What the What???? WTW

The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system

 (authored by Alfie Kohn)

This article resonated with me this week written by Alfie Kohn. Please read it. I read the whole article and kept waiting for the part that showed growth mindset is a danger. His article is based on the premise that this popular educational idea is a threat to students:

“Kids tend to fare better when they regard intelligence and other abilities not as fixed traits that they either have or lack, but as attributes that can be improved through effort.” (growth mindset)

Mr. Kohn starts the article getting everyone to agree that poor pedagogy is a problem. I am fully in support that facts being crammed down students’ throats, lack of student voice, lack of student choice, and ignorance of project based learning are not great teaching practices. I am still looking for a valid argument why growth mindset is a problem.

Mr. Kohn supports that the growth mindset is indeed research based and backed up with facts. “Dweck’s basic thesis is supported by decades’ worth of good data. It’s not just the habit of attributing your failure to being stupid that holds you back, but also the habit of attributing your success to being smart. Regardless of their track record, kids tend to do better in the future if they believe that how well they did in the past was primarily a result of effort.” This did not convince me that the growth mindset is a risk to students. It further convinced me Dweck is onto something here.

His next statement is where his failure to separate growth mindset, which he uses its previous label of incremental theory, is where the problem originates. “But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).” Why would they? Their job is to analyze how students behave not the rigor and effectiveness of the curriculum and pedagogy.

When you lump poor pedagogy, ineffective school policy, and the growth mindset together two out of the three are clearly wrong.  Change the pedagogy and ineffective school policy. Do not throw growth mindset in there and label it part of the problem. Alfie Kohn further mangles the growth mindset issue by drawing in the anti-test crowd. What does testing have to do with teaching growth mindset? They are two separate issues. Even if testing and growth mindset were hand in hand testing is only one part of the child. Growth mindset looks at the whole child and how they are able to reflect back on what happened and use that information to positively impact the future.

Kohn goes on with rhetoric such as this: “Small wonder that this idea goes down so easily. All we have to do is get kids to adopt the right attitude, to think optimistically about their ability to handle whatever they’ve been given to do. Even if, quite frankly, it’s not worth doing.” If something is not worth doing it is the job of the administration and teachers to change that assignment. This still does not illustrate how the growth mindset contributes to this problem. Change the system keep the mindset so far is my opinion.

This next statement boggled my mind. “The more serious concern, however, is that what’s really problematic is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation. A substantial research literature has shown that the kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise.” I see a problem with extrinsic rewards such as praise but that is not a growth mindset. The teacher that was modeling a growth mindset wouldn’t say, “Great job working on that project Johnny.” They would state, “I noticed you were working hard on that project.” That praise is placed in a way that values the intrinsic trait of work ethic not the extrinsic praise of the project looking nice.

Mr. Kohn gives some conflicting evidence for his claim that, “A 2010 study found that when students whose self-worth hinges on their performance face the prospect of failure, it doesn’t help for them to adopt a growth mindset. In fact, those who did so were even more likely to give themselves an excuse for screwing up — a strategy known as “self-handicapping” — as compared to those with the dreaded fixed mindset.”  The article he cited stated that “People who hold incremental theories of intelligence (growth mindset), however, tend to exhibit more adaptive academic behaviors and report a diminished tendency to self-handicap. (Ommundsen, 2001; Rhodewalt, 1994).”

The study did try to prove that growth mindset was a problem. They came up with these results:

“When highly contingent incremental students fail without prior practice, poor performance does not reflect lack of ability, as they have a valid external excuse for failure and a path to future improvement. However, when they fail despite practice, they no longer have an external excuse for their poor performance. Therefore, they attribute failure to lack of ability and consequently experience lower self-esteem.” (Niiya, Brook, & Crocker 2010)

Read that again. When you fail and didn’t study or weren’t giving the opportunity to practice you placed the blame outside of yourself. The study states that is valid. I agree. The next sentence states that when they failed after they practiced they felt worse about themselves. I agree again. What does that have to do with growth mindset? Wouldn’t you be upset if you studied and didn’t get the desired result? A fixed mindset blames the test or outside sources when they become upset. A growth mindset reflects on why they didn’t succeed and tries to figure out how to succeed. I am still not convinced that growth mindset is the problem here after dissecting this study.

Alfie Kohn ends with this proclamation:

“And this brings us to the biggest blind spot of all — the whole idea of focusing on the mindsets of individuals. Dweck’s work nestles comfortably in a long self-help tradition, the American can-do, just-adopt-a-positive-attitude spirit.(“I think I can, I think I can…”) The message of that tradition has always been to adjust yourself to conditions as you find them because those conditions are immutable; all you can do is decide on the spirit in which to approach them. Ironically, the more we occupy ourselves with getting kids to attribute outcomes to their own effort, the more we communicate that the conditions they face are, well, fixed.”

That was sneaky right there. You took a conversation about mindset and threw in the whole politics, conditions of the world, racism, classism, sexism, and every other outside problem that is wrong with education and the world. Do every one of those problems exist in the world? Darn straight. Does that mean we shouldn’t be teaching growth mindset? Not a chance. We have to teach that working hard and not giving up are important. We also need to teach that there are major problems in the world that may affect you because of your race, gender, or ethnicity. That does not negate the need for students to understand that when they work hard they will get smarter and better at something. The amount may vary. Other people will tell them it was good enough or not good enough. Their job is to keep in mind that, “intelligence and other abilities not as fixed traits that they either have or lack, but as attributes that can be improved through effort.”

Mr. Alfie Kohn you make a great argument for why the school system needs major overhauls. You brought up problems with standardized testing, extrinsic rewards, poor pedagogy, weak administration and many more things that education needs to identify and change. What you did not do is convince me in any way shape or form that having a growth mindset is a “peril” and that “we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system”. I don’t believe that growth mindset proponents feel that it is the answer to all of education’s problems. They believe that it is a great way to live life. Fix the teaching, the administration, the school, the politics, and everything else that troubles education. Leave the one trend that is actually making a positive impact on students long after school matters to our students.


Niiya, Y., Brook, A., & Crocker, J. (n.d.). Contingent Self-worth and Self-handicapping: Do Incremental Theorists Protect Self-esteem? Self and Identity, 276-297.

Q1. What does the growth mindset mean to you? #slowchatpe

Q2. How do you students engage in self-handicapping? #slowchatpe

Q3. What problems does you see with the growth mindset movement? #slowchatpe

Q4. How do you teach growth mindset to your students?

Q5. What educators on social media display a growth mindset?


2 thoughts on “What the What???? WTW

  1. Pingback: The PE Playbook – August 2015 Edition | drowningintheshallow

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