In 2018, I received RTI training. This training was a large part of what sparked my interest in evidence-based teaching. The trainers at the time, talked about the value of adopting a growth-mindset. The term was a meta-cognition strategy coined by Carol Dweck. Within her theory, a growth mindset was described as responding to challenges, by asking how the challenge can be overcome and a fixed mindset was described as responding to challenges by asking if you can overcome it. The RTI trainers taught us to not only teach our students to adopt this mantra, but that we should adopt it as well for how we approach instruction. We were told to not ask if our students were capable of higher levels of success, but instead to believe all our students are capable of higher levels of success, so long as we provided them with the right instruction. When our students struggled, we were supposed to ask ourselves, how we could ensure their success.
I found this mantra incredibly empowering for a multitude of reasons, it was an inspiring message, it fit with my preconceived notions, and most importantly I felt like it empowered me to better serve my students. At the time, I was working in a remote indigenous school that was struggling. Within my school, many students, families were affected by inter-generational trauma caused by the residential schools system. Most teachers were young teachers fresh out of college, looking for professional experience. There was a high turnover rate of staff and we were often short on qualified teachers. On top of this, many of the wealthiest students' families paid to school their students in the next town over. These factors among other socio-economic factors contributed to a very obvious achievement gap. I felt like I was witnessing firsthand, institutionalized racism and its effects. When you work at a school that is truly struggling, it can be easy to give up on your students. The gaps are high, behaviors can be frequent, and there tends to be a general air of defeatism within the building. I felt adapting a growth-mindset gave me the hope I needed to be a better teacher and better serve my students.
Truthfully, I don’t think I was doing a good job as a teacher before my RTI training. I primarily used an inquiry-based model. I was mostly focused on engagement, and there was very little direction behind my planning. My thought process was often more about filling my instructional hours than meeting instructional goals. But once I started to track my students' progress with the RTI model, I quickly saw that my students were not learning, at least not at the rate I wanted. With this newly adopted growth-mindset, I felt I was responsible for my students' learning and began to make changes. My teaching became a fluid and evolving process of improving my own practices, rather than a mindless replication of how I remembered being taught.
Fast forward to 2022 and I have spent the last 4 years researching, writing, blogging, and podcasting about my own journey with evidence-based instruction. Indeed, I have now written almost 200 articles on the subject, I have recorded hundreds of podcast episodes, I have self published two books on the science of teaching, and I have typed manuscripts of multiple more books I am planning to publish. If I had not been so hooked on the idea of growth-mindset, I am not so sure, I would have even done all that research and writing, in the first place. Because of this I know, growth-mindset has helped me on my own journey as an educator. Moreover, I didn’t just apply this mindset to my teaching craft, but other areas of my life, such as professional development, personal finance, and personal fitness.
In 2020, I wrote a blog post, called The Scientific Principles of Teaching, with my co-founder, Josh. This blog post ranked 6 principles that we felt were common influencing factors behind pedagogies that John Hattie had found to have a high yield impact. So, of course, we made growth-mindset one of those principles and we ranked it at number 5. In 2021, I went on to write an entire book inspired by that blog post, named The Scientific Principles of Teaching. The cover of the book shows a pyramid with growth-mindset as the 5th step. The original blog post became a crowning chapter of the book and indeed, I even included the chapter in my latest book The Scientific Principles of Reading Instruction.
At the time, I was not aware of any meta-analyses on the topic; however, my co-founder and I noticed that several of the high yield pedagogies/factors identified by John Hattie, appeared connected to growth-mindset, including: teacher estimates of achievement, collective-self efficacy, RTI, meta-cognition strategies, student-self efficacy, and teachers not labeling students. Within the chapter, I advocated that teachers try to encourage their students to develop a growth mindset, and to adopt one for themself. Of course, none of this was direct evidence. The chapter was the most hypothetical of the book, as rather than laying out direct evidence for or against pedagogies, it made a theoretical case for mine and my co-founders hypotheses regarding education. All of this is to say that it brings me no joy to say, a large part of my hypothesis has now been thoroughly disproven.
5 days prior to my writing this, Macnamara, B. N., & Burgoyne, A. P. published a meta-analysis of 63 studies on the impact of growth mindset interventions on students' academic growth. And much to my chagrin, their results blow a pretty large hole in my hypothesis on this matter. Across all studies, they found an average Cohen’s d effect size of .05. Considering effect sizes below .20 are considered negligible, this is very low and suggests that there is no statistical benefit for growth-mindset interventions. Moreover, the authors noted that most of the studies were of low quality and that sponsorship bias was a major issue. When the authors controlled for quality they excluded all but 6 studies and found a mean effect size of .02. This meta-analysis clearly indicates that teaching students to develop a growth mind-set has on average no meaningful benefit, of any kind, for their academic achievement. It is therefore, an extremely low value practice to teach your students to develop a growth-mindset. I guess I am going to have to write some revisions for those chapters for my next edition.
Of course, meta-analysis generally tells us the what, not the why. It would be interesting to know if the reason growth-mindset instruction failed to show any benefit, was because there is no real practical application, or if it was because students don't tend to respond/buy into mindset interventions. It reminds me of the studies into mindfulness training. There are adults, who would claim mindfulness training has revolutionized their life. However, studies on teaching mindfulness to students also tend to show very low results. Truthfully, in my own practice, I have found that students rarely seem to buy into these types of interventions.
That said, if the reader can indulge me, I would like to make one last defense for my previous position and hypothesis regarding growth mindset. While the academic merit of teaching growth mindset is clearly limited to non-existent; that does not mean, there is no emotional or holistic value for students. Moreover, while growth-mindset does appear to be a low value practice, it is a low cost one also. Other low value practices like discovery-based learning, not teaching algorithms or three cueing, comes with a potential risk of harm to the student. Conversely, I don’t see a potential harm factor to growth mindset instruction, short of teaching it instead of other high value practices. Additionally, I think it’s worth considering if growth-mindset instruction might help students to develop a better sense of perseverance over the longer term, even if it does not improve academic outcomes, over the short or medium term. Personally, in my own practice, I spend 5 minutes explaining the concept to my class at the beginning of the year. Then when students make closed-minded statements, like “I can’t learn math.” I identify the statement as being a product of a fixed mindset and encourage them to persevere. While the potential benefit of this practice is low, so is the potential harm in my opinion.
This all said, it is quite clear now that there is little to no scientific value in teaching students to adopt a growth mindset, for improving their academic outcomes. However, I still think there is a value in teachers adopting a growth mindset about their students. While I strongly maintain, adopting a growth mindset has helped me as a teacher, I also think most of the indirect research I referenced previously was actually focused on teacher practices, not student practices.
While we don’t have direct research on the topic, we do have research showing teachers beliefs about their students' matters. A meta-analysis on the correlation between teacher expectations and student achievement, by Robert Hodge, showed a mean pearson effect size of .62. Inversely, we have research showing that low teacher expectations, have in particular harmed racialized students, when their teachers did not believe in them. Rosenthal and Jacobson have done a lot of research confirming this phenomenon. In the 1960s they did a series of studies that all showed a benefit to teachers holding high expectations and beliefs for their students. In the most famous of these experiments, they administered IQ tests to students and then gave randomized fake results back to their teachers. The students who received the fake positive IQ tests went on to outperform the other students in their class. In one experiment Rosenthal and Jacobson even replicated their results on rats. They pooled groups of researchers together, to train rats. They told one set of researchers that the rats they were working with had below-average intelligence, and another group of researchers that the rats they were working with had above-average intelligence. The rats in the second group out-performed the rats in the first group. Researchers since Rosenthal and Jackson have observed that “high-achieving students received teacher actions and opportunities that supported their achievement (e.g., teachers asked them more challenging questions and stayed with them by providing clues when they initially responded incorrectly). In contrast, low-achieving students received less stimulation.
Truthfully I believe, I see some of this debate playing out right now in the reading wars discourse. I often see SOR teachers, discussing how, before they started to research the science of reading, they just believed some students could not learn how to read. These same teachers will often tell you how switching to a SOR approach, changed how they viewed their most struggling readers and that instead of asking themselves if these students could read, they started to ask how they could help these students learn to read. Adopting a growth-mindset was of great personal and emotional value to me, as an educator and an evidence-based practitioner. So truthfully, I might be holding onto some emotional bias here, as normally I would not continue to endorse a practice after finding a meta-analysis that presents strong evidence to the contrary. However, I still believe there exists value in teachers adopting a growth-mindset for how they teach their students, as I think believing in our students' potential is of the highest worthiness for our profession.
Perhaps, the Devil lies in the details though. Because there is a big difference between casually including instruction on growth-mindset, as part of your daily routine and hiring consultants to come into a school/board to provide intensive growth-mindset training. Similarly, I have seen some schools in my career that have placed an intense focus on growth-mindset instruction to the point that you might call it the bedrock of their curriculum practice.I would think that so long as growth-mindset instruction, was not used in the place of other high value pedagogies, that there is no potential for harm and some potential for benefit.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Edited 2022-11-07
Good, Thomas L., et al. “Expectation Effects: Pygmalion and the Initial 20 Years of Research 1.” Educational Research and Evaluation, vol. 24, no. 3–5, Apr. 2018, pp. 99–123, doi:10.1080/13803611.2018.1548817.
Gold, M. E., & Richards, H. (2012). To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans. Educational Foundations, 26(1/2), 143–156.
N, Hansford. (2021). The Scientific Principles of Teaching. Pedagogy Non Grata.
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Macnamara, B. N., & Burgoyne, A. P. (2022). Do growth mindset interventions impact students’ academic achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis with recommendations for best practices. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000352
Robert, Hodge. (1989). Teacher-Based Judgments of Academic Achievement: A Review of Literature. American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from <https://umaine.edu/edhd/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2010/03/Hoge-Coladarci-1989.pdf>.