On Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset in a nutshell–don’t praise intelligence, praise hard work. Hard work is what leads to success, and if students believe they’re “just smart” they’ll become lazy or stop taking risks because they fear failure.

Carol Dweck, Growth Mindset guru, blasts self-esteem:

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

So self-esteem is overrated. Good to know. But it might be a bit more complicated–see here for some polite disagreement. Points that were especially salient for me:

1. Variance due to academic investment:

Altering students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence may not help much, Crocker says, if they do not also reduce their general ego-investment in schooling. “A glib way of putting it is to say, ‘Get over yourself,'” Crocker says. “If you want to stop acting in self-defeating ways, then think about how your schoolwork will help people outside of yourself.”

2. Learned helplessness: If our students aren’t getting positive feedback because they aren’t earning it, and the world of math seems irrationaland random, they are experiencing an environment that creates learned helplessness. I see the symptoms every day in my lowest-skilled students.

Big takeaway: what do I say to my lowest-skilled students? Do I prioritize an environment when they can feel academic success? Do I praise when they earn it, but also keep giving the negative feedback so they know how much work they need to put in to improve their skills? Do the specific words and phrases I use on a daily basis make a large impact on their mindsets? What are my highest leverage interventions to convince them that they are in control of their education?


Coda: I’m thinking about growth mindset in terms of my classroom and what I say and do with my students. For broader thoughts on its place relative to inequality in America, Shamus Khan

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