A defence of the fixed mindset

The growth mindset has been so universally heralded as ‘a good thing’ that 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 unthinkingly applied, but what if growth isn’t always good? What if sometime we might be better off to be ‘fixed’ in our attitudes and beliefs?

This is something that has been simmering away on my back burner for months, but then I encountered the following passage in the philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s magnificent (and very witty) treatise on the human mind, Consciousness Explained:

[T]here are a range of possibilities , settled by evolutionary processes: some elements of the system of representation can be – indeed must be – innately fixed, and the rest must be ‘learned’. While some of the categories of life that matter (like hunger and thirst) are no doubt ‘given’ to us in the way we are wired at birth, others we have to develop on our own.

What he’s saying is that certain ways in which we think are innate, fixed in consciousness and that others are acquired through a process of growth. Although growth is being equated with learning, at least this is a positive representation of things being fixed in our minds.

Our minds are essentially plastic – subject to change – and, as Dennett says,

Plasticity makes learning possible, but it is all the better if somewhere out there in the environment there is something to learn that is already the product of a prior design process, so each of us does not have to reinvent the wheel.

That is to say, if nothing is settled – or fixed – growing is so much more troublesome. Dennett goes further suggesting that through a process of cultural transmission, “We somehow install an already invented and largely ‘debugged’ system of habits in the partly unstructured brain.” This sounds a bit mysterious but perhaps explains our apparently innate capacity for learning language.

Well, so what? None of this means all that much, but reading a thinker who was writing way before mindset theory was a gleam in Carol Dweck’s eye allowed me to see what might be possible if we freed ourselves of the ubiquitous negativity with which the fixed mindset is framed. (The Star Wars poster above is, I think, a particularly pernicious framing of mindset theory.)

On reflection I think the truth may be a little more complicated than that. We all have an enormous capacity for growth. This capacity – plasticity – is how we acquire new skills and incorporate new knowledge into pre-existing schema; without it we wouldn’t change at all. We also have a biological predisposition to fix new learning in place and make it part of us. If we didn’t have a fixed view of multiplication, or conjugating the French verb avoir then we’d never be able to make use of our capacity to grow and change.

Regardless of our mindset, we have evolved to both grow and to fix new learning in place. In fact it could be said that the process of growing our web of knowledge and then fixing this new understanding of the world in place is the very essence of learning.

When we talk about fixed mindsets in education perhaps we concerned that some pupils have an over-developed propensity to hold on to ideas and are afraid in some way to let go of their concepts of themselves. Maybe they have a fixed view of things about which they feel content? Could it be that those possessing the much vaunted growth mindset are too ready to let go of potentially valuable ideas? Might they be more easily swayed or gulled than their fixed mindset peers? Could those with a fixed mindset be more likely to express dissatisfaction with the status quo – if we’re not at fault then it must be the environment – viva la revolución! And might an individual with a growth mindset too readily accept adverse conditions as their lot? Either way, I think labelling students as either fixed or growth is too simplistic, especially if we think of one of the labels in essentially pejorative terms.

I’m not arguing that giving up or sneering at effort is desirable, I’m suggesting we think a little more about the consequences of labels we apply.

Many thanks to Nick Rose (@turnfordblog) for recommending I read Dennett – this is just the tip of an enormous iceberg… Do also read Nick’s post The Growth Mindset: It’s not magic!

48 Responses to A defence of the fixed mindset

  1. John Wootton says:

    Hi David

    Is the idea of ‘change is good’ a fixed mindset?
    Is the idea that ‘traditional teaching is good/bad’ a fixed mindset?
    Is the idea that ‘progressive teaching is good/bad’ a fixed mindset?
    It strikes me, that integrating the skills of previous teachers with our own is a slow process that each individual teacher does in their own way.
    It also strikes me that the people behind the growth mindset movement failed to realise that it was, and is, a great deal of common-sense.
    And finally, it takes a village to raise a child and they need many different teachers, with many different mindsets to help them grow as individuals; or is that a fixed mindset?

  2. heatherfblog says:

    I really like the way you get at the natural tension between holding on to what you have learnt and being ready to change your views. I feel that tension strongly as I try to remain open minded in education debates while trying to ‘form opinions’ (fix them) so I can make decisions about the best way forward. In my job as a HoD I feel I am most successful when I draw on the wisdom that comes with experience. That wisdom is the accumulation of rules I have fixed over time. I can’t constantly hold open to question each individual aspect as if I leave as questionable some of my initial or fundamental assumptions the whole edifice of ‘wisdom’ I have built is undermined. Perhaps it is wise to realise you can always be wrong but the wisdom to realise this is a fixed rule you have, using your judgement, decided to no longer question!

  3. That’s the problem with these broad and sweeping terms. “Fixed,” “growth,” “competencies,” “mastery” – when the idea applies to anything, it amounts to nothing.

  4. I’m astonished that any of this stuff needs to be somehow reasserted as if it’s some kind of ‘new thing’ (e.g. a number of secondary schools in my area are, very recently, promoting a pedagogy based on growth mindset ‘principles’).

    When did the teaching profession forget that talent, intelligence, ability, are not ordained but malleable? If the profession has either forgotten this, or if it has never really understood that birth does not fix the individual – then we are in trouble!

    If this is indeed the case isn’t that a bit shocking? Is our education system, today in 2015, really based on the idea of fixed, ‘born-in’ intelligence?

    To me, ‘growth mindset’ feels like a ‘tweet policy’. Some SPAD read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, tweeted a link and a ‘follower read it, looked at Carol Dweck’s somewhat flawed study (she found what she was looking for – surprise, surprise!), then retweeted this as if it were a really interesting (perhaps stunning) insight and then some other follower (another SPAD probably) – had a follow-up hug session with the wonks over at the ‘nudge’ department …

    … so the chain went on until here we are… [stage left, sound off: the slow, low boom of a deathly bell]

    In response to those (and there are many) who argue that Higher Education-based teacher training is a waste of time – ineffective because disconnected and irrelevant – I offer the fad of ‘growth mindsets’ as an example of why HE is soooo necessary.

    All teachers, all education leaders and policy makers, need to understand human development and they clearly don’t (but hell, I assumed they all did!).

    You don’t get all the knowledge you need about such domains from classroom practice alone, or from mere reflection-on/in-practice. Some of it is philosophy, some political science, some psychology (experimental and theoretical) some of it is even, hush-my-mouth, neuroscience.

    In other words teachers both new an old need to use the HE experience to dig into our huge collective knowledge archive (so that, for example, people remember that the idea of malleable intelligence in its modern form has been with us for at least 100 years (e.g. I might start with the publication of Piaget: The ‘Child’s Conception of the World’, but there are many other milestones …).

    All of this delving involves reading, debating, analysing which, in spite of what people think, is what HE (i) is good at; (ii) is its raison d’être; and (iii) builds a strong foundation for pedagogy.

    Critics of Higher Education-based teacher training should attack it not for its irrelevance but for its failure to ensure that ideas like ‘growth mindset’ (and others) are treated within the profession as novel and, in some cases even as helpful (e.g. VAK).

    PS: I realise you are presenting a slightly different argument in your post, so apologies for stealing the opportunity to rant … 🙂

    • David Didau says:

      But it’s such a well-written rant – who could object?

      This bit seems most pertinent:

      Critics of Higher Education-based teacher training should attack it not for its irrelevance but for its failure to ensure that ideas like ‘growth mindset’ (and others) are treated within the profession as novel and, in some cases even as helpful (e.g. VAK).

      I think that’s precisely why some people have decided PGCE courses are so problematic.

  5. It seems to me that the ‘mindset’ issue has gained prominence through what is really the ‘high expectation’ meme. If the edu-system has low expectations (fixed mindset) of individual students, or specific groups of students, then those students will find it very difficult to fulfill their potential. Of course, in addition, no-one within the edu-system actually knows what a student’s potential is anyway. The ‘high expectation’ approach (growth mindset) refuses to limit potential growth solely through allowing low expectations to take root in the student or the edu-system. Is the growth mindset framing of this issue really useful? I don’t think it is. Framing the issue in terms of expectations de-mystifies it (I think), and makes it more difficult to collapse the issue into a manual of stuff (or programme) to do in a school. Instead, it is more likely that the required ‘high expectation’ culture change can take root (if not already the culture) in a non-judgmental fashion. Growth mindset appears to be open to transformation into a polarising force with zealots and resistors……

    • David Didau says:

      OK – so junk all the fixed/growth mumbo jumbo and just focus on high expectations?

      Thanks, DD

        • J says:

          In practice high expectations can also be used to limit a child’s growth.

          Our school has its first Higher Attaining Pupil Policy offering children displaying ‘sustained accelerated progress … increased challenge as appropriate’. The policy seems responsive yet ignores why children may fail to meet the criteria:

          Curriculum delivery is poor/restricted so unable to demonstrate progress
          Hidden emotional issues – bullying in school
          Medical issues
          Poor timetabling – child misses same weekly lesson due to music lesson
          Poor understanding of development – teacher believes progress will plateau, views progress as ‘asynchronous’, and withholds appropriate challenge and curriculum learning until child proves themself (not shared with child).

          A fixed mindset enables decision-making; regular reviews of assumptions that underpin these decisions facilitates a healthy fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is good for following policies, using systems, working to a critera.

          Getting to know someone, including a child, requires flexibility (challenging our assumptions about them). We are unlikely to have all the facts about another individual in order to make decisions in their best interest – we don’t have full access to what they know, feel, what motivates them, their desires. To deal with individuals we require a flexible mindset in order to provide them with flexible conditions in which to grow.

          One principle: Working to the top. Inclusion for all.

          • As soon as an attempt is made to encode ‘High Expectations’ or ‘Growth Mindset’ in a policy or set of rules, then that’s where the limits arise. I’m talking more about an attitude…which could be represented by Working to the top, Inclusion for all…but I’d rather not attempt to capture it like that…..

  6. Hi David. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I felt compelled to comment that, while the points you make are all valid, you seem to use multiple definitions of “fixed” and none of them arguably is Dweck’s definition. To have fixed knowledge or ideas certainly seems to me consistent with the fundamental optimism and normative “can-do” attitude of her growth mindset. As you indicated in your post “Grit and Growth”, we can all strive for a growth mindset, by Dweck’s conception. That’s the point and it’s quite a narrow one (which seems worthy of some criticism as one of your commenters has said – it’s questionable to what degree Dweck’s theory passes the “so what” test).

    Anyway, you and your commenters prompted me to read a dozen other posts and articles about Dennet, Dweck, Duckworth, Piaget and Vygotsky. If this isn’t the true value of a blog like yours, what is?

    Thank you.

    • David Didau says:

      Agreed, my definition of fixed isn’t fixed 🙂 But I think I do arrive at some sort of point in the final paragraph.

      The bit of Dweck that wasn’t so obvious were the findings about praise and ego attribution – I think that has, and can, change practice meaningfully. But yes, the mindsets bit seems to occupy the realms of ‘bloody obvious’ but isn’t that always the case after the fact?

      Thanks for your kind words – glad you found it thought provoking.

      • chrishildrew says:

        Thanks Peter for writing the comment I logged on this morning to write!
        As ever, David, there is much that is thought provoking and considered in what you write, but I agree with Peter that “fixed” in the way that Dweck uses it only relates to a person’s perception that their own intelligence or ability is a fixed construct. As David Longman commented earlier, this runs counter to good common-sense educational thinking, which is that (as he says) “talent, intelligence, ability, are not ordained but malleable.” This is Dweck’s definition of “growth mindset”. I’ll be the first to admit that much has been written, tweeted and suggested using the term “growth mindset” by people who either haven’t read, or have profoundly misunderstood, Dweck’s work, and this is problematic and doubtless, in some cases, damaging. However, your definition of “fixed” in terms of “fixing learning in place” is exactly right, and acquiring a “fixed” self-image to protect self-esteem and confidence may well be helpful. Neither of these is incompatible with adopting a growth mindset. Maybe the term is unhelpful, and its ubiquity may well be causing some to flinch away every time they hear it, but I maintain that the approach – of encouraging learners to believe that they can improve from where they are now – is sound whether or not you use the term “growth mindset”.

        • David Didau says:

          I absolutely agree that “encouraging learners to believe that they can improve from where they are now” is both sensible and sound. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. But that’s not all we mean when we talk about growth mindset – we eulogise people’s willingness to change and view ‘growth’ through Romantic, rose-tinted specs. This is perhaps an unfortunate byproduct of Dweck’s choice of vocabulary but it’s too late now – the meme is out there, replicating, and mutating as it spreads.

  7. Ben says:

    Hi David
    Thank you for this article.

    I’m quite new to fixed/growth mindset, but I thought that the definition of fixed mindset was about believing that people’s skills/abilities/talents were predetermined and fixed; not about ideas and beliefs and knowledge in general being unchangeable.

    I agree that fixed vs growth is over simplistic and labelling people thus, clumsy.
    Surely we should be a healthy mixture of both: recognising our (fixed) predisposition to certain skills/activities/learning, yet always open and in fact striving for growth in and beyond those areas.

    To set them against each other, assumes they are mutually exclusive and in so doing, we limit our thinking, in particular to the possibility that both have their place and even that they are inextricably linked and complement each other wonderfully

  8. @ImSporticus says:

    As teachers aren’t we working towards some things in our students being ‘fixed’? We want to ‘fix’ knowledge so they can recall it. We want to ‘fix’ skills so they can accurately replicate them. We want to ‘fix’ certain behaviours that we believe to be beneficial to learning and fitting into society in general. As a teacher in PE I want to ‘fix’ a habit of a healthy and active lifestyle in my pupils, but I need to challenge the ‘I can’t’ attitude to achieve that.

    We want to ‘fix’ these things in our students, but we also want them to be ‘open’ to realise that at any time these ‘fixed’ things can be challenged, changed, improved or grown. This though takes time, effort and dedication to see through the necessary change. Changing anything that is fixed is going to be hard, but it could be done. What can’t necessarily be done is become an expert or excellent, in everything, simultaneously which is what I believe people think having a ‘growth mindset’ means.

    • george says:

      I agree…I think it should be a balance between “fix” these knowledge, and learn the habit of develope by ourselves those things we just learned.
      Just like the Kaizen philosophy tells about the continuous improvement.

  9. ijstock says:

    Isn’t this an unnecessary distinction in the first place? It is perfectly possible to accept that intelligence/ability is ultimately limited (we are unlikely *ever* to run a mile in zero seconds, and nor is every person going to be Einstein) but that any one individual probably retains a degree of untapped potential, which it is desirable to release?

    What worries me about Growth Mindset is its corollary – namely that if you fail, then it’s all your own fault (or your teacher’s) for just not being determined enough. It also ignores the fact that what makes the difference is SELF-motivation, not the external motivators that I fear the education system is latching onto.

    This seems to me perilously close to the Positive Thinking movement and its associated Affluenza (you can have anything if only you want it enough). Read/watch Barbara Ehrenreich ‘Smile or Die’ for why this can be harmful.


    • The problem is, David, once you start reading authorities on neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, it’s hard to stop. And, lo, they often disagree.
      Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is an important book in my view, because it implores those who assume that the mind is malleable, or plastic,to pause. Much of what we think of as the functions of our mind are innate. Not ‘fixed’ in any of the senses I think you used that word, but evolved, the product of natural selection. Those instincts, such as for language that you mentioned, are evidence of a species highly adapted to the environment. To take an extreme plastic view of the mind would be assume there was little there to start with (the blank slate of the title.)
      I suspect that growth mindset is mainly a useful motivational tool, the sort of thing that educationalists like to say to students. So far as that goes, I am comfortable with it and agree with you that it’s not really new. But, inasmuch as it rests on a blank slate brain, I think it departs from at least some respectable science.

      • David Didau says:

        I like Pinker. Don’t think anything I’ve said is contrary to arguments in The Blank Slate. Phenotypic plasticity could be said to be innate. The advent of reading is an excellent example of brain’s pasticity – the brain rewires in response to the demands reading places on it.

        Worth reading Proust and the Squid

  10. I can’t help feeling dismayed at this post David. The phrases ‘Growth and Fixed Mindsets’ came to prominence specifically in reference to a learner’s beliefs regarding whether appropriate endeavour could change his or her ability to do something they couldn’t initially do. Here you seem to be talking about beliefs regarding the contingency of all knowledge! I assumed that I’d missed something, and that clearly schools have pushed the boundaries of the first idea to also mean the second, but your links to the earlier post and that of Nick Rose simply seem to be referring to difficulties with how teachers put the first definition of it into practice (a great debate to be had – but totally different to what you’re saying here).

    Effectively there are two more debates to be had here: the appropriateness of using the label ‘fixed mindset’ to ALSO refer to having a ‘mind made up’ about any matter; and then the one you’re having here, regarding the importance of some things indeed being perhaps considered ‘given’. This last debate is a great area to get stuck into (on the road to madness!) if you feel up to tackling age-old realism vs social constructionism matters (perhaps making use of cutting-edge cognitive neuro-psychology). I suppose the issue here comes down to, how do you know what to be certain about?!

    My problem then, is that you should have had the first debate before the second, so that you could use terms which don’t confound two quite different ideas. Inadvertently, your post might have added to the confusion around the two areas, and given unwarranted fuel to the genuine reactionaries who are inclined to dismiss any value in the notion of ‘Growth vs Fixed Mindsets’ (as used by Dweck) as just ‘another passing fad’. I’ve recently been pushing my colleagues to read your blog, but I’m hoping they don’t read this particular post, as it certainly doesn’t represent how we use the term’s fixed and growth mindset in our school! … Crikey – in my head this was only going to be 3-4 sentences… Sorry!

    • dougjcullen says:

      Lol, I was writing the same thing at the same time.

      • David Didau says:

        Hi both – thanks for pointing out that I haven’t understood something that I’ve written about extensively on previous occasions. I really do understand Dweck’s work and have read both her book and several of her papers. I may have missed some nuances but feel pretty secure in my understanding of what she believes a growth and fixed mindset to be. Maybe your reading of my post might benefit from knowing that what I am doing here is disagreeing with someone else’s view? Just cos Dweck, or anyone else for that matter, says something doesn’t make it true.

        • But David – that’s the problem – you haven’t made it clear who it is you’re disagreeing with – it certainly isn’t Dweck. I sounds like you’re tilting at windmills by linking your perfectly good points with the wrong subject matter. I’m sure I must be missing something… perhaps a link to somewhere where the opinions you’re opposing have been expressed would be helpful? They certainly aren’t expressed in the Star Wars image.

          Don’t misunderstand me – I’m a big fan of your posts, and indeed the point you’ve made in this one – I just think your labeling of it is askew.

          • David Didau says:

            Ok – I’m responding to the uncritical, unthinking way in which label like fixed and growth are bandied around and, to my mind, abused.

          • ijstock says:

            >I’m responding to the uncritical, unthinking way in which label like fixed and growth are bandied around and, to my mind, abused.

            And that is precisely where the problem is. It’s hard to object to the principle of Growth Mindset, but it is being increasingly misappropriated by elements within the educational establishment to mean something much more specific than a generally helpful worldview – namely just another tool to beat people towards meeting their targets. I somehow doubt that’s what Dweck had in mind.

            I have already heard teachers being openly criticised for daring to question it.

        • >I’m responding to the uncritical, unthinking way in which label like fixed and growth are bandied around and, to my mind, abused.

          Thanks! As I think the last paragraph of my first comment suggested – pity you seemed to unintentionally reinforce such misuse.

          • David Didau says:

            You think? That’s an intersting opinion and one I refute. But thanks

          • Can I just say David, that although I ‘made-up’ with you via email, I’ve also just spotted the following words in your opening paragraph and would now like to publicly say that I think my criticisms of this blog post were both unfair and unhelpful!

            “but what if growth isn’t always good? What if sometime we might be better off to be ‘fixed’ in our attitudes and beliefs?”

            It is clear from this that you were trying to launch a different debate around the ‘growth and fixed mindset’ meme.

            Sorry 🙂

          • David Didau says:

            That’s very charitable. Thank you

  11. dougjcullen says:

    Hi David,

    I always enjoy your posts. Just thought I’d mention that you have missed the meaning of mindset somewhat. A mindset is an individual’s view of their capabilities and their potential to change their expertise levels leading to their capabilities.

    In regards to education this is all that fixed and growth mindsets refer to. In your post you infer that the concept also includes the acquisition of knowledge itself, which is an incorrect application of mindset theory.

    I would argue that is wrong to conflate learning theory with mindset theory.

    A fixed mindset is one where the individual believes that they cannot improve their abilities.
    A growth mindset is where the individual believes that expertise is developed through effort. The importance of re-establishing the idea that effort is required to develop skill is essential in a society where up to 70% of individuals believe that experts are born and not made. My own research has found that most schools have between 50-70% fixed mindsets students, and that mindset influences all socioeconomic classes.

    Having a fixed mindset seriously hampers motivation levels, increases the likelihood of poor behaviour and decreases the likelihood of an individual student forming an independent attitude to learning (taking responsibility for their own learning).

    In addition, there have also been some significant government advisors who have pushed the concept that ability is found in genes. This view itself is fixed and can be found in sport, in the media and unfortunately in our schools. It is no surprise that children have fixed mindsets when they are surrounded by adults demonstrating fixed mindsets. I have also found a high proportion of senior teachers who publicly talk about the need for hard work and isn’t growth mindsets just common sense while displaying a fixed mindset towards individual student abilities and persistently using fixed mindset enducing feedback.

    While no one disputes that genes underlie certain abilities the complexity of the genes environment interaction is beyond current explanation. However, it is fair to say that 50% of the differences in ability between two individuals is due to genetics, the rest to environment. Each of us is born with a potential ability range or window. Effort put into learning can shift our ability towards the top of the window. My research is showing that having a fixed mindset limits the effort an individual puts into improving a skill, which keeps their abilities at the bottom end of the potential range.

    A key issue for the implementation of growth mindsets is that while it is common sense, and while many people state that they’d believe it, the majority of people do not practice growth mindsets in their professional work. One senior teacher I have worked with is very outspoken about the importance of having a growth mindset, while also happy to state that some students won’t improve because they were ‘born thick’. So, while education has not forgotten the importance of effort, we have been influenced by the fixed mindset demonstrated by wider society. The creep of fixed mindsets needs to be addressed and I welcome Dweck’s influence on current thinking.

    However, it is important that teachers understand mindsets and how they can be used. I run a training programme for teachers and sometimes find that a general lack of knowledge about the process of learning can seriously hamper understanding mindsets. It is also important to remember that mindsets are not a silver bullet, in spite of some commentators suggesting that it can be. Encouraging mindset change also needs teachers to move beyond addressing the way they offer feedback. Teachers need to develop their evidence base for challenging fixed mindsets using evidence on the learning process and their ability to coach students through the change process.

    Perhaps an issue to be considered further is the amount individual teachers need to learn in order to apply mindset change effectively.

  12. JB says:

    ‘Mindset’, brilliant yet another repackaging of common sense. This one is up there with Group Work, Feedback and VAK. Like those that went before its gathering and assuming a life of its own. Repeated often enough and it will acquire the status of a fact. I can see the report comments already ‘Billy needs to work towards a growth mindset’. It’s embarrassing how teachers can be duped by such twaddle. To be constructive for a moment why not spend your next non-contact period figuring out the next new paradigm, repackage and publish, should be worth a bob or two. All of this is covered in my new book, ‘The five temples of Learning’.

    • JB – your comment is confused and sounds as ignorant as the bandwagon you are seeking to criticise. Learn to distinguish babies from bathwater:

      Fact: There are plenty of children who give-up on something which they could achieve because they are convinced they ‘just can’t do it’. (Fine, call this common sense)
      Fact: It is possible to get children like this into the habit of continuing seek ways of succeeding, under the correct belief that the vast majority of things don’t come first time.
      Fact: This situation also occurs for pupils at the top of the class, who cope badly with coming across something they can’t do easily (not common sense to most teachers I’ve spoken to about it)

      Fact: There is a bandwagon which has built-up around the idea, with people no doubt attributing more power to it than is warranted, with ‘rule creep’ setting-in – making the implementation strategies more important than the principles behind it, and possibly causing grief to children along the way (I’m not sure if people have witnessed this, or are just nervous about it). It is indeed embarrassing that teachers can be so unreflective if they let a simple principle like this become a damaging machine in their teaching palette.
      Fact (apparently, according to David – this article opened my eyes to an area I wasn’t aware was happening!). The ‘growth mindset’ idea is being used to criticise any area where a person has their mind made up on something. Again, I would say that this is an embarrassment to the teaching profession if such a principle can be so misused.

      But that doesn’t mean to say that the heart of the concept is flawed and that we help move our children forward by mocking it. It ain’t VAK.

  13. rosybeth says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for this post. Your last sentence says it all….”I think we need to think a little more about the consequences of labels we apply”
    The fixed mindset vs. growth mindset has literally exploded in my children’s elementary school…to the point where they have replaced traditional honor roll with a “growth mindset award.” This has upset many children and parents, but the administration will not budge on this “new psychological fad” as I like to call it.
    In their school’s weekly blog, they explain that the newly named system (from honor roll to growth mindset awards) recognizes students for outstanding effort and academic success. Isn’t this contradictory?
    There have been multiple assemblies about this for the children, and they are hosting a growth mindset workshop for parents next week. It says “Join us next week to learn how families can help their children’s brain change, adapt and re-wire, thereby increasing their learning ability.”
    I like my children’s brains just they way they are, thank you very much. I worry that yet another trend in education will indeed do more harm then good. Any thoughts or advice?

  14. Hi Rosy – may I be so rude as to add in a response to your query?

    I appreciate your sense of unease, and I can see that this is proving exactly the point which I was slow to pick-up on David making in the first place.

    I do indeed think that your school isn’t really getting this approach right. The heart of the ‘growth mindset’ idea is that many people give-up too early on something because they overestimate the role of fixed biological mechanisms, and decide that they are predestined to succeed or not. This can place limitations on their success, whether they believe that they are ‘thick’ or ‘bright’. They underestimate the role of endeavour in all the great success stories. It surely has to be a good thing for parents and teachers to keep an eye out for unhelpful attitudes linked to this.

    HOWEVER, it clearly is quite possible that the opposite could be true in any of us: a potentially damaging belief that we can achieve anything if we put our minds to it, underestimating circumstance, the importance of properly guided practice, and indeed, biological aptitude. It could be argued that in the past this second trend wasn’t the norm, but who knows, maybe we could flip round to this?

    Now, I share some of your concerns regarding your school’s approach. In assemblies, the school could be rewarding effort, recent progress or attainment, and a healthy ‘growth mindset’ should indeed help nourish all three areas. BUT ultimately, the ‘growth mindset’ itself is a belief system, and it sounds like your school is trying to reward pupils for putting effort into adopting beliefs, which history shows, never turns out well! There may be a subtle blend of behavioural ‘learning habits’ which accompany being either a ‘quitter’ or a ‘perseverer’ (which I suspect is how the school is possibly simplifying the matter) but these must flow out of the healthy belief, perhaps being modelled and encouraged, and not become subject to carrots and sticks.

    Similarly, the brain talk is misguided. The style of it is clearly threatening to you, and, frankly, we could use that kind of metaphor to describe any real learning experience which your child goes through from day to day (that’s not meant to scare you!)

    Sorry if you feel it was rude for me to comment 🙂


  15. rosybeth says:

    Thank you for the reply Chris, it was quite helpful and not in the least bit rude.

    I definitely feel that the approach the school is taking is misguided, and agree with you completely that it is a belief system that in my opinion has no business being rewarded. I am not opposed at all with rewarding effort,progress and attainment and think the reward should be labeled as such. Children are unique individuals, and I trust the teachers to know their students and how to encourage and develop their “mindsets” without drilling it into them at every turn. This is not a new concept for educators. Similarly, my husband and I encourage effort and practice with things like music lessons and athletic practice at home. Some things truly do come easier for others, but with a little determination and self-discipline achievement can be obtained at some level. It just seems a lot for children to take in the way it is presented, and I know if you ask many of the students who received a growth mindset award to explain what it is, they can’t. They just like getting the certificate. There were entire classes in the school who received the award as well, so what purpose is it really serving?
    Do you happen to know of any specific events in history where belief systems did not turn out well? I would love to use examples at the workshop. I really do appreciate the response and thank you for it!


    • Hi again Rosy – thank you for your openness to my comment. It sounds like you have a very well-balanced personal view of the value which is at the heart of the ‘growth mindset’ theory. This throws into even more sharp relief the fact that your school is getting something wrong somewhere with its approach. I think that the following was a particularly showing comment:

      “Children are unique individuals, and I trust the teachers to know their students and how to encourage and develop their “mindsets” without drilling it into them at every turn.”

      My own recommendations for how a school should make use of the theory would be: Yes, perhaps deliver a single assembly about it with some inspiring examples of people who kept going against the odds. Yes, perhaps try to educate parents a bit about it – but probably just by including it in passing in a general package offering them a mixture of things they could do to help motivate/unstick/move their children forward with learning. I would then try to ensure that it was one of the things that teachers could keep at the back of their minds when trying to move pupils on, or when being faced with them making fatalistic comments about themselves. Even then however, it would need to be rooted firmly in them helping a child to see how their own endeavour in a previous area had resulted in eventual success.

      The events in history question is a tricky one! It is pretty easy to think of large scale attempts to impose a belief system which have resulted in a lot of suppression and blood shed, but I’m not sure that these are appropriate, and indeed could back-fire as a debating tool! I think that the general principle that you grow a mindset in someone, you don’t impose it on them, is probably the simplest thing to say.

      All the best,


  16. Kero says:

    Every now and then, I’m surprised at how cynical some teachers are when it comes to academic research, about how useless it is. (Maybe it’s because I haven’t entered the teaching profession)

    The whole idea of things being ‘common sense’ really irks me on so many levels. As it stands, I feel that most people are not really conscious of the difference between fixed-growth mindsets. I would say for myself, even though I support the idea of growth mindset, most of my thinking is more of a fixed mindset. Indeed, I would argue that most of society is based off fixed mindsets.

    There are so much psychology that are considered as common sense. Yet, that doesn’t stop people from engaging in behaviour that is contradictory to the so called common sense. They aren’t aware. More often than not, It’s only when people are made aware, that it suddenly becomes common sense with hindsight.

    Having finished that rant. For me, having come from an environment that praised intelligence and talent, the whole growth mindset has been very enlightening in terms of understanding my own behaviour and tendency to be a perfectionist. I very much support the idea of growth mindsets being a focused.

    There is one issue though. I have concerns over the emphasis of effort within children and the long term impacts of these view points. We de-emphasis intelligence as being fixed by suggesting to children that they can change this with effort. However, what about the idea that children may develop fixed mindsets surrounding effort?

    What stops a child-adult from developing a fixed mindset surrounding effort – will the future contain a lot of people thinking “I’m a lazy person…”

  17. […] other points: firstly, in our rush to make students more resilient we might be overlooking some of the positives in having a more fixed view of the world. And secondly, many teachers work in environments which actively work against them adopting a […]

  18. […] admit that we probably all have fixed and inflexible beliefs about something. A while back I wrote a defence of the fixed mindset and it’s gratifying to find out this kind of thinking is useful. I didn’t manage to […]

  19. […] Professor Dweck at TED earlier this year. Busting fear and defeating rejection in the classroom. A defence of the fixed mindset. Growth Mindset – So What's […]

  20. Philip James says:

    Have I missed the point or have you? The fixed mindset represents the idea that skills and intelligence are innate and cannot be significantly modified or developed. Once a ‘poor student’ at maths, then forever condemned to be bottom of the class. This is not the same as having or holding ideas that are themselves fixed.
    The growth mindset is the idea that through effort, and practice I can improve. This is more likely to involve building on fixed ideas already learned that discarding them. Additionally Dennett’s thoughts on cultural transmission fit in very well with the notion of purposeful practice where the goals for improvement would involve successfully acquiring the received ideas in any subject we propose to master.

  21. Joe K says:

    If David is an ‘educator’ God help his pupils. As others have pointed out this rant of his is based on an elementary misunderstanding of Dweck’s basic concept which concerns the self-image or self-understanding of people and their attitudes towards learning and effort.

    Look if someone believes, no matter what effort they put in, that they ‘cannot’ learn to do something it becomes perfectly rational for them to give up on it. However, people can be wrong in that believe and encouraging the self-effort required to maximally develop the individual’s own powers in the world should be at the heart of any form of education.

    In my lab we often repeat this maxim: 1% inspiration 99% perspiration and it happens to be true. Hard work and effort are what produces success in almost any activity.

    Look I was written off as an ‘educational failure’ by lazy idiotic teachers in high school. I have three degrees (including a PhD), several peer-reviewed publication in biology etc. What I needed was someone to get me to believe in myself. It going from a self-image of ‘I can’t’ to ‘why not?’ was the key that made all the difference.

    • David Didau says:

      “In my lab we often repeat this maxim: 1% inspiration 99% perspiration and it happens to be true.” What’s the evidence for this? Sounds hard to falsify. A bit like growth mindset: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/psychology/growth-mindset-bollocks/

      What you seem to miss is that it really is “perfectly reasonable” to give up on stuff you find hard in order to concentrate what you’re good at. This is almost certainly an evolutionary adaption. Our difficulty in education is that we’re fighting against children’s biologically primary motivational biases.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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