Growth Mindset is Dead

Growth mindset is dead.  Really.

If you are an educator and haven’t heard about Carol Dweck and the concept of growth mindset, then you have been sleeping through the past five years of professional development.  These days, I rarely go to a meeting involving teachers where someone doesn’t extol the virtue of having a growth mindset.  I heard about growth mindset’s redemptive power no less than daily last week.

Let’s start with a quick review lesson.  Dweck’s research asserts that human beings can generally be divided into two categories.  Those with a “fixed” mindset are those who see their intelligence as a static, non-changing commodity that is continually tested or proved.  In other words, tests or challenges don’t develop intelligence, they reveal it.  It should come as no surprise then, that those with a fixed mindset really only want problems they already have the skills and knowledge to solve.  Anything more challenging is just a trap to make them look bad.  Then there are those with the “growth” mindset.   These people see a puzzle or test as an opportunity to learn and develop.  They see their brain as a muscle that gets stronger with each use.  Their sense of success is not in proving they are smart over and over again, but in the act of engaging challenging tasks.

Here’s the problem.  It’s dangerous for educators to have a growth mindset.  Teachers are rarely rewarded for taking risks and pushing themselves to learn new strategies and techniques.  We expect teachers to perform.  The “dog and pony show” is a ubiquitous term describing classroom observations and principal walkthroughs.  Time to look good.  Unless an administrator has earned a tremendous amount of trust, it is rare for a teacher to invite visitors to the classroom to provide feedback on what needs improvement.  Close the door.  Let me do my thing.

The problem is even more pronounced in how it applies to students.  Few educators would admit publicly that they don’t believe all children can learn.  Yet there is a difference between assuming all kids can learn and applying a growth mindset to the potential of our students.  We attribute static characteristics to kids and then layer on labels to make grouping as easy as possible.  “Smart” is a dangerous word both for those who are deemed worthy of its bestowal, and even more so for those who experience childhood without it.

Frankly, I think we’ve inoculated ourselves against considering the implications of truly having a growth mindset, both for ourselves and our students.  We don’t necessarily want to change – our practices, our beliefs, our security, our prejudices.  We don’t want your critical feedback. In fairness, few of us would stay in a relationship where we only received mean-spirited observations from our partner.  We can only take so many invitations for improvement before we need to hear that we are appreciated and valued.  I’ve often said that the most difficult aspect of being an administrator is balancing genuine and authentic appreciation with meaningful and honest critical feedback.  Yet I still can’t help but cringe a bit when I’m in a meeting where we make a passing reference to the importance of a growth mindset.  The more we use the term, the further we seem to get from what it really means.

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