Let’s Not Panic About Growth Mindset

Growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can be developed, has become a central tenet of the education field’s growing attention to the non-academic side of student success.

But a new study by Czech researchers contradicts a healthy body of research that has suggested growth mindsets contribute to higher student achievement. Published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, it found a negative relationship between measures of students’ growth mindset and academic achievement.

How should we think about the new research? Does it undercut the prior work pointing to the positive impact of growth mindsets? The answer is a clear “no,” for two reasons.

First, researchers have found a positive relationship between growth mindset and academic achievement in a variety of settings using different research designs and different measures of growth mindset and academic achievement.

For example, a team of Stanford University researchers found that 10th grade students in Chile with a growth mindset were three times more likely to land in the top quintile on achievement tests than students with a fixed mindset—the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait—and only a quarter as likely to score in the bottom quintile. And using data on 250,000 students in California over two years, Martin West and his Harvard University co-authors found growth mindset to be a useful predictor of students’ achievement in math and English language arts.

Second, the Czech study did not employ a compelling measure of academic achievement in K-12 schools. Rather, it focused on scores on an aptitude test used to inform university admissions. There’s certainly overlap between academic achievement and scholastic aptitude, but a test of one isn’t necessarily a substitute for a test of the other.

And while there’s some evidence suggesting that specific preparation for the aptitude test in question may improve scores, it’s not at all clear that growth mindset measured by way of a brief, optional pre-test survey should track intensity of preparation for the test.

Taken together, the new study’s limitations and the strength of extant knowledge mean we shouldn’t abandon efforts to inculcate growth mindset as one means to boost academic achievement in K-12 education.

This is not to say that schools employing interventions targeting growth mindset are in the clear. The design of the interventions and the fidelity of their use, for example, matter a great deal. Simply telling students to try harder because effort and intelligence go together is decidedly not a best practice, but there is an emerging body of knowledge pointing to ways adults might interact differently with students to promote a growth mindset.

We should not jettison this because of a headline tagging a single study that is only tangentially related to the challenge of improving outcomes for students.