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Growth mindset guru Carol Dweck says teachers and parents often use her research incorrectly

Praise strategies and results, not effort alone, she says

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has become something of a cult figure in education and parenting circles. Her research into boosting student motivation has spawned a mini industry of consultants, sold more than a million books and changed the way that many adults praise children.

Dweck believes too many students are hobbled by the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait. She says kids with what she calls “fixed mindsets” stop trying when when confronted with a challenge because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re not good at math or writing or whatever the subject is. She argues that adults can, instead, help foster a “growth mindset” — the belief that the brain is like a muscle that can grow stronger through hard work.

Dweck theorizes that parents’ well-intentioned praise contributes to the formation of unproductive fixed-mindset thoughts. According to the theory, it’s harmful to tell your kids that they’re smart because when they eventually do struggle in school, they might think they’re not so smart after all. Ultimately, they become afraid of challenges and less resilient when faced with obstacles. Dweck’s theory is so popular that I’ve had Brooklyn mommies at the playground reprimand me for incorrectly praising my daughter.

But how to praise your kids properly is, apparently, quite complicated. Earlier this month, Dweck delivered a speech at Stanford University, where she highlighted three ways that parents and teachers are going astray.

“As the growth mindset has become more popular and taken hold, we are beginning to find that there are pitfalls,” said Dweck. “Many educators misunderstand or misapply the concepts.”

Praising effort alone 

Many parents and teachers have interpreted Dweck’s work to mean that they should praise a child’s effort, such as “I’m proud that you tried really hard,” or “I see how much effort you put into this.” Or teachers sometimes give A’s on assignments if a child has attempted all of the questions, regardless of whether the answers are good or not.

“It’s like the consolation prize. ‘Oh, at least you worked hard,'” said Dweck. “What if they didn’t make progress or they didn’t learn?”

Praising effort alone, she says, is useless when the child is getting everything wrong and not making progress. Either students will feel misled when they are eventually confronted with the reality of their low achievement, or the hollow praise will convey adults’ low expectations for them.

Instead, she advises teachers and parents to praise a child’s process and strategies, and tie those to the outcome.

For example, Dweck suggests these phrases: “Wow, you really practiced that, and look how you’ve improved.” “See, you studied more and your grade on this test is higher.” “You tried different strategies and you figured out how to solve the problem.” “You stuck to this and now you really understand it.”

Telling kids to try harder 

Similar to hollow praises of effort, many teachers incorrectly equate “growth mindset” with effort alone. Dweck often hears reports of teachers telling students, for example,  “You would have done better if you tried harder,” or “Keep trying and you’ll get it.”

Effort, Dweck says, is only one route for a student to make learning improvements. If a student doesn’t have strategies for solving a problem, or the necessary skills, or the steps for completing an assignment at his fingertips, all the effort in the world might not help.

Instead of “nagging” the student to keep trying, Dweck says teachers need to sit down with a student and say, “Let’s look at what you’ve done,” “Let’s look at what your understanding is,” or “Let’s look at what strategies you’ve used, and let’s figure out together what we should try next.”

Repeating mindset jargon 

Growth mindset theories are becoming so popular that some classrooms are festooned with growth mindset motivational posters exhorting, “Don’t give up until you are PROUD” and “Every mistake you make is PROGRESS.”

“You can’t just declare that you have a growth mindset,” said Dweck. “Growth mindset is hard. Many educators are trying to skip the journey.”

To do it right, Dweck says that many teachers have to change how they teach, offering more critical feedback and giving students opportunities to revise their work. Dweck cited a recent Stanford Ph.D. thesis by Kathy Liu Sun, now a professor at Santa Clara University, which found that students continued to have fixed-mindset thoughts in math class when their teachers mouthed growth mindset phrases but didn’t change their teaching practices.

Dweck says she’s found the same results with parents in her research. “We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful,” she said. “If they show anxiety or overconcern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.”

Still, Dweck is finding uneven results even when parents and teachers implement her growth mindset strategies properly. She’s seeing much bigger gains for low-achieving students than for high-achieving ones. In other words, D students often jump an entire letter grade or more after a growth-mindset intervention just by reengaging with their work, but B+ students don’t suddenly move up to A’s.

However, it’s possible that high-achieving kids are profiting in other ways. Dweck noticed that high-achieving students were more likely to tackle harder math problems after an intervention, compared to similar kids in a control group. Perhaps, over the long term a “growth mindset” will serve them well in college and in life, even if it doesn’t boost grades.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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