Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement?

I’ve recently read a couple of interesting articles which question the efficacy of the research of Carol Dweck (Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (Grit). The complaint is that if we attribute an individual’s failure to a fault or lack in their character then we are apportioning blame; the reason we are unsuccessful is down to our own weak will and poor attitude. The counter argument is that society should be held to account for the failure of those at its margins; if we fail it is down to our lack of opportunity and the prejudices we encounter.

No one would argue that life is fair; it isn’t. Being born into social advantage hugely increases our chances of being successful, and being born into poverty is a crushing burden.

In Let them eat grit Joe Bower argues:

When pundits call for more grit and resiliency, they aren’t talking about all children. No one is demanding that high-scoring students show more grit. When people call for more grit they are talking about the low scorers — and we know the low scorers tend to be children who are English language learners, special needs, living in poverty, suffering from mental health problems or are for complex reasons generally difficult to educate.

Is there something in this? Is it unfair to ask the dispossessed to suck it up and try harder?

In Dweck’s Research and Ideology Cristina Milos suggests:

…one cannot stop wondering whether the research and motivation theory are used to legitimize over-focus on *student*/individual accountability, while limiting (ignoring) the impact of other contextual factors that influence one’s motivation (poverty, racism etc.) Yet, the research and studies I read converge to the reality that children raised in affluent families out-perform less privileged ones (cultural literacy and Matthew effect are at play here).

So is it wrong to hold the disadvantaged accountable for their performance?

In Where does Mindset meet social inclusion, Gary Walsh asks:

Is the development of a Growth Mindset just another luxurious and exclusive pursuit afforded only to those fortunate enough to be able to access it in the first place? Is it mainly available to those who are included: those who have the right kind of opportunities, the required degree of social mobility, the facilities, resources, health and wellbeing, learning or physical capabilities, and sufficient access to an environment where personal enrichment is actively encouraged and supported?

Could the theory of Mindsets be interpreted or used as just another way of blaming victims? Could a message, intended or otherwise, be received as ‘the problem is your Mindset, therefore it is your own fault that you are not a success’? Is the implication that success is completely within the control of the individual and that society has no role to play?

These are worthwhile questions to ask, and if the answer to any of them is ‘yes’ then we have a serious problem, but is this how schools and teachers are interpreting Dweck’s research?

Let’s take each of these concerns in turn. Firstly Bower’s claim that only ‘low-scoring’ children are expecting to display resilience. Well, I’ll happily bow to his experience of the North American context but I’m not sure this is the case in the UK.  Teachers have recognised instinctively that it’s not OK to refer to innate ability when referring to the work of low ability students. We never say, “Oh well, what can you expect of children in a bottom set?” or “No wonder you couldn’t do it, you’re thick!” But we’ll happily say to those in top sets, “You’re so clever!” and “That’s what I’d expect of someone in this class.” As a result there are very many privileged, able pupils who have a fixed understanding of their ability and who have not developed the resilience to cope with set backs or take risks.

My experience suggests that if anything we are likely to have very low expectations of ‘grit’ in children from less privileged backgrounds. We’re not too quick to shrug and say, “What can you expect of kids like these?” As a result we demand less and accept poor attainment and low standards. But if we took the view that the destiny of these students was within their control, wouldn’t we be more likely to have higher expectations?

Cristina’s argument that Dweck’s research has led to an ideological stance that ‘blames’ children for low attainment also seems to be very distant from the UK context. Far from schools and teachers holding pupils accountable for their success, we know only too well we’ll be blamed for their failures. The focus on closing the attainment gap between those children in receipt of the Pupil Premium and those not ensures that schools are anxious to give less privileged pupils every opportunity and advantage they can. We fall over our selves to offer every and any intervention available.

And finally, what of those questions Gary Walsh asks? Whatever the role society has to play in the likely outcomes and relative success of pupils, isn’t it more rather than less empowering to let children know they have some small measure of agency and control? One rather obvious message from Dweck’s research is that a fixed mindset is not fixed. We can all change our intelligence, personality and character. Isn’t this good news for those who might feel most trodden down by society’s grimy heel? Surely, any other message is horribly fatalist and consigns children to remain at the bottom of the pile? 

Yes of course we are constrained by our backgrounds and the circumstances of our birth; there’s no doubt that economic disadvantage, race, gender and may other factors have a huge impact on our life chances. But do we also need to be constrained by our beliefs of what is and isn’t possible?

And if you want to see what a growth culture looks like when done properly, see this from John Tomsett:



What do you think? Are ‘grit’ and ‘growth mindset’ more likely to result in blame or opportunity? Are they more likely to trap, or offer a way out?


42 Responses to Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement?

  1. nancy says:

    Great questions here, David. I shall be thinking upon it while I wait for my internet to be fixed.

  2. suecowley says:

    I think these terms are a useful idea if they lead us to ask ‘well, if that’s the case how can we motivate our students better and get them to try harder?’. However, I have read a number of articles that suggest that in the US there is definitely a cultural and social aspect to those children who being asked to develop ‘grit’. I think you’re right that in the UK this is less pronounced, probably because politicians are busy blaming teachers for the gap and expecting them to close it, rather than focusing on the children (or, heaven forbid, on wider societal concerns).

    I’d suggest a note of caution in the way that we use these terms, because when we get fixated on words and acronyms in this way, they end up becoming a shorthand for something we take on board wholesale. I suspect that instead (as with many such new ideas) they are a useful starting point for thinking about education, and questioning our assumptions, in our own contexts and situations.

  3. Andrew Sabisky says:

    This debate just seems so off-key. Why are people making moral arguments about empirical claims? Either poor mindset (from both teachers & pupils) is a significant contributor to student underperformance, or it isn’t. But this is an empirical question that can only be answered by studying the data, such as it is. It’s another example of how wretchedly politicised education is.

    In real science evaluating your opponent’s empirical claims in moral terms is widely regarded as the last resort of a desperate scoundrel; only sociologists, anthropologists, and other cranks do it (and not even all of them). If Arthur Jensen and James Flynn, two great scholars, can debate the facts of race & intelligence in perfect civility and friendship for decades, neither ever impugning the others’ values, it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to stick to the facts of mindsets. The values are neither here nor there. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

    • David Didau says:

      That is excellently put. Bravo!

    • Gary Walsh says:

      I take the point being made here, however in my original post which is referred to above, I made clear that I was exploring the issues of mindset and success from philosophical, ethical, societal and values perspectives. The purpose was to move the debate beyond psychology by posing some broader questions – not an attempt to refute any empirical claims.

      The other purpose was to challenge the way we measure ‘success’ – questioning whether it is appropriate to use a simple measure such as attainment in national exams. An easily measurable mindset, collerated with easily measured exam results, seems a very blunt instrument with which to form any conclusions about the success of school pupils and the education system. This particular issue is absolutely a question of values.

      • Andrew Sabisky says:

        Again, assuming the purpose of schools is teaching pupils knowledge (if that is NOT the point of education I would like to know what the hell is), measuring success using standardised tests is mostly fine.

        If we want to prepare pupils for the tests of life, later achievement is so parasitic upon prior knowledge that you’d better throw the kitchen sink at making sure there’s some prior knowledge there in the first place. If all this mindset stuff works, then it’s a useful tool towards that end.

        If you’d prefer education not to actually be about teaching knowledge, then sit back and watch your dreaded achievement gaps widen faster than a Bugatti Veyron, because the kids born with intelligence and conscientiousness will learn anyway (aided sometimes by parental kicks) – the rest won’t.

  4. heatherfblog says:

    It seems highly unlikely that what ends up being rolled out in schools will have the desired effect anyway. My biggest concern is that schools will devote their energies to the inculcation of these habits of mind rather than feeding the intellect. If we don’t really know if we can develop these attributes or whether they transfer there could be an awful lot of wasted curriculum time. In fact there already is in some schools from what I see.

  5. Buffalo says:

    A fascinating post, David. I’m an infant teacher and for the last few years have (off my own bat) been explicitly teaching resilience as a learning/life skill with my kids. (This takes minimal ‘curriculum’ time, by the way!) The results have been energising and clearly empowering for the children. Tell a child that failure is good and struggle is fundamental to the learning process and they very quickly come to realise what learning is actually about: the journey. And that it’s often not a smooth or quick journey.

    If things come easy to you, well good for you, but how do you cope on the rare occasion you don’t get something? Does it rock your core self-image as someone ‘bright’? Do you shift the blame away from yourself? Or do you have the humility and grit to admit your failings and fight through into the light?

    This is absolutely not an issue for only one stratum of society. Life may be particularly tough for some but we all encounter difficulty at times, and how we respond to this is key to whether thrive or stumble.

  6. Leon Cych says:

    I’m reading My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank and this passage was quite interesting regarding her conversation with Watson:

    ‘He gives me a quick sidelong glance. “There are very few really exceptional individuals, and most people by far are complete idiots.”
    There is a little pause.
    “But success in life goes together with good genes, and the losers, well, they have bad genes.”… (my ellipsis)
    “I mean, it would be good if we could get a greater acceptance of the fact that society has to deal with losers in a sympathetic way. But that’s where things have gone wrong – that we would rather not admit that some people are just dumb. That there are actually an incredible amount of stupid people.”‘

    Just thought I’d lob that one in there David. It’s a point of view.

    • David Didau says:

      Does that mean the stupid can’t have growth mindsets or grit?

      • Leon Cych says:

        I have no idea – depends if you see them as losers or not maybe?

        • Genes are an important part of this. Are some people genetically more likely to have a positive mindset? Certainly genes play a role, I wonder if children with heritable high intelligence are predisposed towards a fixed mindset?

          I like the theory of mindset but I think Leon ‘s question is a good one. What do we do with those who despite having an open mindset, fail, fail again, fail better… But still fail… Whilst watching those around them succeed relatively even if they exhibit more fixed mind sets?

          To divorce the science from the values dehumanises it, which is all very well but I would’ve thought what drives the theory is a great concern for humanity so the two should be dealt with together.

          Someone with a growth mindset can be run over by a bus both literally and metaphorically external matters can interfere. Someone with a growth mindset can be ‘disadvantaged’ due to their genes, internal matters can interfere. These examples might be at the margins of our mindset bell curve but they need to be part of the whole when thinking about how to make the theory work well in a school.

          • David Didau says:

            I take that point: obviously some of us are less clever than others. And sure, luck plays a part. But what does “fail, fail again, fail better… But still fail…” mean? Is failure absolute? Is success?

            Notions of success & failure are notional – we decide what they mean. It’s true that society values outcomes over effort but this doesn’t have to be the case in a school. And valuing effort is more likely to improve outcomes I’d have thought.

  7. What a great response. Lots of words here which are worthy of exploration: intelligence, fail, succeed, disadvantaged… what do we actually mean by these?

    The answer to the question of ‘what do we do with those who fail’ depends largely on how we interpret, define and measure failure. I would suggest that academic results should be PART of the equation but not the over-riding factor. Is the purpose of education to prepare pupils for a life of tests, or the tests of life? Is it all about short term results i.e. exams and school-leaver destinations?

    For me, education has a massive role to play in creating “the world as we would like it to be”, and we ignore that at our peril. At the moment we do not pay enough attention to medium and long term outcomes of the work we do and we do not have enough research in this area, particularly when it comes to issues such as character and mindset – although we are getting there which is exciting. We do have lots of evidence however which states that these non-cognitive skills directly correlate with academic results. See for a good summary.

    The words ‘idiots’, ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’ and the like have no place in today’s education system. The Idiots Act of 1886 was repealed by the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913. These words, along with ‘imbecile’, ‘feeble-minded’, ‘lunatic’ etc were common parlance in the teaching profession at that time. I think we’ve made some progress since then, let’s look back only to realise where we’ve come from and avoid repeating past mistakes.

    The words we use and the way in which we consider the abilities, faculties and characteristics of those we teach is hugely important. A slight shift in language can be an indication of a significant shift in thinking. So along with the debate around ‘what are the purposes of education?’, which needs more attention, perhaps we also need to work out how we should be talking about it.

    • Andrew Sabisky says:

      I would assume that the point of education is to teach pupils a body of scholarship that we, as a society, think is important. Unfortunately, ways to assess whether or not they have actually learnt that corpus that do not involve standardised testing are probably exceedingly expensive, woefully imprecise, and inefficient.

      Of course, YMMV, but I think there are very serious questions to be raised over whether or not many of the claimed alternative purposes of education are actually in the least bit achievable by the teaching profession, or are even ethical to attempt.

      • I am commenting from Scotland where the purpose of the Curriculum for Excellence is as follows:

        “The purpose of the curriculum is encapsulated in the four capacities – to enable each child or young person to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor.

        The curriculum aims to ensure that all children and young people in Scotland develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they will need if they are to flourish in life, learning and work, now and in the future.”

        CfE is far from perfect but it seems to strike a pretty good balance between Bloom’s cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains.

        It is not about devaluing knowledge in favour of attributes or vice versa, but placing them together as complementary purposes. This is as opposed to pitting them against one another as competing agendas which need to be arbitrarily balanced. I would entirely accept that assessment needs a rethink!

        Of course we require cognitive aspects relating to knowledge and scholarship, but we also require emotional literacy, attitude, self-awareness and positive relationships, all of which are part of the overall learning journey.

        Surely schooling is not just an instrumental process, but a formative stage in life?

        According to Yeats, education is about “lighting fires, not filling buckets”. I would tend to agree.

  8. Excellent contribution to this debate. It’s interesting that ‘blaming the client’ is a concern / criticism sometimes made of cognitive behavioural therapy. After all, if the problem is with the way you think about and perceive your problems, then it could be interpreted as ‘your fault’ that you’re suffering from depression, anxiety etc. (“If only you’d change your irrational thinking, you’d get better”)

    I think Cristina has a point – in that the same criticism can apply to discussions about growth mindset / grit or resilience for kids on free school meals in isolation from the socio-economic issues that leave them in deprived circumstances. (“If only you showed some grit, you’d do better at school”)

    I think we should have concerns about how we scale up and implement these sorts of ‘growth mindset’ style cognitive interventions in schools. Yeager makes some v. good points why they might not work as intended (or even do harm) if rushed into carelessly. We want kids to feel that they have the capacity to get better at things with practice and time (who wants to crush hope with fatalism?), but how we constructively promote such attributions on the scale of an education system is tangled with some awkward practical and ethical issues in my opinion.

  9. Padesky has developed approaches to CBT which are more humanistic. My understanding is that her work is moving things on a bit in CBT from the “errors in thinking” rhetoric. See her paper on strengths-based CBT for instance:

    (Not that teachers are therapists of course, but therapeutic approaches are fundamental to working in SEBD for instance and are influential in general teaching/youth work practice etc.)

    Strengths-based pedagogy, perhaps? This is the kind of approach taken by the KIPP Foundation in U.S. but we don’t know yet whether this approach would work on that scale in U.K. cultural context.

  10. nmurphy2013 says:

    In tandem with teaching students what research tells us about mindsets, we also need to examine political institutions with them so that they are aware of the structures in society that may impede them, whatever their mindset. This is why the content of the curriculum is so important in empowering, or hobbling, our students.

  11. I think we should tell pupils that others have huge advantages that our children do not have and that is why they need to work harder. It will surely help if children know this school stuff is basically a game and they better understand the rules if they are going to do well.

  12. bt0558 says:

    player mates (@itisallagame)…agree 100%. Some people have cognitive advantages, some people have economic advantages, some people have both.

    The runner in the race who starts likely to come last has to try a bit harder than the runner who is likely to come first, if they wish to come first.

    I don’t believe it is the job of schools to somehow rectify social inequality, I believe it is the job of schools to enable learners to make the progress of which they are capable.

    As player mates says, that is life.

    My understanding of mindsets is that it it about meta-cognition, nothing more and nothing less. Why all the fuss?

  13. @DrDawnie says:

    I don’t think the fuss is about mindsets per se, is it? It seems to me to be more about their perceived presentation as the next silver bullet, the answer to all of our problems. Of course, that’s not true but depending on how they’ve been introduced or presented, I can imagine how some might be resistant to the ideas. Dweck even pre-empts some of the concerns herself and (on pp. 47-8) outlines the impact of socio-economic factors on a person’s ability to take/pursue risks.

    I think the apparent simplicity of her work lends itself to superficial interpretation; I’d say it’s essential to guard against that. It does seem that excellent work is being done using mindset as a basis/motivator and it would be a shame to see that damaged by reductive assumptions that we’ll all be branded individual failures for not showing a sufficiently growth mindset. I think Shaun Allison’s term (it is his, I believe), ‘simplexity’ works perfectly here.

  14. James Wise says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while. growth mindset could easily be construed as the educational equivalent of Tebbit’s “get on your bike” advice to the unemployed. Like the job market, the curriculum is far more accessible to some rather than others, regardless of intelligence. Class is often that determining factor. Wouldn’t a curriculum that’s more befitting its pupils lead to greater achievement overall?

  15. Simon White says:

    The mindset/grit/growth ideas provide great ways into constructive conversations or feedback when trying to help a student (or teacher for that matter) to improve. That is where the theory is most useful and that is where it should be left IMO.

    Children who aren’t used to being pushed/motivated by adults/peers or themselves will perhaps find the ideas on mindset etc useful and positively challenging if they are introduced and explored sensitively. Teachers know that indulged/lazy/pessimistic youth and adults are reasonably commonplace in our society and come from a variety of backgrounds – financially well off to poor and everything in between.

    Creating dissonance is an important element of meta-learning in my view and these ideas allow teachers a ‘way in’ with staff, students and parents in my experience because there is something that rings true about the basic theory for most of us, regardless of our previous achievements.

  16. Z Johnson says:

    I think a fixed mindset affects your success whether you have more opportunities or not. Just as many “top” pupils don’t achieve what they could due to their perception of what they are capable of their ability as at the lower end.

  17. 4c3d says:

    Grit – resilience – determination – positive thinking – growth mindset – optimistic
    Saying what we need to learn or in overcoming learning challenges created by our learning environment or life chances is one thing, doing something about it is another. Grit, mindset or whatever, if it is used as an excuse, does nothing to solve the problem of learning and reaching your potential (whatever that is). Having taught for 35 years and read “the texts” my conclusion is that we need to develop something I have come to call “Learning Intelligence”. It has been shown to be the common factor in successful students (at both ends of the spectrums, those of advantage/ability/opportunity). I define Learning Intelligence (LQ) as the ability to manage your learning environment to meet your learning needs. It is affected by the “SAAB” (Skills, Attitudes, Attributes and Behaviors) of learners. Among which are creativity, resilience, determination, mindset etc. LQ asks “Why am I finding learning difficult?” “Or why are my expectations low?” then goes on to developing the SAAB to do something about it, to make the learner aware of the need to responsibility for their own learning.

    Here is an “infographic” I put together to explain the concept of LQ – make sure you watch it in “presentation mode” (it just make sit easier to see the links).

    For more on LQ (there are 30+ articles) see or contact me at

    Comments or challenges always welcome.


  18. […] Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? Why we disagree: the purposes of education The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important […]

  19. I think we need to distinguish that Carol Dweck’s research put a hypothesis forward that she then had certain verifiable evidence for. The use of that research by others and the attribution of ideology and other right / wrong or good / bad arguments does not invalidate the research just the use by individuals. What we should then be attacking is the use (or misuse) by individuals and organisations trying to achieve some agenda beyond empowering learners.

    Just my two bits worth.

  20. […] I’ve recently read a couple of interesting articles which question the efficacy of the research of Carol Dweck (Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (Grit). The complaint is that if we attribute an individual’s failure to a fault or lack in their character then we are apportioning blame; the reason we are unsuccessful is down to our  […]

  21. Katie says:

    I completely agree with your comments David and especially like the fact that you discussed the concepts in relation to UK schools and teachers. How can anyone consider the idea of developing a growth mindset or more ‘grit’ to be a bad thing. Surely we do not want an education system full of victims who just wallow in self pity because they have an underprivileged background. It is children like this who tend to have more ‘grit’ and who aren’t scared of challenges and setbacks. They are used to them therefore develop more resilience towards them and deal with it better. Unlike children who have been labelled gifted and talented who are scared to fail incase they fall out this category, they avoid challenge and therefore never truly achieve their full potential. All children, no matter what deserve to succeed and achieve in life and it is our job as teachers (and parents) to help them do this. If growth mindset and grit interventions are going to help me achieve this then I welcome them with open arms.

  22. 4c3d says:

    “Among the mechanisms of personal agency, none is more central or pervasive than people’s beliefs about their capability to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs function as an important set of of proximal determinants of human motivation, affect and action.”

    Not my words but those of Albert Bandura (Stanford University) in an article in the American Psychologist 1989 “Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory”. I would recommend this article to any one looking at why some learners are able to maintain motivation, show resilience and go on to achieve more than what early evidence may suggest. It was sent to me as part of my work into helping learners manage their learning environment to meet their own learning needs. Whilst we like things that support our own views it has given me furthger of confidence that we can develop strategies that will help the majority of learners (gifted and unchallenged through to challenged and of low expectation) be the best they can be. I wonder of people like Dweck have read it also for it supports the growth mindset concept.

    If you can not find the article then look for the comment by sharrock67 in this article:

    I will also be publishing a review of the article shortly.


  23. […] Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? I’ve recently read a couple of interesting articles which question the efficacy of the research of Carol Dweck (Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (Grit). […]

  24. […] Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? I’ve recently read a couple of interesting articles which question the efficacy of the research of Carol Dweck (Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (Grit). […]

  25. […] some sort of universal principle. David Didau has already covered much of this ground in his blog , but if we never allowed for repetition in the blogosphere, there’d be nothing left on the […]

  26. […] it’s in danger of becoming one of those memes we think with rather than about. A number of commentators have been critical of the way mindset theory has been uncritical adopted and unthinking…, but what if growth isn’t always good? What if sometime we might be better off to be […]

  27. […] as David Didau argues here, “Of course we are constrained by our backgrounds and the circumstances of our birth… But […]

  28. […] written before about both my concerns with differentiation and also some of the critique of the growth mindset trope – these to me seem almost like competing, opposing forces in education – on the […]

  29. […] David Didau (July 10, 2014). Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? blog […]

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