Will Growth Mindset Be Just Another Education Fad?

One particularly influential experience I had during my teacher education was a visit to a local high school while I was in college. I ended up with a small group of my classmates talking to a teacher about what we were studying.

“So, what’s the newest fad in education these days?”

We stared more or less blankly at him, not especially aware that there existed fads in education.

“You know, differentiation was really popular for a while, but now it’s lost steam. Seems like standards-based grading might be the next big thing?”

This exchange has come to mind every time I come across some new idea that’s supposed to “disrupt” education and change the way we teach. Differentiation and standards-based grading are great examples of ideas that very quickly made their way into many schools, and were the subjects of district initiatives and professional development programs. Differentiation is certainly not gone, but it’s also certainly not as widely talked about as it was a decade or two ago, and many districts have moved on to new initiatives. We may still be in the midst of the standards-based grading fad, but I’d hypothesize that we’re past “peak SBG”, and I’ve read from more and more teachers moving away from some or all of the aspects of standards-based grading.

Both movements seem to have followed a similar trajectory. An idea becomes popular because it fits with the overarching philosophy of many teachers, and promises a relatively easy way to improve student outcomes in their classrooms. Teachers implement it, or are forced to implement it, often in ways that oversimplify the complexity of the idea. Magical improvements in student outcomes don’t happen. The idea doesn’t disappear, but slowly fades as others take its place.


I saw Jo Boaler speak at CMC-South last weekend. She told us that we are in the midst of a revolution in thinking about mindset and achievement. She shared the most recent brain research around neuroplasticity and the conclusion that every student can learn math to the highest levels. She also shared the collection of resources she and her team are putting together at Youcubed, including video messages for students around their mindset toward math and a “week of inspirational math” lessons for teachers.

I might sound like a bit of a  curmudgeon here, but I worry that the recent craze for growth mindset will be just another fad, falling by the wayside when the results of growth mindset interventions don’t match the rhetoric of its supporters.

From what I’ve seen, the growth mindset movement seems to focus on two big ideas:

  • Tell kids that they can learn anything they want to learn, because brain science
  • Praise kids for working hard, not being smart

But words mean a great deal less than experiences. If a student’s experience in math class is one continual failure, that experience will do more to create a fixed mindset than any amount of words can overcome. In particular, I’m skeptical that telling students about how the brains of black cab drivers in London grow is going to connect to their belief in their ability to learn math. I just don’t think that computes for a teacher.

The folks at Youcubed try to address student experience as well, and they’re collected a variety of low-floor, high ceiling tasks in addition to their week of inspirational math. To go with it are videos of Jo and others teaching in a way that is more conducive to growth mindset.
Screenshot 2015-11-16 at 1.41.21 PM.png
The catch is that the content is often either below grade level or not directly related to priority standards for that course. I believe that we can give students positive experiences in math class — the challenge is doing it every day.

I’ve argued this before, and I’m going to again: mindset is actually a very simple function. It is a rolling average of times a student feels successful after struggling with something, divided by times that student has had to try hard at something.
Screenshot 2015-11-16 at 7.21.24 PM
If a student has a high batting average here, they are likely to have a growth mindset; if they are continually unsuccessful, they are likely to have a fixed mindset.

There are other factors in play — the praise we give students, the messages we  send around what it means to be good at math, and how we react to mistakes, among others. But I would argue that these factors principally act to change the ratio above.

I’m not trying to argue that this is hopeless, or that everything coming out of Youcubed is garbage. It’s not. I particularly like their messages about what it means to do math, and they’re right on with the idea of low-floor high-ceiling tasks, though I’m skeptical Youcubed is the right place to collect those. But the focus of their message is on words, and if we take the power of a growth mindset to mean that we have to be really really convincing in telling students to have a growth mindset, I think the revolution will fall short, and will be another fad in education that falls away.

Instead, I think there are four actions that impact students’ experiences and are worth putting effort into:

  • Carefully define what success in math class means to students, and follow through by putting students in a situation to feel that success
  • Build relationships with students so that they are willing to take a risk and persevere through struggle
  • Pay careful attention to students who have a history of failure in math class
  • Have scaffolds and supports ready to move struggling students toward success

These sound straightforward, but they’re incredibly hard to implement in practice on a regular basis. I think that’s a hallmark of anything worth doing in education. If we acknowledge that the challenge of fixed mindset is complex, and cannot be solved with a Youtube video and some posters on the wall, we can get into the nitty gritty of systems and structures that make implementing these practices more effective, and make a difference for students. That hard work is what will keep growth mindset around.

23 thoughts on “Will Growth Mindset Be Just Another Education Fad?

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Woo is woo. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pseudo-science in the service of denying evolution or climate change, or New Age bilge or anti-vaxxer nuttiness. And it’s not any prettier in the social sciences. I am sick to death of buzz-words and meaningless slogans in education, and when new ones are launched, I have no tolerance for them. If there are grains of usefulness inside the giant turd, I will take them into account, but I’m not swallowing the entire sandwich, no matter who is selling it, no matter how much I might find other things of value coming from them. We need to recognize religion in the clothes of “science” or “best practices” or “deep theory” and avoid it when there’s nothing of value beneath the glitz.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      The comparison to religion is an interesting one. I would argue that there is a great deal of value in the growth mindset conversation, but that the actionable value is getting hidden by the rhetoric. Wonder how that fits into your metaphor?

  2. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    p.s.: “growth mindset” is about as useless as “grit,” the previous dumbass buzz-word that tried to reveal the magic bullet that would transform low-performing students into dedicated intellectual dynamos (without regard to any of the socio-economic realities that they come to school from in the morning and return to in the afternoon).

  3. Bowen Kerins

    There is lots of research about how praising hard work after success crushes praising smartness after success. So I think embedded in all of this, is the necessity to build experiences where this success can be gained. Some of those successes may need to be below grade-level for students; it’s very individual though. I can certainly think of many of my own students who would not feel satisfied completing a below-level task, and then if they were praised for hard work on it, might respond negatively or at least sarcastically!

    Hopefully you have some other experiences (ahem PCMI) giving examples of appropriate tasks that are bred for success. The tasks themselves will vary greatly, but an emphasis on low-threshold, high-ceiling, along with a praise for successful hard work, goes a very long way in building students’ perseverance and changing attitudes toward what it means to do mathematics.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I think I undersold the importance of low-threshold, high-ceiling tasks in my post — I did have a great experience at PCMI, but you and Darryl acknowledged that that structure would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off for a normal math classroom, given the institutional challenges and time constraints we face. That is a big part of what I’m working on in my teaching — but it’s hard, and goes well beyond pulling a few tasks off of Youcubed or improving the way we praise kids. I worry that that complexity is getting hidden in conversations about growth mindset, focusing too much on the way we talk to kids and not enough on the structural challenges of building that classroom.

      I’m teaching Algebra-II right now, but we’ve barely touched any content beyond Algebra-I, and many students are still struggling. I’m working to create opportunities for success, but I have an obligation to teach actual Algebra-II content, and that transition is extremely difficult and also the most important to get right for these students.

  4. Andrew


    I think what has benefitted my students more from my understanding of mindsets than how my praise is worded, is the discussion of the value of mistake making. I do think the idea of encouraging risk-taking in math class is a good thing and highlighting mistakes as a good learning opportunity has given my students a new understanding of what it means to be “good at math.” Though I do agree with your general premise that buzzwords and fads in education do less than just generally accepted good teaching practices.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Andrew. I would categorize that as “defining what success in math class looks like”, and I think it’s probably the most important message coming from the growth mindset movement. Do you have structures that you use in class to do this on a regular basis?

      1. Andrew

        It’s mostly creating teachable moments and modeling mistake making and risk taking as the teacher. Though I am guilty of having posters of brains lifting weights in my classroom as well 🙂

  5. Joe Schwartz

    I believe that growth mindset provides at least the possibility of escaping the “bad at math” life sentence imposed on generations of kids, often at very early ages, by none other than their own math teachers. For me personally, it’s not about doing higher level math, attending PCMI one day, or turning anyone into an intellectual dynamo. It’s simply about giving a kid a fighting chance to walk out of class not feeling stupid and not hating math.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Those are great goals — my question is, what are the actions we can take as teachers to make that happen? Working to redefine what success means in my class is really the only thing I can point to with some degree of confidence it has made a difference.

  6. Joe Schwartz

    The actions we can take are to do things as simple as asking, “What do you notice?” instead of “What do you know?”, allowing students to generate their own questions instead of always answering ones the teacher provides, leveling the playing field by using activities that tap into intuition like estimation180 and tasks like Which One Doesn’t Belong where there are multiple correct answers, and lowering the barrier to entry to the tasks we ask kids to do. These, and all the other strategies and techniques I’ve come to think of as part of the “MTBoS” ethos, can happen when teachers believe that the mathematical abilities of their students are not fixed, and, more importantly (for elementary school teachers) that their own mathematical ability is not fixed.
    I see a difference in engagement level of normally disaffected learners. These are the kids who walk into class with affective filters so strong and so high that virtually no learning takes place. They’ve been traumatized. Until we lower that filter nothing much can happen. The content is of secondary importance.

  7. Henri Picciotto

    Understanding that kids can grow is Step 1. When a student fails to understand something, do we blame the student? (“He’s just not a math person; he shouldn’t have been allowed to take this class; etc.”.) Or do we look for additional ways to teach using different tools and/or different representations? Do we give students a chance to learn at a slower pace (by, e.g. lagging homework, separating related topics, eternal review, cumulative tests, test corrections for points, etc.)? These are ways to show in practice that we trust you can learn the stuff. They are one way to defeat the fixed mindset, which is indeed poisonous. Such policies will have a lot more impact than merely talking about mindset.

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  10. David Wees (@davidwees)

    Can I add one thing to your list Dylan?

    Include all children in the mathematical conversations that occur in the classroom (or give space to all children to participate) so that some children aren’t more likely to see themselves as being able to do mathematics based on their privilege or status within the classroom.

  11. Jim Calkins

    My father was a wildlife rehabilitator. I explained Growth Mindset to him, so he tried it out on two young birds he was raising. The young eagle and penguin both listened to him closely as he explained that they could fly and fly high if they worked hard. He praised their work effort as they practiced the exercises he devised. Ultimately, the penguin never got past its Fixed Mindset and therefore never made it off the ground, but the eagle embraced Growth Mindset and achieved a high level of success. MORAL: Work hard and you can fly, too.

    My actual problem with Growth Mindset is that it has become the Trendy One Solution/There Is Only One Way.

    I loved Madeline Hunter Training my first three years of teaching. I liked theories about right and left brain hemisphericity. I appreciated the theories that followed that one. My problem is NOT with Growth Mindset. My problem is with the way it has become the current One Way, only to be replaced by the next trendy thing. Good teaching requires a large tool bag, but it such a mistake to become enamored with any one tool.

    Madeline Hunter Training (probably in part because I was introduced to it in my first years of teaching) was superior to all the subsequent trends because it looked at effective elements of teaching rather than claiming to be One Way. When it morphed into the One Way, it was cast aside.

    I still like the more nuanced thoughts of Alfie Kahn:
    “I’m not suggesting we go back to promoting an innate, fixed, “entity” theory of intelligence and talent, which, as Dweck points out, can leave people feeling helpless and inclined to give up. But the real alternative to that isn’t a different attitude about oneself; it’s a willingness to go beyond individual attitudes, to realize that no mindset is a magic elixir that can dissolve the toxicity of structural arrangements. Until those arrangements have been changed, mindset will get you only so far. And too much focus on mindset discourages us from making such changes.”.


    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts — I love the example with the eagle and penguin. I agree that growth mindset is just one tool, and that we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket. Always avoid dogma.

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