counselors, librarians, coaches, mentors, etc. who are willing and able to provide advice and expertise. And those people who are acting as resources need the skills to guide constructively, not obstructively, like that art teacher who discouraged my student. This is where growth mindset training comes in handy for anyone working in a mentoring role, whether it be in a classroom, boardroom, or locker room. No one should be expected to keep struggling with difficult tasks in isolation without eventually wanting to give up. This is why study groups work and why students who seek help from peers and mentors are more likely to succeed. But taking those steps to ask for help requires a courage and desire to grow that some students just don’t have.

I taught a thirty-three-year-old man this summer who was told by one of his teachers, around the age of twelve, that he just wasn’t a good writer. While that one comment may have been off the cuff for that teacher, it became an ingrained part of my student’s identity that followed him for the rest of his life. He came to my class timid and reluctant to speak up. He wasn’t looking for chances to fail, what I like to call learning opportunities, because he was certain that failure was just around the corner and that he couldn’t do much about it.

Through fifteen years of teaching students who have been scarred by the battles they involuntarily fought in other classrooms, I’ve learned that failure isn’t an opportunity I have to provide for students because it’s inevitable for most. They’ve already experienced it again and again, and often they’ve been shamed for it.

When I pose a question, challenge, or problem and the roomful of nervous students falls silent, I’ve learned to make a joke of failure: “Just throw out an idea. It’s okay if it’s wrong. Gold star for the first person to yell out a wrong answer.” (This is my playful jab at extrinsic rewards.) And when they do, I excitedly applaud, “Yes! Thank you! Now we can figure this out together.” Often, at this point, I’ll mention how important it is to try to solve the problem, even if you never get it right on your own, because that’s when your brain is doing its best work, forming new connections and paying close attention to the challenge.

But all of this only works if the challenge is worth pursuing to begin with. This is Kohn’s main argument:

The problem with sweeping, generic 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?

An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. And 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. Outstanding classrooms and schools — with a rich documentary record of their successes — show that the quality of education itself can be improved. 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 (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).

And with this argument I’m in full agreement. We shouldn’t be encouraging students to keep struggling to jump through the hoops of an outdated pedagogical system that doesn’t take their ideas, needs, and passions into consideration as part of regular classroom practice. (As someone who asks students to create their own assignments and gives them the option of taking over the class at midterm — which they always choose to do — I could go on and on about this.)

However, this is the problem with any promising new learning or teaching strategy. How can it be made palatable to a broad audience while remaining true to the larger context in which it will be implemented? Kohn’s problem with growth mindset seems not to be that it’s a bad idea, but that focusing on it as the cure for all our education ills ignores the other elephants in the room: the problems with extrinsic rewards, high-stakes testing, and competitive learning environments, to name a few.

And he’s right, but growth mindset isn’t really the problem. The problem is that we have to understand the complex system in which this new strategy will take place and how other issues like forming positive relationships between students and teachers will have a substantial effect on whether a growth mindset will work.

Ultimately, I’m convinced that there’s great power in starting from a place of believing that all people can improve themselves if the conditions are right, and I think that’s what Kohn is getting at when he worries about the growth mindset ideology being co-opted by personal responsibility advocates. Human beings are not vacuums. We rely on family, teachers, economics, societal expectations, and a range of other factors beyond ourselves to contribute to our success. The notion that personal responsibility is the only condition that matters for success, or the most important one, is just plain false.

We’re implementing a year-long initiative at my community college to encourage growth mindset in teachers and students alike. As part of this implementation, we’re organizing professional development that helps instructors de-emphasize grades, use more formative and less summative assessment, craft classroom conversations about growth mindset that help students understand how their own brains work and why struggle is good, and introduce more student-centered activities that will show students that they, in fact, are often their best teachers. Because that’s what growth mindset is all about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *