The Mindset Squirm

The Mindset Squirm

By: Curtis Kelly

There is something about the Mindsets movement turns down the temperature for me. While I truly believe that delineating Fixed and Growth Mindsets has been a  valuable contribution from Carol Dweck, there is also something about all the attention given to it that furrows my brow. Whenever I hear claims about it being espoused, even while nodding in agreement, I also experience this niggling feeling that something is not quite right. I felt the same niggle when I heard the claims about Learning Styles[1], Mirror Neurons, and Power Poses, all of which, as seen in the links, have been downgraded following further research.

[1] Meaning the hardline position that people have a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learning style that they learn everything better by.

So, what is it about Mindsets? Well, the first thing that bothers me is that it is not a new idea. It has been a popular notion in Western culture for a long time. In 1947, Henry Ford was attributed with saying “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” Isn’t that almost identical to the Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets idea? And similar statements have been made all throughout history, even as far back as Virgil in the Aeneid, “Possunt quia posse videntu. [They can, because they think they can] (Quote Investigator, 2015).[2] So, isn’t the Growth Mindset merely reasserting a beloved American value? One espoused by Norman Vincent Peale (evangelist), Mary Kay Ashe (cosmetics), and my second-grade teacher who told me “in America, even you can become president”?

I also wonder if the battle between Fixed and Growth Mindsets is universal or local. Having spent my whole adult life in Japan, I had never met anyone there who didn’t believe that academic success is a direct product of how hard you work. (Will Harumi Kimura set me straight?) In fact, I suspect the idea of a fixed mindset shows a particular thorn in the collective side of Americans in particular, who for centuries have been trying to move away from belief in “good blood,” later reshaped into “good genes,” an idea cherished our aristocratic predecessors.[3] Think of how many old European stories tell of some low-born child achieving greatness (as in King Arthur, Oliver Twist, Rapunzel) only later to find their true identity with royal/upper-class blood.

“So what?” the Mindset proponents might be saying. This does not mean the Fixed vs. Growth Mindset effect is false. Yes, I agree. But it does raise a red flag. Anytime we jump on a notion that we already deeply cherish we are highly vulnerable to bias. So, even if we accept the Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets distinctions as meaningful, as do I, we are in danger of oversimplifying it or overlooking other factors in our jump to conclusions. Instead, we need to shift from fast thinking to slow. So let us take a slow look at the Fixed vs. Growth Mindset theory.

[2] Note their acknowledgement to our own beloved Dorothy Zemach for starting the inquiry.

[3] I say “most Americans” because as Colin Woodward points out in American Nations, the American Deep South still honors aristocratic hierarchies. And let us not forget how recently the “good blood” position dominated, as in the Eugenics movement in the thirties that led to forced sterilization.

What we know about Mindsets

First, we cannot dispute that Growth Mindsets are tied to achievement. Reading through Dweck’s book, Mindset, one comes across page after page filled with studies that show the connection:

At the beginning of the semester, we measured students’ mindsets, and then we followed them through the course, watching their grades and asking about their study strategies. Once again we found that the students with the growth mindset earned better grades in the course. (p. 66)

Students with the fixed mindset stayed interested only when they did well right away. Those who found it difficult showed a big drop in their interest and enjoyment…. In contrast, students with the growth mindset continued to show the same high level of interest even when they found the work very challenging. (p. 30)

Believing that success is about learning, students with the growth mindset seized the chance. But those with the fixed mindset didn’t want to expose their deficiencies. Instead, to feel smart in the short run, they were willing to put their college careers at risk. This is how the fixed mindset makes people into non-learners. (p. 26)

Dweck lists case after case of highly successful or utterly failed students and says their actions (including success and failure) are connected to their mindset. That is certainly right, but page after page of evidence like this and, to some degree, the way she writes, goes beyond just showing a correlation and makes us think the mindset itself is the cause, not a correlate, and that is quite different. As Dweck says:

For thirty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. (p. 15)

…a simple belief about yourself—a belief we discovered in our research—guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part of your life. (p. 9)

Yes, pouring through those 300 pages of evidence makes it hard not to think that the mindset is the cause, not just a correlate. It is the way our minds operate. If on the surface we see correlation after correlation, we use our fairly good knowledge about how the world works to see a causal effect, too.

Is there one? Probably. But that is the part that stumps me. It makes the niggle.

Are Mindsets the driving force behind acheivement?

One thing I noticed when I moved back to the United States is the extreme effect zip codes have on educational achievement. Neighborhoods with money have better schools, better teachers, more opportunities, and the key thing, better peers for your kids to study with. No wonder kids in those neighborhoods are successful.

In addition to those educational advantages built into the zip code, they are more likely raised by successful, hard-working parents, who are more demanding about school work and study, who value achievement, who again and again say, “you have to work hard to succeed in life,” thereby instilling the growth mindset. And that makes sense. Those parents live in a world where they see success as coming from merit, which is partly true, but privilege plays a part too. The system is stacked for them, not against them.

Their children, too, have so many advantages from growing up in a good zip code, and fewer problems. Guns at school? Drugs? Child pregnancies? Truancy? More a rarity than the norm. The norm is striving to achieve, and being constantly pushed to do so: Do you want to end up like that man in a tent when you grow up? Give me your cell phone until you finish your homework!

To a large degree, the opposite applies to people in low-income neighborhoods. Everything in their lives leads down a different path to towards a Fixed Mindset. Imagine working all day in a factory and coming home to your rental in a zip code where guns, crime, and drugs pervade. You probably know that school is the best way out of the zip code for your kids, and you believe your kids are smart, but you know escape is as elusive as winning the lottery. You are so tired when you come home every day, and you just don’t have the energy left to sit with them to help, or to push them to do their homework while they moan that none of the other kids are doing theirs. Send them to an expensive night school? Well, we can only do that after we buy a new refrigerator, buy grandma new knees, and get the car window fixed before winter. No Polo shirt either. Thank God for Walmart.

It is normal to see the system as stacked, because for most low-income people, no matter how skilled, it is. The Fixed Mindset helps them. It relieves them of the shame and preserves their dignity. Look at that guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Money for Nothing. Maybe it is not just the Fixed Mindset that leads to less academic success. That is just one minor part of a plethora of disadvantages.[4]

So, I ask myself: Is it the Growth Mindset that causes learner success? Or is that just one little puzzle piece that comes with internalized values of hard work, the need to achieve, discipline, and a life of better opportunities? That is why there is a niggle.

Here is a little experiment I did. I looked through all the claims about Growth Mindset successes and replaced “growth mindset” with “polo shirts” (another indicator of socioeconomic class). A similar logic emerges:

At the beginning of the semester, we measured students’ fashion choices, and then we followed them through the course, watching their grades and asking about their study strategies. Once again we found that the students who wore more expensive clothes earned better grades in the course.

Students wearing clothes from Walmart stayed interested only when they did well right away.

I cannot argue that the mindset is not part of the cause. The Growth Mindset certainly allows doors to open that might otherwise stay shut, but the assumption of the proponents that it is the Growth Mindset that leads to achievement, leaving out all the other bits about opportunity and how these kids are raised with discipline, well… that bothers me.

To what degree does teaching students the growth mindset really affect their achievement. It might have some effect, but so might dressing students up in Ralph Lauren polo shirts and giving them Dior bags. I can’t shake the notion deep in my bones that it takes more than just an idea to make learners succeed. Or likewise, that telling a student they are smart will doom them to failure. Is life that simple, really?

[4] I realize that I am oversimplifying here. There are millions of stories of Americans from low-income backgrounds who had the drive to succeed, especially among the children of immigrants. Those include Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and my friend Tam, whose parents were boat people. In his case, his culture and the values instilled by his Vietnamese family inspired him to work hard.

One way to test my position, then, is to look at how effective teaching the growth mindset is on student achievement. If the mindset is the main cause of success, then teaching it should lead to spectacular changes in achievement, right? But here is where the research gets murky. Some studies show greater achievement after being taught the mindset, but shouldn’t that be expected? A confounding issue is that teaching the growth mindset is rarely done in isolation. It is combined with study tips, goal setting, pleas to spend more time on homework, and so on. Jill Barshely, in Does Growth Mindset Matter? The Debate Heats up with Dueling Meta-Analyses, wonders if it is all the other things taught with the growth mindset, and not the mindset itself, that has an effect:

This is a tricky theoretical knot to unravel. Imagine that someone complimented your beauty and also suggested you get a haircut. Then a week later you are asked out on a date. Was it the praise or the haircut that gave you more confidence and made you more attractive?

The paper also reports that Case Western Reserve University psychologists found the majority of 63 mindset studies were biased or poorly designed. Other studies showed no effect or even negative ones:

One team of seven researchers led by Jeni Burnette, a psychologist at North Carolina State University, found that the results were wildly different for students across 53 studies published between 2002 and 2020. Sometimes students benefited a lot from a short online lesson about mindset and their grades rose. Often they didn’t. In a few cases, student performance and well-being deteriorated after a mindset intervention.

So, this research suggests that it is not just knowing about mindset that leads to success; success requires all the accoutrements I wrote about above. We should also note that even Carol Dweck has taken a few steps back. In a discussion with John Hattie, and her own recent paper, she expressed disappointment at the hype and false claims about mindsets, claims she herself never made. But Hey! What do you expect when you write “…my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”? (Mindsets, p. 14)

Well, I have spent a lot of time trying to explain my doubts, but I don’t think I have really succeeded. At least not with myself.[5] The niggle is still there because I also believe in the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset advantages as well. I cannot say it is all hooey, as I did about Power Poses. I find it difficult to say it is just a marker of other skills and has no value itself. I still believe. I just hope we can rein in our biases as we slide along with this avalanche of belief and maybe interject a little bit of healthy skepticism.

Let us be open to growth in that way.

[5] I also feel guilty (and uneasy) that I have not read as many papers on mindset as its proponents.

Curtis Kelly (EdD.) lives in an age where it is important to put things to doubt, but he also knows that doing it too heartily means becoming a curmudgeon.

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