Is growth mindset pseudoscience?

Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.

Carl Sagan

What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? The basis of all reputable science is prediction and falsification: a claim has to be made which we can then attempt to disprove. If we can’t disprove it, the claim holds and we accept the theory as science. If the claim doesn’t hold, we’ve learned something, we move one, we make progress. That’s science.

Pseudoscience doesn’t work like that. It makes claims, sure, but they’re so slippery you can’t disprove any of them. We all know about phrenology, astrology, homeopathy and learning styles, but sometimes junk science is harder to spot. Consider for instance Electric Universe Theory: the basic idea is that Newton and Einstein were both wrong and the formation and existence of various features of the universe can be better explained by electromagnetism than by gravity. So what? Science writer and professional debunker of mumbo jumbo, Michael Shermer, says the following in Scientific American:

My friends at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example, tell me they use both Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativity theory in computing highly accurate spacecraft trajectories to the planets. If Newton and Einstein are wrong, I inquired of EU proponent Wallace Thornhill, can you generate spacecraft flight paths that are more accurate than those based on gravitational theory? No, he replied. GPS satellites in orbit around Earth are also dependent on relativity theory, so I asked the conference host David Talbott if EU theory offers anything like the practical applications that theoretical physics has given us. No. Then what does EU theory add? A deeper understanding of nature, I was told. Oh.

You see? Nothing testable? No claims you could disprove: no falsifiable predictions.

What has this got to do with Carol Dweck’s wildly popular theory of growth mindsets? Haven’t we all agreed that this is based on hard, testable science? There’s certainly nothing wrong with her studies, all of which have been scrutinised by far more qualified and sceptical minds than mine. But there are reasons for doubt. As Scott Alexander puts it, “Good research shows that inborn ability (including but not limited to IQ) matters a lot, and that the popular prejudice that people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough is both wrong and harmful.”

Obviously that’s nowhere near enough to dismiss growth mindsets as a theory but it should give us pause for thought.

Mindsets theory makes several falsifiable predictions:

  1. Having a growth mindset leads to better academic achievement
  2. Having a fixed mindset leads to poorer academic achievement
  3. Giving students a growth mindset intervention (which focuses on explaining the neuroscience involved) improves students’ academic performance.

Dweck’s studies, and those of her colleagues, provide impressive data. You’ll have to forgive me but this is just a quick, off-the-cuff post and I can’t be bothered to dig up any statistics for us to pour over here. Suffice it to say that if you want to find evidence to prove any of those claims, there’s a lot of it out there.

But, and it’s a big but, when schools try a growth mindset intervention without support from Dweck or her colleagues, sometimes it doesn’t work. Maybe you’ve tried telling kids about growth mindsets and how this can turn them into academic superheroes? Has it worked? If it has, I’m glad for you, if it hasn’t, the problem might be that either you or your students have a ‘false growth mindset’.

I heard Dweck talk about the false growth mindset back in June and thought at the time that it explained away some of the difficulties I have with her theories. Basically, if you don’t get the benefits of a growth mindset it’s because you haven’t really got a growth mindset. You’re doing it wrong. In fact, you’re probably just pretending to have a growth mindset because having a fixed mindset means you’re a bad person. Could this, perhaps, explain the trouble the EEF had in replicating the benefits of in their Changing Mindsets report?

The problem with a theory that explains away all the objections is that it becomes unfalsifiable. There are no conditions in which the claim could not be true. For instance, when fossil evidence disproved the widely believed ‘fact’ that the world was created in 4004 BC, Philip Henry Gosse came up with the wonderful argument that God created the fossils to make the world look older than it actually is in order to fox us and make Himself appear even more fabulous and omnipotent. Isn’t this a similar trick to the one Dweck is trying to pull off?

If you adjust the definitions of your theory in order to fit the facts then is the theory science or pseudoscience? If no amount of data or evidence can prove Dweck’s claims false because she can just say, Well, that’s a false growth mindset, not a real one, then what’s the difference between her and Gosse?

To be fair, Dweck isn’t the problem; it’s some of the claims made by the hordes of wildly enthusiastic adherents in schools that really make me cringe. This little beauty a contender for the most pestilential, toxic thing I’ve ever seen in a school:


Not having a growth mindset is actually, like, evil.

But let’s be clear: I’m not saying growth mindset is wrong or useless. Clearly it isn’t. But, it does contradict a lot of research in other fields and it also flies in the face of many people’s lived experience: there really are people with fixed mindsets who are actually very successful and not helpless at all. (Ah, but are there really? Maybe they’ve all got false fixed mindsets?) In answer to the question posed by the title, growth mindset might well be great science and I’m just too stupid to understand all the rigour and stuff, but if it is, it wants to be careful about moving those definitional goalposts and try to sound a little less miraculous.

If it does all turn out to be a house of cards, we’ll can all look forward to spending the next few decades trying to justify and contort ourselves in exactly the same way we do about learning styles, whole word language learning, NLP and whatever the hell other noddy ideas bounce along. If it doesn’t, I’ll still be able to maintain my wise facade and say that it was worth asking awkward questions. Win win.

102 Responses to Is growth mindset pseudoscience?

  1. If you try (group work) and it doesn’t work for you, you get told that you’ve obviously not done it right. The assumption that (group work) is obviously a good thing is never allowed to be doubted. Substitute many things into the brackets.

    • David Didau says:

      Yeah. Nice example, thanks

    • mmiweb says:

      or … if you try (group work) and it doesn’t work for you then it is obviously a bad thing which does not work. The assumption that you have done it badly is never allowed. Substitute ….

      • If you are saying that sometimes a cynical teacher will try something once and then state it doesn’t work (while never wanting it to work), I accept that this can happen. However in my case, I have taught for over twenty years. I have been caught in a particular viscious circle regarding group work and the established assumptions recently. Articles which you can look up by Tom Bennett and Scenes of the Battle ground (humorous version) restored my sanity. Finally great if it works for you. But let’s not have whole school policies on it.

  2. Amir says:

    Hi David,

    “If you adjust your theory in order to fit the facts then is the theory science or pseudoscience?”

    Well if the field of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics have anything to go by, they’re in constant adjustment due to new evidence but they’re not considered pseudoscience science.

    I agree Dweck does herself no favours with recent comments but that does not make growth mindset pseudoscience. A fixed mindset does not make you Darth Vader, but it does limit your potential. Also, where is your evidence that people with fixed mindsets are successful too? I am not saying you are wrong, but it is dangerous to question the validity of a theory with your own theory that could similarly be questioned.

    You have to be careful about going into the realms of sensationalism.

    • David Didau says:

      Yeah, I phrased that badly – what I mean is that if you adjust your theory so that it can never be wrong THEN the theory becomes pseudoscience. But I think you knew that, right?

      Where’s my evidence that people with fixed mindsets are successful? Look around you! Of course we could endlessly debate what the term means, but who’s got time?

      • James says:

        Dweck’s studies begin by identifying whether participants have a fixed or growth mindset as a default. As such, her own research identifies a large proportion of undergraduates, at top institutions, have a fixed mindset. They certainly have managed to be successful regardless.

    • Michael says:

      Comparing to quantum Mechanics is not relevant. There are many variations of theories in this field and some are being discarded or modified all the time as new evidence is considered. This is evidence that it is not psuedoscientific. For example Learning styles (or my favorite Soma-types) were not originally psuedoscientific. Their rational and predictions are actually clear (Though they can seem silly- but try getting your head around entanglement or tunneling) the problem is that no rigorous evidence supported them/ and infact even countered their claims and as a result the ideas were deemed pseudoscience.

  3. The problem with growth mind set is unpicking the research from the discourse. The actual research that she often cites relates to perceptions of a growth mind set. In other words its not about a “mind set” per se but rather about the belief that you can get “smarter” as opposed to a belief where you can’t.

    She seemed to find that there is in society a perception that intelligence is innate. People who aren’t succeeding don’t try because they have decided that it’s not possible to succeed.

    In that sense it’s research, which has few down sides. Who is going to learn less well because they believe they can get “smarter”.

    So if you take the premise that it is knowing that you can get smarter then there are only two outcomes. Null and positive. It can’t be negative because …. well it can’t.

    The issue is then whether it has any real impact, which would be difficult to prove because it would rely on self reporting. Do you have a growth mind set Y / N.

    Self reporting is riddled with problem not least subjectivity.

    So that is a problem. Then there is the discourse, which is a problem on a whole new level. The discourse creates a mind set dichotomy: fixed and growth. Then you get all kinds of attributes, which become fixed and growth mind sets.This isn’t “a belief in” it is the view that there actually is a fixed and growth mind set.

    Let’s be honest it is a dichotomy are often used to bully people. Those who agree with me have growth mind sets those that don’t have fixed mind sets etc etc but it’s not what she quotes in her empirical research as far as I know.

    And I’ve heard Dweck engage with the discourse but I’ve only ever seen “the belief in” aspect of it referenced in her research.

    Of course, like most I haven’t read all of it. I presume that feeling you can get smarter is better than thinking you can’t even if it’s not true. I don’t need to read lot’s of research to accept that point.

    On the other hand there is this whole conversation going on, which sounds like complete rubbish but where it comes from who knows and even if you spent days researching it and wrote the blog to end all blogs debunking it. No one would listen because the kind of people who advocate growth mind sets are fixed in their views on the issue. I know because they don’t agree with me. Kind of thing

  4. Conor Heaven says:

    David, I know why you have issues with all this mindset business. Posters like the one you showed, do not paint the situation in a positive light.

    Take mindsets as the idea of fixed or malleable intelligence. What would be the bloody point in teaching if you knew you couldn’t change it? What would be the bloody point in turning up as a kid if you knew you couldn’t change it?

    The most successful learners I have met have demonstrated many skills and beliefs. One of them being focused on improving because they think they can.

    • David Didau says:

      Does anybody not believe that intelligence is malleable? Even the highest estimates for heritability​ of IQ only put it at 80%!

      I’m not at all sure you do know why I have misgivings. I take the view the GM, if it’s actually a thing, is context dependent. I really doubt whether it’s transferable. The posters are just very poor implementation of an already dubious idea.

      What’s the point of teaching? So kids know more. The more you know, the more you can think about; the more you think about the cleverer you’ll become. Or at least, that’s limited view.

      • olivercaviglioli says:

        What strikes me in the whole mindset question is the assumption that one has either one or the other mindset (fixed or growth). Can it not be possible to not have an orientation?

        Equally is it binary? Why not a continuum?

        • alex lowry says:

          I would say it’s binary, for sure. If fixed and growth were arbitrary values, which as labels they very well could be, then yes that would be a problem. But in terms of data, we are looking at change / no change, which is clear and binary.

      • Conor Heaven says:

        I am making assumptions about your GM views from reading this and your other posts. I also dislike posters (and meaningless assemblies) that box children into fixed or growth mindset groups.

        Dr Tim O’Brien’s TES article was great on this.

        My issue is that successful learners need a range of things to be just that. As well as a great teacher who extols expert knowledge, you need loads of other conditions to be right. Not as simple as turn up, listen, off you go.

        I see weaker students at the start of the year, turn up and believe they can get better. Belief does not = success. Even effort does not = success.

        But they listen to the strategies that will make them smarter, try them out, e.g. make mistakes and learn from them, listening carefully, working diligently on a task, effectively assessing themselves and looking for things to improve, etc.

        Indeed most of this is just good teaching and learning stuff.

        The difference is, many of these children catch up and in some cases outperform some higher starting students who genuinely believe they are smart and don’t have to do much to stay in that position.

        Bearing in mind I work with 6 year olds, they need to know they can get smarter (many kids used to fixed ability groupings and set work believe their position in the class and these can stick through school).

        So this is why I think explicitly teaching 6 year olds who don’t believe their intelligence is malleable due to home and school experience is crucial. I think the younger children believe they can achieve more through hard work (and other things) or need to work harder to make sure they reach their potential the better.

        If they believe this (a form of growth mindset) they will work hard to know more and so on like you said at the end of your point. Earlier we get them to engage in this way, the better.

        Ps. I do not name it GM to the children. We constantly talk about strategies to get smarter. We teach them about brain being a muscle etc. GM is a feeling, belief or mindset – children need discussion, experiences and understanding to believe it.

        They also need to understand that FM is normal, what it will feel like, what to do when it happens etc. So don’t show them a poster depicting it as evil, this is where I think we agree that people are abusing it’s intention. For me, I model my FM when teaching art. The children use strategies taught to help me deliver the content better.

        • David Didau says:

          It’s really not that I dislike GM – I actually started off really wanting to like but becoming more cynical as the bandwagon rolled on. Sometimes, if it’s too good to be true it’s too good to be true.

          I absolutely believe people can get smarter: by knowing more.

          • alex lowry says:

            So smarts is the acquisition of knowledge? Or is it the application of knowledge?

            This is a constructive question with no intent of putting you on the spot. We are in gray area here.

        • Pete says:

          I really liked what you wrote. I have been reading and researching GM for about 10 months, and I think the way you have described your real world experiences comes as close as anyone I have read explaining Growth MIndset, even though you don’t us the term. By the way, I don’t think its that important to use the term, as I am sure you know Dweck didn’t use the term in her original research, she used ‘incremental theory’.

  5. Amanda Triccas says:

    I have not looked into this very much but suspect that it’s like a number of things discussed by Daniel Muijs in Effective Teaching: there’s the nucleus of credibility where the concept is useful when employed precisely and sensitively and then there’s the broad generalisation where it’s over-promoted, applied with a sledgehammer and distorted beyond recognition. Once educational publishers and inset providers start monetising something, you realise what you’ve got is ersatz and dumbed down.

  6. Tom Burkard says:

    Something rather obvious seems to have eluded this discussion: what exactly do we mean by ‘getting smarter’? Virtually all children ‘get smarter’ as they go through school. A 16-yr-old at the bottom of the class can perform all kinds of cognitive tasks that are beyond the brightest 4-yr-old.

    If we take the ‘growth mindset’ to imply that pupils can get smarter in terms of raising their IQs, then we’re up against the Lake Wobegone problem: all of our kids are above average.

    Good teachers have always assumed that their pupils can learn, as has been mentioned. Kids pick up on this without being told, and teachers’ expectations are seldom disappointed, whether they bang on about them or not. I suspect that Carol Dweck is actually pulling a confidence trick on teachers–trying to convince them that they can improve. Maybe it works. And maybe it’s just the Hawthorne Effect, which is almost invariably present when ambitious educators put their ideas into action.

  7. 4c3d says:

    I think education is littered with examples of good intentions as far as improving learning is concerned. It’s a sort of quest to find the magic potion, the switch or whatever that will enable all learners to be the best they can be. We are so anxious to find this one thing that when we find something, a hint of something even, that “works” we go for it. That is when the “corruption” happens. We pin our hopes on it and begin to defend it to the skeptical.

    Education is seduced by labels, we really love a label. Conor Heaven (earlier comment) said “My issue is that successful learners need a range of things to be just that.” This to me is the crux of it, its a range of things that makes successful learners successful. There is no one fix, no one magic bullet but that does not stop people trying to find it or even claiming they have found “it”.

    My own experience as a teacher of nearly 4 decades and the last 4 in reflection/research has been spent trying to find the answer to this question “Why do some learners get it and others don’t?” There are many variants that include: with some teachers and not others, with some pears and not others, when presented in some ways and not others etc. My conclusion is that there is a lot in play at any one moment in the learning experience. There are a set of definable skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours I have found that influence our ability to learn. The learning environment we find ourselves in can be “toxic” to us and we find learning difficult. We can find ways of overcoming the limitations our environment places on our ability to learn. We can begin to understand the emotional impact of learning challenges too. My best “educated” guess so far as to what influences our success as a learner is something I have termed “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ”. You can find my ideas here:

    As to IQ being at the route of an ability to learn I am not sure, certainly not if it is innate and fixed at birth.

    • David Didau says:

      Nothing is “fixed at birth”, but arguing against the strong role of heritability (even the most conservative estimates put it at 50% for almost all human characteristics) is taking an anti-science, wish-fulfillment line.

      • 4c3d says:

        Its a difficult one this issue of heritability. Certainly in sport we can see physical inherited attributes that can suggest success. I recall listening to Steve Redgrave tell of how he recruited certain body types for future rowers. Yet without coaching and support these people may have never even attempted to become Olympians. We can not as easily see the learning potential people have as we can their physical potential. What is more we begin to react to our surroundings as soon as we become consciously aware of them (and and I not even going to suggest when that may be!). It is sort of like being modified at birth by whatever we encounter and so what was there, inherited, at the start is obscured. I don’t know how we predict learning ability/intelligence all that I know is that I am often surprised by what some students achieve when given the opportunity and the right circumstances.

          • 4c3d says:

            Thanks David. No I had not read it. Having done so I am left wondering if IQ has a flavour, a sort of mathematical or musical or English flavor and we each may posses one or more flavors. I can hear Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence argument being stirred with this sort of thinking. If it does why must it be one of a set of recognised subjects or interests? Next is “innate ability” referred to by the author the same as intelligence? My own thinking on intelligence is linked to our ability to use the resources that are within our reach or control to achieve a desired outcome. If this is the case then innate ability is different to intelligence. I may have a innate ability to set and maintain a rhythm, to play music in my mind but if I am not able to compose or to duplicate what I am hearing then it may suggest a lack of intelligence. Perhaps grit and determination are not the lubricators of learning, of intelligence or of making the most of innate abilities that we look for. Perhaps it is our perceptions, the way we see things when we first encounter them, that provides us a “gift”. A sort of pattern recognition system that aligns with the way we are “wired”, think polarized glasses and 3D films. My experience as a teacher of working with people who would claim no ability in a subject and then have it presented to them in a way that they recognise and can work with makes it hard to accept innate ability as a concept unless there is some “switch” or set of circumstances that conspire to expose or subjugate that ability. More to thunk on!

  8. dougjcullen says:

    Why Am I always drawn to commenting on your Growth Mindset posts? I guess it is because you have written so frequently about something I have put a lot of my own time into using within classrooms.

    You make several excellent points about the vocal adherents and the limiting nature of focusing on just mindsets.

    As a cognitive neuroscientist specialising in using scientific theory and evidence in secondary school classrooms (right at the front line of teaching), I use a wide range of techniques from cognitive science and educational research.

    For me the biggest issue in any piece of research or theory is when the proponents only focus on that one theory. Too often Growth Mindset has been pushed a silver bullet (not by you David, but certainly by others and Dweck certainly bears some guilt on this front). It should be pointed out that mindset theory does not say that innate ability is less important than mindset, rather, that everyone can improve regardless of their innate ability.

    Note: my own research is indicating that a student who has a growth mindset and is already working at the full extent of their abilities is not going to reach a magical hidden level of achievement. For example, a student with a growth mindset who worked incredibly hard during their GCSEs will not have much more to give at A-level. This is problematic for schools because each student’s forecast A-level grades are based on the fact that they can achieve more at A-level because they can work harder/better. Some students will underperform at A-level, compared to GCSE, because they had a growth mindset and worked incredibly hard at GCSE. The A-level forecasts these students receive are beyond what their innate ability can obtain (certainly within the time limit of the 20 months allowed for A-level study).

    A Growth Mindset is important, the evidence supporting the influence of mindset is valid and reliable (I’ve even replicated several of the studies myself, so I am happy that mindset influences attainment and that mindset can be changed). However, even though it is important it is also just one of many factors influencing education motivation and achievement.

    Having conducted factorial analyses on the main influences in educational attainment, and having run systems analyses of educational practice, Growth Mindset shouldn’t ever be considered as a factor on its own. If you run a mindset intervention and hope that it will work you are being naive because you obviously don’t understand the factors that influence human learning. Poorly run interventions, that have paid no heed to whether mindset interventions can, or should, be the first intervention run are a risky way to apply scientific theory.

    For me the issue has developed into:

    Teachers are passionate and desperately want to help their students, who they care deeply about, to achieve the best possible start in life. Teachers are also judged by government measures on the attainment of their students, with a complete disregard for the realistic attainment of individual students. The pressure to increase attainment levels is immense and yet the actual training provided for teachers on how to use scientific theory in the classroom is virtually non-existent. Every so often an idea, that seems simple, ‘pops up’ and is promoted as being a solution. However, the proponents of the idea fail to explain just how complex human learning and motivation really is. For example, Dweck has spent a lot of time investigating one small aspect of human motivation and often fails to place that one small part into the complex reality of human behaviour. Of course mindset interventions are going to frequently fail in the real world, just as every other single-focus intervention frequently fails in the real world.


    Teaching needs to begin taking a broader view of human learning and intervention. However, to do this teachers need to develop a much greater level of expertise in understanding human learning and motivation. The government needs to accept that teachers need career long development. Initial teacher training needs to be improved and a full teaching professional body needs to be established (with responsibility for monitoring standards and use of evidence).

    Researchers also need to stop trying to study small factors in isolation – that works in a lab and a heavily controlled field trial but it doesn’t work in the real world. Researchers need to work as teachers and teachers need to take sabbaticals to work as researchers. The disconnect between the artificial theories created in universities and messy world of classroom teaching must be bridged. Growth Mindsets is an example of where a simple idea in a university professor’s office falls down because the complexities of the situation have been ignored.

    To help bridge the gap between academia and classrooms every school/partnership should be given the funding to employ a specialist in educational research. A specialist who has to teach real classes. A specialist with full research method training.

    An example of interventions that focus on multiple factors:

    Cognitive behaviour therapy never uses just one intervention or approach. Cognitive behaviour coaching doesn’t just use one intervention or approach. Multiple interventions are targeted at each weakness, usually starting with the most damaging or urgent weakness. Academic Coaching programmes focus on multiple aspects and are proving to be incredibly successful (an area I am currently working in). Education needs to follow the experiences of psychology and coaching and stop trying to find a quick fix and instead work on identifying the various issues and then finding interventions to work with each of them.

    • RG says:

      I enjoyed reading your comments, DougJCullen. They ring true.

    • mariusfrank says:

      Great to hear of another neuroscientist in the classroom Doug. I did a degree in Neurobiology and nearly became a leading world authority on deaf mice before entering the teaching profession (-:
      The term “growth mindset” is of course misused, as much as “fixed ability teaching” is far too prevalent.
      Delve into the amazing work of Reuben Feuerstein, the daddy of “inside the black box” years before Guy Claxton, accelerated learning, “meta-cognition” and other more recent approaches, and that shows the power of a “growing minds” mindset!

  9. JK says:

    Dweck’s recent big mindset study found that a mindset intervention had no effect on school achievement. This is a strong refutation of the mindset theory, but Dweck et al. portray the findings as a great success because they found, in a worst kind of garden of forking paths analysis, that the intervention nevertheless helped a poorly performing subset of the sample.

  10. King of Last Friday says:

    Mine is not a popular assertion but it is closely linked to this article. I’ve noticed for a number of years now that leaders of teaching and learning in schools are disproportionately English teachers which might explain a lot. It might seem that I’m indulging in stereotypes, but in several actual cases, my observations support my assertion; namely that leaders in T&L are in general entirely hostile to empirical research for a number of reasons.

    1) their specialities rarely include any statistical content nor engagement with ‘the scientific method’.
    2) as undergraduates, they have often been exposed to a manner of argument (call it post-structuralist, deconstructionist, Lacanian, post-Saussurean-it matters not) which explicitly refutes any relationship between literature (or discourse) and an extra-literary reality…in some ‘hard-nominalist’ circles, the existence of an objective ‘external’ reality is denied.
    3) they have often been taught that all literature, all narratives, all discourse in fact is simply in communion with itself

    This of course militates against the use of empirical research in the evaluation of teaching methods and explains the persistence of some really bad ideas in education. T&L is effectively itself a pseudoscience since so many of its leading lights operate and evaluate in response to fashion, much as proponents of ‘Theory’ tend to rise and fall on tides of acclaim earned by most successfully calibrating their latest ‘theories’ to the current radical zeitgeist rather than any semblance of determinate reality.

    I know you’re an English teacher and for all I know, you may take the view that literature is a window on reality and that poetry is indeed referential to more than other poems. You may even be a strong advocate for the realistic novel. However, the last two heads of T&L (both English teachers) I came across, when pushed, would resort to facile arguments about the effectiveness of various teaching methods which only seemed to refer to other teaching methods or a sort of highly subjective ‘affective calculus’ involving themes around self-esteem and therapeutic worth. They seemed blind or immune to the all-too-obvious fact that certain methods were patently failing.

    Just a thought, anyway.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi King – I think you may be over generalising from your experience here, but I do take the point that very many SLT (not just English teachers) are far too wedded to narrative fallacies and are respond badly to having their ideas (and thus their sense of self) threatened.

      I am wholly in favour of empirical data but do agree that much (most?) edu-research is the most terrible guff. T&L isn’t *even* a pseudoscience.

  11. debaser says:

    ‘Does anybody not believe that intelligence is malleable?’

    Well, in my experience a lot of students, and indeed some teachers, simply don’t believe that intelligence is malleable. The continued prevalence of the term ‘gifted and talented’ in many schools is evidence enough of the enduring power of fixed mindsets surrounding innate ability. The growth mindset is a useful tool for dispelling that myth and encouraging teachers to be mindful of the language they use when giving feedback.

    The equation for me is this: growth mindset + sufficiently challenging curriculum + good quality teaching + favorable external factors (stability at home etc) = student fulfills their innate potential. With so many variables, it’s no wonder that the effect of adopting a growth mindset is so hard to quantify. Take the growth mindset out of the equation though, and I’d argue that success would be much harder for the vast majority of young people.

    If would worry about the prospects of a hypothetical student who didn’t believe in the malleability of intelligence, who saw feedback/challenges as a personal attack rather than a chance to develop and who didn’t see effort and progress as inextricably linked UNLESS they had a supremely high level of innate intelligence. Perhaps that’s what the successful fixed mindsetters you mention have in common?

    • I am delighted to have found this debate.

      In particular, you said “growth mindset + sufficiently challenging curriculum + good quality teaching + favorable external factors (stability at home etc) = student fulfills their innate potential”

      This approach resonates with me very strongly.

      In our work on mathematical resilience (eg, we have found the factors to be: growth mindset + challenging (perceived relevant and/or engaging) curriculum + good quality (inclusive) teaching + appropriate support (eg home/coach/time to think …).

      This has been used to raise expectations and attainment in maths so meets the requirements discussed, but has the status of a useful model that has had some statistical testing on a 3-factor version which has been adopted by the National Numeracy Charity.

      All the best, Sue

  12. klausjones says:

    Great article but I’m not sure the use of falsifiability helps or just invites unnecessary questions about the philosophy of science. Hence, I’m all for questioning Dweck’s position but to do so by invoking a contentious and highly problematic theory about the boundary between science and pseudo-science seems unnecessary and distracting. As many great minds have argued we cannot reduce science to the test for falsifiability and to do so is disingenuous, and misleading. Which I’m sure is not your intention, but for a take down on Dweck maybe the philosophy of science should be left alone.

    • King of last Friday says:

      No you’re correct. There are areas in which falsifiability is not a viable proposition. We then need to rely on replicable confirmation. This raises the question of what objectively qualifies as confirmation. I’d suggest in this respect that principle number one should be: discount any evidence provided by investigators with a vested interest in the acceptance of the conclusion which they are presenting.

    • cbokhove says:

      This comment resonates a lot with me (if I understand your stance correctly). The requirement of falsifiability and also what is real science and what isn’t, is philosophical and paradigmatic. I would know several examples of what I think most would certainly not call pseudoscience, yet have falsifiability issues. Best not to open that box of Pandora, unless we want to openly philosophise.

    • David Didau says:

      Can you explain *why* falsifiability might be irrelevant? And btw, this is not intended as a ‘take down’; I’m just questioning certainties.

      • Jenny Vajda says:

        Falsifiability might be irrelevant if it is regarding something that can vary rather than is always false or always right. In my understanding of Carol Dweck’s (earlier) work some people have a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets or they might feel that some skills are malleable while others aren’t. A theory about learning seems pretty malleable rather than something that can be proven true or false.

        A post I wrote after reading one of her books:

        Intelligence is not a fixed entity, but believing that may make it so
        April 14, 2015

        Research in the field of social psychology suggests that people have two different basic beliefs about intelligence. A few people fall into a middle ground between the two basic beliefs but the majority tend to fall into one or the other set of beliefs. [1]

        One group tends to see intelligence as a fixed entity that you either have or don’t have; that you are born with a certain amount and that amount can’t be changed much throughout life; [1], that you either are an Albert Einstein type or you aren’t. This belief is somewhat true in that research does suggest that intelligence is 40 to 80% due to genetics – how smart your parents are does correlate with how smart you may be. [2], However that leaves up to 60% of intelligence due to your own health status and work effort. If you believe that you will never be as smart as Albert Einstein so it just isn’t worth trying to improve or study, then that is a self-fulfilling belief. Someone who doesn’t study is unlikely to improve their skills or to stick to a difficult problem long enough to solve it.

        Albert Einstein wasn’t a straight A student but that didn’t stop him from sticking with his field of interest and breaking new ground in the understanding of physics. But he probably wasn’t as smart as Jean Liedloff was in the field of child rearing where she broke new ground in the understanding of natural parenting strategies. And Jean Liedloff probably wasn’t as smart as Albert Einstein was in the field of physics but that is okay. We all are better off for having experts in a variety of fields of study.

        Jean Leidloff is less well known then Albert Einstein but she did go where few before her had gone – and she stayed for a few years. Jean is best known for her book, The Continuum Concept, published in 1975. She described her time spent living with a South American tribe and her observations of their parenting practices. The book formed a basis for the attachment parenting movement.

        The second basic theory of intelligence is that intelligence is incremental – that intelligence is something fluid that can be changed and increased with more study and effort. [1] This core belief is associated with students viewing learning as a fun self challenge. Students with a more incremental theory of intelligence are more likely to choose challenging learning tasks and to avoid tasks that they have already mastered (super boring, man). Students with a more entity theory of intelligence may be more likely to choose tasks that they will be able to complete easily as a way of proving to themselves how smart they are or to show others how smart they are. Students with the entity theory of intelligence may be more likely to feel threatened by other students who do well on a test or project; while students with the incremental theory of intelligence primarily judge their progress against their own previous work – with intelligence as a fluid changeable trait they are eager to learn and challenge themselves against themselves. [1]

        Intelligence is fluid over the whole lifespan. Reaction times may be faster in our teens and twenties but social skills continue to improve on average with each decade of life. [3]

        In the U.S. the No Child Left Behind legislation greatly increased the number of tests that young children are made to take and teachers can lose their jobs and schools can lose their funding if children don’t perform well on the tests. [4] The policy may be leaving all the children behind by teaching them the entity theory of intelligence – that intelligence is something that you can measure with a test and that you either have or you don’t. The entity theory of intelligence is associated with an increased risk of giving up when faced with unfamiliar, confusing, or difficult work. [1] More children are leaving the school system before they graduate, that also can leave them behind. [11, 12] Teaching to the test may help bring some children up to average but it may also be leaving the self-challengers in a state of mind numbing boredom and leading them to dropping out; or to only working for the easy ‘A’ instead of working to their maximum capability; or to acting up in class and becoming a behavior problem.

        We need people with a variety of types of interests and skills and who see challenge as something fun and worth the work. The incremental theory of intelligence is a more accurate reflection of how our brains work over the decades. Testing young children every year of their early lives may be fostering the more inaccurate entity theory of intelligence. The good news is that children can be taught the incremental theory of intelligence simply by encouraging more projects with learning goals rather than performance goals. [1]

        A learning goal might sound something like: “This task may be a little challenging but that is okay it will help you learn a new skill and the grade isn’t important.” And a performance goal might sound something like: “This task will be graded and your grade says something about your level of intelligence” –> and in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs –> “and your teacher’s job and your schools budget may be affected by your grade.”.

        Young children’s core beliefs may be harmed by the frequent testing that has become standard and high stakes that have become associated with the tests, in my opinion at least.

        /Disclosure: I am a nutritionist. Disclaimer: Information presented on this site is not intended as a substitute for medical care and should not be considered as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment by your physician. Please see a health professional for individualized health care services./

        Carol S. Dweck, Self-theories; Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, (Psychology Press, 1999, Ann Arbor) [1]

        Excerpt from a second post on the topic, one’s mindset about change may affect more than school grades

        The fixed or entity theory of self might suggest to a child or adult that their ability to change their eating habits or fitness level is not possible while a fluid incremental theory of self might suggest that with effort the child or adult’s ability to change their eating habits or fitness level is possible. It can be helpful to not make weight loss or size changes the primary goal when trying to help someone address eating habits. Changing habits can support a healthy gradual change in weight or size or may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes or high blood pressure from developing even if there aren’t large changes in weight or size. Cognitive behavior therapy can be helpful for promoting healthy eating and lifestyle changes. [2, 3]


        Fixed mindsets may be a protective measure for us that evolved because a snap judgement in dangerous situations can save lives. Stereotypes may be part of the fear response that saves the brain a few milliseconds of decision making time. Excerpt from a third post on Entity theory and stereotypes:

        The tendency to make snap judgments about oneself or others based on one experience or one’s latest experience may be more of a risk when the entity theory of personality is the core belief compared to the incremental theory. The tendency to make sweeping judgments may help individuals feel more comfortable in a confusing or difficult world or it might seem like it saves time. [1]

        First impressions can be revealing but they can also be wrong; people can act differently in different situations or at different times of their lives.

        The incremental theory of personality traits may also lead people to make predictions about how others might act in the future, based on a first impression or the most recent impression, but it also leaves room for the belief that people can change over time. [1]

        • Jenny Vajda says:

          Falsifiability might be irrelevant if what you’re considering is a variable term – a learning theory seems more like a personality trait to me, which is variable along a range and may vary for different aspects of life, rather than something that could be proven as always being constant.

          • David Didau says:

            I return to the Sagan quote I began with: “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.”

            Sounds like the GM claims are “veridically worthless”.

          • Jenny Vajda says:

            After reading the rest of the comments, thanks for a stimulating article and discussion thread, and one last attempt at sharing my feedback – The term “false growth mindset” makes sense to me from a perspective that changing pre-existing core beliefs is very difficult and time consuming.

            I have been working on trying to change some inappropriate core beliefs learned in early childhood.

            An EMDR therapy session revealed some erroneous messages that I may have learned as a child during a trauma situation. While revealing the core beliefs was somewhat immediately life changing for me at the time I have since found that reprogramming the deep instincts/habits that were based on those erroneous beliefs has been much more difficult – even with lots of professional therapy – not just a school teacher.

            Teaching someone about a growth mindset might give someone the sense of the idea but it probably would not change beliefs that already exist. If the student already has deeper feelings that learning is fixed rather than it being changeable then it would take some repetitive cognitive therapy to change. A student might be able to pass a test about the growth mindset theory without having ever gotten anywhere near changing their own deeper core beliefs about learning – which would give a student who could pass a test but who might not change their study habits or core beliefs about trying harder on a problem.

            Thanks again.

          • Jenny Vajda says:

            I hadn’t seen your reply David because I had left one half started and it was covering up your reply. – I do see your point too actually – yes, the learning theory probably is “veridically worthless” by that definition. It is kind of like philosophy of learning and philosophy isn’t quantifiable or provable. However I did find Carol Dweck’s book very helpful for my own growth and it helped me understand some of my own inner conflicts better – so inspiring and wonderful indeed.

          • Carol’s not invented Growth Mindset, she’s simply pointed to something that exists in the world of people and seems to serve those who have it. Students and teacher’s have been walking around with ‘Growth Mindsets’ since school existed. Maybe this is less about trying to teach others a different mindset -because people need to want that themselves and this generally requires some sort of therapy as Jenny points out- but, perhaps this is rather about how the institution of education, over the 10 years students spend there, is set up in such a way that it’s possible for someone with a natural growth mindset to develop a fixed mindset over this long time. Maybe this theory is simply about raising our awareness to help us preserve what’s good. What if this isn’t a call to teach anything new, though we’ve distorted our conversations and experiences of this by trying to do that?

  13. cbokhove says:

    A recent mindset study by the EEF did not provide support (yet there will be a follow-up study).

    As mentioned in one earlier comment, the self-report might be problematic, also because most current research uses two questions to ‘measure’ it.

  14. Erik Moonen says:

    Mindset matters, but other things matter too. If kids are told they are dyslexic, they are not likely to become good readers. Their mindset tells them they never will. On the other hand, even if kids firmly believe that hard work will make them good readers, they will still need effective reading instruction.
    A wrong mindset can make good reading instruction ineffective. But the right mindset cannot turn bad teaching into effective reading instruction.

  15. I am going to attempt to avoid succumbing to ‘group think’ and indeed to resist the blood lust that can overwhelm those of skeptical disposition (of which I include myself) when we see a currently popular theory of teaching on the ropes. should be pointed out that mindset theory does not say that innate ability is less important than mindset, rather, that everyone can improve regardless of their innate ability.

    Firstly as Doug Cullen points out, “mindset theory does not say that innate ability is less important than mindset, rather, that everyone can improve regardless of their innate ability”. Secondly, in my view, one of its greatest virtues is not what it predicts about learners’ outcomes but the insights it offers about the different ways in which students respond to challenge, difficulty and failure.

    And yet, I am also pleased to see this challenge to the belief that simply teaching students about growth mindset (and the dangers of fixed mindsets) will achieve some form of powerful transformation in their learning. Nor will graphical posters or any number of other simplistic interventions. In my own research with students in colleges post-16, I see plenty of evidence of the students learning to answer the mindset questionnaire positively, without any other corresponding change in their learning behaviors or response to difficulty.

    However lets’ not fall into the trap of believing that because there is reason to be skeptical about the naive programs of mindset indoctrination, that the theory is without merit. I have found it can be a very valuable aid in thinking about how to support students who respond negatively to high expectations, challenge and failure, all of which deserve our attention.

  16. ExecutiveHT says:

    Liked this David, did some great work with Mark Healy a couple of weeks ago. He came to talk to us (myslef and HTs) about the whole GM in school thing as I felt we needed to dig deeper before inflicting anything on staff or pupils. Oh, how much further we need to dig, we’re going to go back to the source material Carol Dweck wrote on “Self Theories” as I want to avoid GM Lite and will probably avoid the term altogether. Mark talked about academic buoyancy which I really liked – wrote it all up in a blog post last week which I’ll put out on Sunday. Worry to many schools are diving in without doing the thinking required to stop this just becoming another silver bullet/passing phase as issues around scalability are massive. Lots of PD for staff needed before anything can be properly implemented in order to benefit pupils. Some good research papers out there on various topics.

    • 4c3d says:

      @ExecutiveHT The work of Ablert Bandura is significantly important in self belief and learning. I have summarised some of his work here: and linked it to my concept of Learning Intelligence (a concept that forms a narrative for many of the ideas, theories and evidence we have about learning). I am happy to provide further details about LQ if you are interested.

      • ExecutiveHT says:

        Bandura certainly featured in the discussion. Thanks, I’ll have a look later.

        • 4c3d says:

          Often I have found it is not the theory but the language that draws teachers and learners into experimenting with ideas. A lot of well meaning and promising theory gets corrupted because there is a lack of understanding and suitable referencing wit hthe demands and needs of day to day teaching and learning. I think getting this bit right and linking experience with a degree of common sense helps turn theory into engagement and ultimately successful action. It took me over a month to work through one of Bandura’s papers with a dictionary in one hand and a keyboard available to the other! It was worth it though because a lot of what he says makes sense and explains a great deal of what I have experienced, believed and explored as a teacher in nearly 4 decades.

  17. SarahMused says:

    One of the things that bothers me about GM is the amount of teacher and student time that is wasted implementing these ideas, which have no proven benefit, in school. Assemblies, tutor time, inset, off timetable lessons, as well as the time spent preparing the materials used, all need to be factored in when calculating whether this is a worthwhile intervention. I know this may not be how Dweck saw her ideas being used, but this is the reality in mine and many other schools.
    We should be concentrating on teaching the students we have in front of us, not trying to change them or their ‘mindsets’. Teachers are not experts on personality traits or child psychology and there is a serious danger we may do more harm than good. The law of unintended consequences certainly seems to be coming into play with the teenagers in my school where even the word ‘yet’ is enough to produce eye-rolling groans.

    • 4c3d says:

      Surely Sarah teaching is about changing mindsets. If we reduce it to the transferring of facts or information then the skill and beauty of teaching is lost as is the immense satisfaction from seeing students become learners. I understand the frustration and apparent waste of time involved when ideas get put center stage without thought or consideration for the consequences. This unfortunately is the way with education, leadership is often looking for the silver bullet. I hope though that we are able to take what works and what, with a degree of reflection and common sense we know, will make a positive impact on teaching and learning and make it our own.

      • SarahMused says:

        I don’t think teaching should be about changing mindsets. I see it as a passing on of knowledge and a love of learning to students, by teachers that are passionate about their subjects. As a parent, I want my childrens’ teachers to teach them stuff not alter their personalities which are just fine as they are. Growth or fixed mindset, introvert or extrovert, sensitive or resilient who is to say which is better anyway?

        • 4c3d says:

          I think I understand your concerns from your last sentence which ends “who is to say which is better?” I am not advocating teachers “know best” or that there is an ideal mindset. That we should turn all our students out into the world thinking the same way. Nor am I suggesting mindset has anything to do with personality “introvert or extrovert, sensitive or resilient”. What I am suggesting is that the role of teacher, perhaps the true meaning, is much broader than just the passing on of knowledge.

          What if the learner does not have a love of learning? Surely your view of teaching would seek to bring about a change in the mindset of a student who does not love learning!

          Learning involves more than knowing. To learn, to know and to understand and perhaps explain to others requires a set of skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours. See my article introductory article on “Learning Intelligence” @ for more about this.

          If we turn to the world of sport would anyone suggest athletes should not have or adopt a “growth mindset”? Coaches have used this principle in sports from the beginning surely. Is coaching that far removed from teaching?

          • dougjcullen says:

            “Coaches have used this principle in sports from the beginning surely. Is coaching that far removed from teaching?”

            Sports coaches have not used growth mindset from the beginning and many coaches still do not use growth mindset.

            Life coaches and executive coaches also often fail to appreciate or develop growth mindsets in their clients.

            I think you need to be very careful about what you would like to be true and what is true. I have worked with sports coaches and know from my research that many of them have a fixed mindset as standard and believe that their coachees ability is largely due to genetics – to quote a sentiment directly from a sports coach who is typical of the field, “some people have got it, most don’t”.

            While coaching should not be that far removed from teaching – it is. I work as both, I am trained in both fields and I am an expert on human learning and motivation. Teachers could be trained in coaching (I run an Academic Coaching Programme): it can be of great benefit. However, teachers, as standard, are not trained in coaching, learning or evidence use in the classroom.

            Mindsets need to be coached, teachers are not in a position to coach as they have no training. Nearly all of the interventions I use in classrooms require coaching knowledge and an understanding of psychological theory and practice. Virtually every intervention I have seen pushed in schools over the last 8 years requires a high level of knowledge of human learning and motivation, something teachers do not currently have.

            The concept and practice of Growth Mindsets is great – the weakness is that Britain does not have enough teachers skilled in the psychology of human learning and motivation to apply Growth Mindsets or any other psychological theory that needs to be placed int the greater context of human learning and motivation.

            To cope with this lack of knowledge, theories like Growth Mindset are simplified to the point that teachers can understand and apply them (what else can you do when this country is not training its teachers to a decent level – and is arguably denying them decent career long professional development). When teachers try to apply these simplified ideas to the real world the whole thing fails. This is after a huge investment of time by the school. This issues applies to most of the recent large scale attempts to apply sound theory through a system which isn’t able to cope with the complexities – mindfulness will probably be next.

          • 4c3d says:

            We obviously have different experiences and and I admit to projecting my experience forward to an assumption. Something I suppose we all do to an extent as our experiences must ultimately be limited. In my “limited”experience where I have seen sports coaches talking to athletes and read articles about their approach and philosophy they have certainly built aimed to build self-belief and encourage a “can do attitude”. Many may not but possibly many do and maybe these are the more successful ones. Something to research? I have used a life coach and trained as one myself. Those that I have come across do include a growth mindset approach. I have not interviewed a great number of life coaches so can not say if this is typical or not. I would hope a “good” life coach would be open to such ideas. Although I do not intend to refute all your claims I trained began my training as a teacher, all be it 40 years ago now, and part of my training was child psychology, learning, motivation, coaching and other “teaching tools”. Perhaps it is just the teachers you have come across that have not had such training, after all there can not be many of my generation left 🙂 I would side with you over the type of training teachers get now however, sad though that may be but it is a reflection I think of the view of teaching we have today. There are teachers though who can take on board and have the ideas around self efficacy.
            ““Given the same environmental conditions, persons who have developed skills for accomplishing many options and are adept at regulating their own motivation and behaviour are more successful in their pursuits than those who have limited means of personal agency.” (Bandura)

            As for implementation in schools, this is a rather complex situation (in my experience) and there are a number of factors at play only one of which is the quality of teacher training and CPD. When stressed many develop what I call a “trench mentality”, they keep their heads down. Their capacity to take on new things is severely limited. Education loves to look for the “silver bullet” and politicians are always apt to adopt the next “best thing” derived from PISA performances or the like or push for a “back to basics” t o”drive up standards”. This has created what I believe is a toxic environment in education, one that is target driven and a “results by any means” mentality. Not exactly the best environment to develop teaching and learning in my view. So perhaps it is not the complexities but he capacity and environment issues that will ultimately limit the development and integration of the growth mindset approach. Dweck after all does warn of this herself.

            If yo uare interested in a different approach, one of “arming” the learner with the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours to succeed in such a learning environment then check out my work on LQ. Feedforward is always appreciated.

        • I agree when it comes to introvert or extrovert but surely it is always worth building up resilience, given that we now know it can be learned?

    • Really enjoyed your comment Sarah. So real! Thanks… got a visual of the eye rolls in my mind 🙂 The person who created the Ship also created the ship-wreck, but we didn’t stop there; we kept inventing and refining. Good luck Sarah and any other teachers who feel this way about being required to implement the latest edu-crazes.

  18. […] there’s my last post Is growth mindset pseudoscience? in which I explore Carol Dweck’s attempts to resist the falsification of her theories and […]

  19. SarahMused says:

    In reply to Doug, I agree with almost everything he says, with the exception of ‘The concept and practice of Growth Mindsets is great’. Nothing I have read or seen has convinced me that this is the case and Carol Dweck’s recent pronounments on ‘false’ growth mindset seem like the explanation of a person far too far invested in the idea to be able to admit the flaws. The fact that others have not been able to replicate her results should give people serious pause for thought. Read Scott Alexander in SlateStarCodex for a much more detailed discussion of the issues.

  20. May have posted this twice by mistake but if anyone is interested, Bandura (one pf Psychology’s greats made the following criticisms of Dweck’s earlier work which are very relevant. From his personal correspondence with Gary Latham (one of two creators of goal setting theory),

    “Dweck’s work on conceptions of intelligence is fine as far as it goes, but it is thin on theory, ie: it fails to specify the mechanism through which construing ability as an entity or as an incremental skill affects performance attainments. In the experiment with Bob Wood, in which we manipulated conceptions of ability experimentally, we demonstrated that they exert their effects through perceived self-efficacy and goal setting.
    Her experiment comparing learning and performance goals has several methodological flaws. She confounded her manipulation of high and low ability by telling all the children that they had high learning ability. Schunk has shown that belief in ones learning ability foster’s achievement. Dweck casts her study in terms of perceived ability. But children’s perceptions of their ability were never measured. Given the confounded manipulation, the children’s beliefs in their ability remain unknown. These methodological flaws dispute her conclusion that children with learning goals exhibit mastery behaviour regardless of perceived ability.”

  21. Ally C says:

    Let’s invest more time and money in mental health education. It’s what really makes a difference to children’s life chances.

  22. Brad McDonell says:

    Hi David

    How do I get my school to start questioning Dweck’s theories further. Growth Mindset is like a religion in my area and I agree with your critique.

    Do you have links to solid research that contradicts the idea that Growth Mindset is the fix all.

    Cheers mate.

    • 4c3d says:

      Brad sometimes its not the original concept it is the idea that it is the “fix all” as you put it. There is no “one way”. If you have the time it may be worth you reading my set of articles on how education is always influenced (seduced) by the “one way” “fix all” dream and how good, useful and sometimes powerful idea get corrupted by those who petition for the”one way”. Link to first post (there are 5 if you have the stamina!)
      “The one and only learning theory that counts is… .”

    • You might contact Catherine Foley at Reading and ask for a copy of her EdD – she raises concerns about the implied pressure on youngsters who work hard.

  23. MartinK says:

    So I wrote a lengthy post but wasn’t able to post it (comment button disappeared bc of length of post…?!) 😛 In short I think you have misunderstood what Dweck means when she says ‘false growth mindset’. She is referring to misapplications of the concept and research, that are clearly observable and falsifiable. For example people saying that they have a growth mindset (who wants to admit they dont…?) but exhibiting that they do not, or teachers claiming to apply growth mindset in their teaching but in observable ways actually do not (praising effort even if the child is not learning from it, telling children they can do “anything” if they just put in enough effort etc). So ‘false growth mindset’ is not about trying to cover up holes in the original theories, or moving the goal posts in any way, it is about addressing the common misapplications of the concept (and fully consistent with the original theories), which it seems to me both you and Scott Alexander would be fully on board with. =)

    • David Didau says:

      It’s oh so easy to assume someone has misunderstood something and then argue against that position. Not sure if you followed the links in the article, but:

      • MartinK says:

        I’m reading your posts to mean that you think that false GM is a pseudo-scientific idea because it is not falsifiable?

        And that when GM is applied in schools by other people than Dweck and they do not get the same results, this means that there is something… “fishy” about GM?

        And then that ‘false GM’ is used to explain away this fishyness?

        If that is not what you meant then I misunderstood you, but I read everything carefully (including your other blog posts and all the comments) and did not make any assumptions.

        I 1) researched GM, 2) came across the term ‘false growth mindset’ and researched what Dweck means by that and then 3) also found your posts as well as Alexander’s. At that point my conclusion (not assumption) was that you are criticizing something that Dweck has not said nor advocates.

        I’m saying your argument that false GM is pseudo-scientific is based on an inaccurate representation of the concept, and that when schools do not get the same results as Dweck it is (partially) because they are not applying the ideas as she meant them to be applied. That doesn’t mean “ooh, so only the ‘master’ can do it right, eh?”, it means that you can’t take a weekend yoga class and expect to get the same result in your classes as someone with 40 years of experiences teaching yoga.

        For example you said “But I’m more concerned about the way false growth mindset is being used to explain away negative results.”

        If you can observe or measure that schools are not applying GM in accordance with the actual research or with Dweck’s instructions/guidelines, then there is nothing pseudo-scientific about saying “no, that [specific ‘techniques’, expressions or other applications] is not how it should be applied”.

        For example, she has found that teachers who claim they use GM in their teaching say and do stuff that is not in line with or evenac *go against* what Dweck has previously recommended or advocated. I.e. it is observable and measurable.

        For it to be pseudo-scientific like you mean we would need a situation where teachers apply GM perfectly in accordance with the research (again something that would be observable and measurable), not getting the results, and then Dweck jumping in saying “Oh, not getting results? Then you must be doing it wrong…”.

        Using the yoga example, false GM is akin to a new instructor claiming to teach the dog position but actually demonstrating the bird position (I know nothing about yoga!), and then the students not getting the expected benefits/stretch in muscle X. The ‘master’ can then justifiable jump in and say “Well, the reason your students are not getting the results is because you are actually doing the ‘false dog position’ which looks like [this], when it should actually look like [this]”.

        Basically: The way I have seen Dweck using the term false GM it is definitely in line with falsifiability. The way you describe false GM, however, it is not.

        I hope I’m being clear, I’m trying to say the same things in different ways (English is not my primary language).

        (Btw when trying to comment in Firefox the ‘Post Comment’ button disappears if I write a too long post (it gets “pushed down” and hides behind the grey box at the bottom of the page). In Chrome it works fine.)

  24. […] I was inspired to write this post after reading David Didau’s post “Is the growth mindset pseudoscience?” […]

  25. uqbal says:

    Having a fixed mindset does not mean you’re going to fail. It only means you’re more likely to do so if anything goes wrong and that it will be harder to recover.
    And having a growth mindset does not secure success, which depends on many things, including luck. It means you’re going to do whatever you can. It means you’re going to do your best, not that your best will necessarily suffice. In many situation, though, your best will suffice, especially in those which are not directly competitive (e.g. many people for a single post).
    Growth mindset simply changes your probabilities, giving you more chances. It is no magic.
    I think Dweck’s ideas can be easily misinterpreted and used to support acritical enthusiasm.

  26. Rebecca Kent says:

    It is unlikely that pupils are being taught that fixed mindset traits are evil. In my opinion growth mindset theory offers some useful messages/mantras such as ‘success is a choice’ ‘I can’t do it…yet’ that we can use in our everyday teaching and coaching. Ultimately pupils, teachers and parents will make their own decisions about the benefits of this sort of encouragement.

  27. Alan Brown says:

    An initial failure to understand something has nothing to do with my ultimate ability to master it.

    Realizing that has definitely helped me personally. Confusion is not a threat but just an indication my brain is trying to find the patterns. A completely normal part of learning.

    Can I prove any of that to you? Probably not. Its my own personal experience.

  28. […] a bit more complicated than that. If wishes were fishes we’d all have salmon for supper. In this post I pointed out that Dweck is in danger of making her theory unfalsifiable and therefore […]

  29. psychtld says:

    Glad to see this guff being questioned.

    Seems that Dweck’s done a Ziggy on this thing.

    Thank you for challenging it.

  30. Bill Allen says:

    Pure science deals with phenomena behaving in constantly predictable ways. So falsifiability works as a test. Social sciences involve humans who don’t always act predictably. Many factors come into play. So social sciences essentially rely on confidence levels, sample size etc. No social scientist would argue for 100% confidence levels, ie unfalsifiable. In your psychology book there are no theories which pass the falsifiability test. Does that mean everything you wrote is tripe? No, it’s all helpful, in varying degrees of confidence.

    • Bill,

      This is a great response! A little humility is always in order when talking about science.

      David, and everybody else, read this:

      • David Didau says:

        I’m not sure of the relevance of this article. Science is merely a tool for investigating the world; for making and testing theories. It can never provide answers to moral or ethical questions – this is where philosophical investigations take precedence. But to suggest that because we can never know or even observe everything accurately, we can never know anything is unhelpful. Of course there’s a place for humility: I make a point of publicly admitting where and whenever I’m wrong (see here for an example but does that mean we should humbly accept that evolution might be wrong that that creationists could have a point? I contend not.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Bill – I’m not saying that growth mindset, or any other psychological theory is tripe. Of course I understand the point about confidence levels, replicability, levels of control, sample size, sensitivity to instruction and the rest of the quite proper concerns anyone work in education research must have. But this is in no way an argument against falsifiability. Let’s take for instance the testing effect. We have an observable, replicable phenomenon that retrieval practice boosts retention. This has been ‘proved’ to be the case again and again. But what if the phenomenon was caused by something else? A variable that researchers had failed to isolate? Let’s imagine that all the studies on the testing effect had been conducted on psychology undergrads (not too far from the truth!) It might be that the effect wouldn’t be observed in a different group. So, in an effort to disprove the theory I try to replicate the results with, say, pre-schoolers. If then I failed to observe the expected effect this would indicate that there might be something else at work. We could then try to establish what was different and see if this new variable could be isolated. It is only through attempts at trying to disprove theories that we learn more. That’s the fundamental principle which differentiates science from other methods of inquiry. So, if there are no conditions in which our theory can other be prove wrong because we can simply change our goal posts post hoc, then we’re resisting the attempts of science to learn and improve on what’s gone before. This is, I’m suggesting, what Dweck might be in danger of.

  31. monkrob says:

    I did some very quick quantitative study in our school.
    1. Measure students “Growth Mindset” via a survey.
    2. See if there is a correlation between growth mindset and acedemic achievement.

    There wasn’t.

    Yes I know the sample was small. I know a survey instrument may not measure mindset accurately but it does lead to the question, “How do you measure mindset?” In so much educational research “Student Self Report” seems like a pretty rubbery measure.

    The skeptic in me wants more quantitative studies done.

    • Surely you have missed the point if you are measuring raw ‘achievement’.
      I would suggest the focus would be better on ‘progress’, or ‘add-on’ value.

      • monkrob says:

        OK Sue, I’ll look at Learning Growth or progress. What is your hypothesis? Students with more of a Growth Mindset will have better learning Growth.

        • I don’t think it is as simple as that. It depends whether learners have also developed perseverance, ie the skill of changing tack/recruiting support or are just seeking to persist/try harder (Williams 2014).

          I prefer to use the ‘Growth Zone Model’ rather than pure GM – there is a closer relationship to wider work on mental well-being and so far it is generating improvements in progress in maths and we are seeking to extend it to literacy.

          UK has been running on ‘ability’ rather than Growth Mindset and supported ‘effort’ since Binet; I understand that is not what he intended with IQ tests, rather to identify youngsters who might need more support.

          So I guess my short hypothesis is that with fixed mindset (eg I don’t have the maths gene) goes underachievement that can be addressed. We have a long tail of underachievement in maths (my area) in UK.

  32. S Carson says:

    Surely if there is any truth in GM it is this: if you believe you can get better at something you are more likely to try than if you believe you can’t do it. Some children and adults think maths is too hard, so they don’t try hard enough to understand it, and they give up too easily (and it’s still culturally acceptable to say so, 60 years after Snow). I love it and have spent years studying it. I was never very good at sport; I could probably get better, but I don’t try because I don’t really think there’s much point. I’m not a great musician, either, but I keep practising because I enjoy it and I think I’ve improved over the years. Fixed or growth? Well, a bit of both, depending on what I’m doing.

    Has having a growth mindset made me a great musician? No, but I’m better than I would be if I didn’t practise.

    So are there any useful implications for teachers? If students enjoy your subject, or accept the challenge, they might – might – work harder. If they struggle intellectually, and if they think hard, and if they are resilient enough to keep at it, they are likely to learn more than if they don’t. Is there really any more to it than this?

  33. […] Is growth mindset pseudoscience? October 2015 […]

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