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This 2017 photo of a New York City middle school shows growth mindset messages on student-made posters. Researchers are finding mindset exercises benefit certain kinds of students and not others. Credit: Kyle Spencer

Growth mindset theory, the idea that intelligence is malleable and can grow, has taken the education world by storm in the past decade as a way of motivating students academically. One fan is a Harvard doctoral candidate who read Carol Dweck’s best-selling book, “Mindset,” in 2008 when she was teaching low-income teens in New York City. She saw her kids struggling, not just with math and English, but also with feelings of self-doubt and failure. Years later, studying psychology, she wondered if mindset interventions would also be effective in her field. Could she help teens overcome their mental health problems by telling them that their personalities can change?

The researcher, Jessica Schleider, currently a psychology fellow at Yale Medical School, adapted Dweck’s online program into two half-hour mindset lessons, one aimed at depression and the other at anxiety. During the interactive computerized program, teens watch graphics and hear audio recordings that explain the concept of neuroplasticity. They fill out worksheets and hear testimonials from other high-school students on how they believe their sadness or anxiety can change. At the end, participants are asked to write notes to an imaginary student who is suffering from the same things they are, and persuade them that they can change.

Schleider invited nearly a hundred depressed and anxious teens, ages 12 to 15, to come to a laboratory, where a computer randomly gave some of them her mindset intervention. The computer gave others a sort of placebo therapy that encouraged the teens to identify and express their feelings. Nine months later, after a single half-hour mindset session on a computer, depressed teens said they felt less depressed and exhibited significantly fewer signs of depression to their parents, compared to the control group. But the intervention didn’t make as much of a difference for the teens who had anxiety. The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in September 2017, and co-authored by Schleider’s advisor, John Weisz, a Harvard psychology professor.

It’s a wacky result because, historically, it’s patients with anxiety who tend to respond better to single-session therapy.  It’s unusual to see a depressed patient respond to a small dose of any intervention. One would want to see other research replicating these results before putting stock in them. And Schleider herself isn’t suggesting that anyone should consider computerized mindset interventions in lieu of weekly sessions with a human therapist. She calls cognitive behavioral therapy the “gold standard.” The problem is that low-income teens often don’t have access to it.

However, the mixed results from Schleider’s experiment point up an important lesson for education leaders and teachers who are embracing new techniques to boost student motivation.

“A little mindset intervention can move the needle, but not equally for everyone,” David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Education, wrote on Twitter. He has incorporated mindset messages into a couple widely-used elementary school curricula for remedial reading and math.

After seeing Dockterman’s comment on Twitter, I followed up with him by phone to ask if he thought school teachers should continue putting their faith in mindset theories.

“The use of mindset is ahead of the research,” Dockterman said. “I wouldn’t say it doesn’t work. We don’t have an understanding of how it works in all conditions. Educators are hungry for fixes. We have to be careful. Often things are a little overhyped by the media. Even universities will overhype because they want the publicity.”

Indeed, even in Dweck’s own research, she has found that mindset interventions have worked much better for low-achieving students than for high-achieving or average students. In a 2015 study of more than 1,500 students in 13 different high schools, the majority of students didn’t get an academic boost from it. But the bottom third did.

Dockterman believes that all the positive thinking in the world doesn’t by itself help kids learn. Even if students come to believe that intelligence isn’t a fixed trait, they still need support in how to learn, such as techniques to stay focused, and they need to practice them. “The how part is hard. It’s an ill-defined space,” said Dockterman. “Growth mindset by itself doesn’t have much of an effect on academic outcomes. But it might make the other stuff work. You’re really looking for the right combination of stuff for the right students.”

Meanwhile, Schleider is bringing her psychological research back into the schoolhouse. She is developing training materials for high school teachers to apply mindset theory not just to intelligence but also to social relations between students.

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