Growing pains: growth mindset effects are hard to measure but that doesn’t mean it’s not helping


Growth mindset has gained a strong following in recent years. Originating in the work of American Psychologist Carol Dweck, it juxtaposes fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset has you seeing your qualities as unchangeable - you’re either intelligent or you’re not. Those with a growth mindset believe instead that engaging actively in learning makes them more intelligent. It’s a simple and highly plausible idea which, when applied in the classroom, involves teachers praising the process that pupils engage in to learn – their strategies, perseverance and improvement. It reconfigures failure as a learning process, promoting resilience, and success as the result of effort. The idea is that pupils then develop better learning strategies and enjoy greater academic success.

Trials of growth mindset interventions in schools have found mixed evidence of a measurable impact. Our NIESR evaluation of one such trial published today by the Education Endowment Foundation found no measurable impact on pupils’ test scores by using randomised control methods among Year 6 pupils across England. Yet teachers and pupils liked the programme and believed it had changed the way they thought about intelligence. Possible explanations are that growth mindset takes time to embed as children mature, or that its popularity is such that most schools have taken it on in some form.

Putting mindset to the test

The trial included 101 schools and 5018 pupils across England, with half of the schools taking part in teacher training on growth mindset, followed by delivery of 8 sessions using materials including videos of high achievers from the worlds of sports and science. The intervention was well designed and delivered yet there were no differences in results in SATs or non-cognitive skills tests between pupils in intervention or control schools.  

Pupils were too young and growth mindset takes time to embed

One explanation for the absence of a measurable impact is that, aged 10-11, pupils in the trail were too young to use growth mindset principles and techniques to self-direct their learning. There may be intermediate steps between adopting a growth mindset and improving academic achievement, for example when to seek help and how to act on feedback, which younger children are less able to take. This might also explain why other studies in the US and Norway have found positive effects of the approach in older students.

It might be argued that SATs results are less dependent on attitude and mindset and more directly on the quality of teaching. While in theory a child with a growth mindset might compensate for poorer teaching than one without, this requires them to understand gaps in knowledge and skills. It also requires the capacity to fill gaps in learning through their own efforts, which a Year 6 child is unlikely to have.

Teachers certainly felt that growth mindset messages need time to embed, as well as to be reinforced at home. This wasn’t possible within the relatively short life-time of the project. Longitudinal research is needed, and later this year NIESR will look at Key Stage 2 tests scores of pupils who took part in a pilot growth mindset programme in 2013 at a younger age (Year 5) and who therefore had more time to embed the growth mindset message before sitting their SATs.

Growth mindset is already well known and used

The most likely explanation for the absence of a measurable impact of the growth mindset programme on this occasion is quite mundane – it has become so popular over the last few years that its principles and messages are used in most schools. Those which had already delivered a growth mindset programme were excluded from the trial. However, two-thirds of teachers in the intervention schools already knew about growth mindset and had been working to embed its principles before the start of the project, thereby reducing the potential impact of a ‘new’ approach.

Even more importantly, teachers in the control schools were very familiar with growth mindset and some had even attended training days on the subject. More than half of the control school respondents said it had been ‘somewhat’ implemented and a small number said it had been used to a ‘great extent’ in their school. The intervention wasn’t therefore comparing schools with and without growth mindset approaches, but ones with a structured package with those that did not but where it still had some impact on learning and results.

Yet schools with no use of growth mindset are probably hard to find. In visits to schools our research team frequently come across posters or ethos statements expressing growth mindset principles. It’s perhaps not surprising that the programme didn’t show a measurable impact on pupils’ test results. In this respect the additional evaluation of the pilot changing Mindset intervention implemented in 2013 will include a previous cohort of pupils probably less exposed to the growth mindset message.

If it feels good, shouldn’t schools just do it?

Despite the absence of a measurable impact, teachers perceived changes in pupils’ attitudes, enthusiasm and perseverance. Based on their experiences of the programme, some schools were planning to continue and extend its use, including to younger age groups, through whole school approaches such as assemblies. They also planned more work with parents who may be unwittingly undermining growth mindset approaches. It’s possible that extending growth mindset into the home might be key to greater effectiveness, particularly for children from disadvantaged homes whose parents have high aspirations but may lack knowledge on how to help them.

The intervention, which included a package of teacher training and teaching materials was low cost. It delivers and reinforces important, motivating messages which are easily understood and which children pass on. As one pupil said,

‘Whenever my brother says, I can’t do it, I always say he can’t do it yet’.

If children are using growth mindset to encourage others as well as to motivate themselves, it could be worth delivering even if we can’t measure the impact on attainment in the short term.

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