Research Does Not Support Growth Mindset Strategies in the Classroom

Research Does Not Support Growth Mindset Strategies in the Classroom:

How “Culturally Fluent Ideas” Influence Educators to Waste Time, Money, Resources, and Good Faith

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction

   I was listening this week to a National Public Radio program on the history of “Sesame Street” which began its PBS run on November 10, 1969. The show was created by television producer Joan Ganz Cooney who was talking with friends at a cocktail party in New York City about whether a children’s television show could teach children—largely from poverty—how to read.

   At this point in television history, most of the programming for children consisted of cartoons or other “entertainment” programs funded largely by companies and advertisers to sell their products. If you still remember some of the “now-ancient” advertising products, catch-phrases, or ad-tunes/“jingles” locked in your nostalgic brain, you know they were good at it.

   Similarly, Cooney—with funding from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. federal government—wanted to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” But in order to justify her funding, she knew that Sesame Street needed to quickly demonstrate that it could help young children to be better prepared for school.

   And so, she did something that few commercial (or governmental) ventures in education do today. . . she convened a diverse group of experts in early childhood education and developmental psychology, music and entertainment, cultural diversity and second language learning, and outcome-based research and evaluation. And for two years, they created, tested, researched, and established the best ways to use television as an educational vehicle.

   Today’s educators should attend to the now 55-year old Sesame Street lessons of research before large-scale implementation, data-based outcomes before testimonials and sound-bites, and proven practices before marketing and gratuitous promises.

   But these lessons often fall on deaf ears.


The Growth Mindset “Promise” Lacks Proven Practices

   Over the years, my Blogs have highlighted many programs and approaches that have been formally or informally marketed or promoted by individuals, companies, foundations, and even the U.S. Departments of Education or Health and Human Services that have not demonstrated their efficacy through independent and objective research.

   And yet, the popular press and mass marketing of these programs have been so successful that thousands of schools have implemented them to the tune of millions of dollars and countless other time and personnel resources. Some of these programs have done little to improve students’ academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral outcomes.

   And some of these programs have left students, staff, and schools further behind, more frustrated, and resistant to future innovations—even those that are proven to produce the results needed and desired.

   One very popular trend in many schools involves the training and implementation of “Growth Mindset” strategies and programs.

   In a recent 2023 article in the highly regarded, refereed journal Psychological Bulletin, authors Macnamara and Burgoyne summarized the Growth Mindset “movement”:

According to (Dweck’s) mindset theory, students who believe their personal characteristics can change—that is, those who hold a growth mindset—will achieve more than students who believe their characteristics are fixed.

Holding a fixed mindset means believing intelligence or other characteristics are relatively stable. Proponents of mindset theory claim holding a fixed mindset is detrimental for a variety of real-world outcomes because people with fixed mindsets (a) seek to appear smart/talented at all costs, (b) avoid effort, and (c) refrain from challenges and conceal weaknesses. In other words, people with fixed mindsets have the “one consuming goal of proving themselves” (Dweck, 2016, p. 6), and therefore avoid challenges (Dweck, 2016) and are “devastated by setbacks” (Dweck, 2008a, p. 1).

In contrast, holding a growth mindset means believing intelligence or other characteristics are malleable. Proponents of mindset theory claim holding a growth mindset is beneficial for a variety of real-world outcomes because people with growth mindsets (a) focus on learning, (b) believe effort is key, and (c) embrace challenges and mistakes (Dweck, 2007a, 2009). In other words, people with growth mindsets have a desire to learn, and therefore seek challenges and are resilient to setbacks (Dweck, 1986, 2006, 2009, 2016).

Mindset proponents encourage parents and teachers to promote growth mindsets in students because, “what students believe about their brains—whether they see their intelligence as something that’s fixed or something that can grow and change—has profound effects on their motivation, learning, and school achievement” (Dweck, 2008a, p. 1). The promise of profound effects on learning and achievement led researchers to develop growth mindset interventions—treatments designed to teach students to have more of a growth mindset.

Millions of dollars in funding from private foundations (e.g., Raikes Foundation, Gates Foundation) and government agencies (e.g., National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education) have been awarded to researchers, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit companies for growth mindset intervention studies.

As an example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences recently awarded a $3.5 million grant to Mindset Works (a for-profit company established by Carol Dweck—the researcher behind the Growth Mindset movement). The goal of this grant was to determine whether “Brainology”—Mindset Works’ flagship growth mindset intervention product—is effective or not.

For context, Mindset Works has been selling Brainology to schools for thousands of dollars for the past decade claiming that it benefits students. This conflicting information raises the question of whether (a) Brainology is beneficial, as Mindset Works claims on its website, or (b) there was not enough evidence to make this claim, hence why the grant from Institute of Education Sciences was needed.

_ _ _ _ _

   Macnamara and Burgoyne decided to examine the concerns above, assessing both published and unpublished research investigating the impact of growth mindset interventions on students’ academic achievement.

   To do this, they conducted three meta-analyses involving a total of 61 independent records (e.g., articles, dissertations, commissioned studies) that included 63 studies and 79 independent samples with a total sample size of 97,672 students. The studies included in the meta-analyses were published or available from 2002 through 2018, with 44 of them from 2016 or later. Significantly, the authors established their research selection, inclusion, and analysis criteria before beginning their study, and they used appropriate statistical methods to control for random or artifactual “results.”

   This highly sophisticated, comprehensive, transparent, and detailed study produced the following, according to the authors, results:

When examining all studies (63 studies, N=97,672 students), we found major shortcomings in study design, analysis, and reporting, and suggestions of researcher and publication bias: Authors with a financial incentive to report positive findings published significantly larger effects than authors without this incentive. Across all studies, we observed a small overall effect: d=0.05), which was nonsignificant after correcting for potential publication bias. No theoretically meaningful moderators were significant.

When examining only studies demonstrating the intervention influenced students’ mindsets as intended (13 studies, N=18,355 students), the effect was nonsignificant (d= 0.04). When examining the highest-quality evidence (6 studies, N=13,571 students), the effect was nonsignificant (d= 0.02).

We conclude that apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement are likely attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias.


Volley and Counter-Volley: Response and Rejoinder

   The same 2023 issue of Psychological Bulletin that published the Macnamara and Burgoyne article discussed above also included a second meta-analysis article on the Growth Mindset research (by Burnette et al.), as well as three commentary articles from different authors who reviewed the two studies.

   In a later 2023 Psychological Bulletin issue, Macnamara and Burgoyne published a new article reflecting on these three commentaries. Noting that their original meta-analysis was more objective, methodologically sophisticated, and comprehensive than the Burnette et al. study, Macnamara and Burgoyne further defended their research conclusions:

We (Macnamara & Burgoyne, 2023) tested 11 preregistered moderators and examined the evidence according to a well-defined set of best practices. We found major areas of concern in the growth mindset intervention literature.

For instance, 94% of growth mindset interventions included confounds, authors with a known financial incentive were two and a half times as likely to report positive effects, and higher quality studies were less likely to demonstrate a benefit.

Yan and Schuetze (2023) contextualized these findings by describing problems with mindset theory and its measurement.

Likewise, Oyserman (2023) discussed how growth mindset is a culturally fluent idea; papers supportive of growth mindset are widely embraced, whereas papers taking a skeptical approach are challenged.

In another commentary, Tipton et al. (2023) challenged our results, claiming to produce positive effects by reanalyzing our data set using Burnette et al.’s (2023) approach. However, in addition to changing the approach, Tipton et al. changed effect sizes, how moderators were coded, and which studies were included, often without explanation.

Though we appreciate the discussion of multiple meta-analytic approaches, we contend that meta-analytic decisions should be a priori, transparently reported, and consistently applied. Tipton et al.’s analysis illustrated our (Macnamara & Burgoyne’s, 2023) conclusion: Apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement may be attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias.


How Culturally Fluent Ideas Help Vendors (Even Harvard Psychologists) Brand and Market Effective, but Common, Strategies

   Critically—as with academic learning styles, emotional intelligence/social-emotional learning, trauma-informed schools, restorative justice programs, mindfulness, and some other contemporary educational “movements” (see some of my past Blogs)—there are districts and schools that say they are “doing” growth mindset “programs or activities” in their schools.

   But, in reality, they are just doing what good schools do, for example, to:

  • Develop positive and self-affirming students with good self-esteem;
  • Encourage students to be optimistic and believe in their ability to learn and grow over time;
  • Help students focus more on their mastery of skills and how to get correct answers, rather than obsess over grades and the number of right answers they’ve gotten; and
  • Teach students how to focus on and organize their school work, plan their time and study effectively, and evaluate their effort when they are both academically successful and unsuccessful.

   You don’t need a packaged, marketed intervention or program to do this.

   And you don’t need to call these interactions “Growth Mindset activities” to (a) rationalize the presence or importance of these interactions, or (b) be a “with-it” educator who is an “in vogue” member of the “GM Appreciation Club.”

   You use these strategies because they are beneficial, and because they have successfully impacted students way before Dweck coined the phrase “Growth Mindset,” opened Mindset Works, and started her side-hustle Brainology.

_ _ _ _ _

   Indeed, Oyserman—one of the three Discussants who critiqued Macnamara and Burgoyne’s meta-analytic study in the second 2023 Psychological Bulletin issue (see the Blog section above)—discussed how growth mindset is a “culturally fluent idea.”

This means that its descriptions, characteristics, and alignments to what many educators already believe (NOTE the four bullets immediately above), make it and its name accepted without criticism.

   This helps explain why—even in the face of the unsupportive research summarized by Macnamara and Burgoyne—educators have nonetheless invested needless time, effort, and resources into this “Emperor with No Clothes” endeavor.

   But it also helps explain why those who legitimately question a culturally-fluent idea—like growth mindset programs or interventions (along with academic learning styles, emotional intelligence/social-emotional learning, trauma-informed schools, restorative justice programs, mindfulness, and the like)—are often met with disbelief, disdain, criticism, rejection, and indignant (but unsupported) counter-assertions.

_ _ _ _ _

   While it is disconcerting that popularism and populism override science and sound scientific study, there are four practical reasons why Macnamara and Burgoyne’s well-organized and executed meta-analysis should be closely attended to. . . especially if your district or school is implementing Growth Mindset interventions from, for example, a direct descendent or a casual disciple of Dweck.

  • As already noted, districts and schools do not have the time, money, resources, and teachers’ good faith to waste on strategies that cannot provide the academic, or social, emotional, or behavioral student outcomes needed, marketed, or promised.
  • When these strategies do not work, students, staff, and schools often are left further behind, more frustrated, and more resistant to future innovations—even those that were unselected, but are proven to produce the results originally needed and desired.
  • There is always a fear—especially when student motivation and productivity is a desired outcome—that an intervention’s failure to improve student performance is “blamed” on the students for “not doing what we trained or told them to do,” rather than on a poorly selected or implemented, or ineffective, intervention.
  • Finally, given our country’s student academic gaps after the pandemic and the attempts to close these gaps especially with accelerated programs, there is a concern that schools will use growth mindset interventions to supplement the acceleration process.

This might result in a “double jeopardy” situation where (a) the failure to “close the gap” is (again) blamed on the students (as in the bullet above); (b) teachers put even more pressure on students to implement their growth mindset training; (c) schools avoid (or ignore) questioning both the growth mindset and accelerated learning interventions; and (d) students never get the academic interventions they need, and fall further behind.

[CLICK THE LINK HERE to our July 22, 2023 Blog: “When State Policy Undermines Effective School Practice: Too Much of Anything Often Results in Nothing (or Worse)”]

   Clearly, the most concerning of the negative outcomes above are the emotional and academic effects on the students who receive misguided growth mindset interventions.

   Indeed, ignoring gaps in their prerequisite academic skills, learning and mastery struggles, inadequate curricular materials and supports, and/or ineffective teacher instruction, how will different students’ short-term and long-term motivation and self-concept be affected when they are told—only—that their success depends on implementing and sustaining growth mindset beliefs and practices?

   And what will happen to these students’ motivation and self-concept when, predictably, these growth mindset beliefs and practices are not successful, and they are told to “just try harder”?

   Moreover, what will happen to their teachers’ beliefs when some of these students simply give up?

   And where—academically, behaviorally, now, and post-graduation—will these misplaced beliefs end up?


Summary

   This Blog began with a celebration of 55 years of “Sesame Street,” the first children’s television program to apply psychological and educational research—for two years before going on the air—to empirically demonstrate that it could teach preschoolers how to read, count, and get along with their friends.

   Sesame Street’s research-embedded approach stands in direct contrast with some of the most prevalent “programs” in our schools today. . . programs that were never comprehensively and objectively field-tested before being disseminated to schools, and that have been aggressively marketed by their developers and enabled by a too-willing popular press.

   Among these programs are those selling misguided strategies that purport to “address”, for example, (a) students’ different academic learning styles, emotional intelligence, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness; and (b) schools’ need for trauma-informed schools programs, restorative justice programs, and accelerated learning initiatives.

   This Blog, though, focused on yet another program: classroom-based Growth Mindset interventions.

   According to Dweck’s mindset theory, students who believe that their cognitive skills are not fixed or predetermined. . . but that they can grow and evolve with time and effort. . . will academically achieve more than those who believe these skills are fixed. Dweck has monetized her work through the for-profit Mindset Works which offers its “Brainology” program.

   Analyzing the broader Growth Mindset research, the Blog describes the recent research published by Macnamara and Burgoyne who conducted three meta-analytic studies involving 63 studies and 79 independent samples with a total sample size of 97,672 students. They found:

Major shortcomings in study design, analysis, and reporting, and suggestions of researcher and publication bias: Authors with a financial incentive to report positive findings published significantly larger effects than authors without this incentive. Across all studies, we observed a small overall effect: d=0.05), which was nonsignificant after correcting for potential publication bias. No theoretically meaningful moderators were significant.

When examining only studies demonstrating the intervention influenced students’ mindsets as intended (13 studies, N=18,355 students), the effect was nonsignificant (d= 0.04). When examining the highest-quality evidence (6 studies, N=13,571 students), the effect was nonsignificant (d= 0.02).

We conclude that apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement are likely attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias.

   The 2023 issue of Psychological Bulletin—that published Macnamara and Burgoyne’s article—included a commentary article by Oyserman. She suggested that schools were adopting growth mindset interventions—despite Macnamara and Burgoyne’s negative research results—because growth mindset is a “culturally fluent idea.”

This occurs when interventions or programs contain characteristics and/or approaches that align with those that educators already believe in.
The result is that many educators then tacitly accept the intervention or program without evaluating its efficacy and (student) outcomes, and even reject (or worse) research or recommendations by those who legitimately critique their favored approach.

   This Blog also discussed how some districts and schools say they are “doing” growth mindset programs or activities but, in reality, they are just implementing effective strategies that:

  • Develop positive and self-affirming students with good self-esteem;
  • Encourage students to be optimistic and believe in their ability to learn and grow over time;
  • Help students focus more on their mastery of skills and how to get correct answers, rather than obsess over grades and the number of right answers they’ve gotten; and
  • Teach students how to focus on and organize their school work, plan their time and study effectively, and evaluate their effort when they are both academically successful and unsuccessful.

   In the end, schools do not need a packaged, marketed growth mindset intervention or program to implement the approaches above. And they don’t need to call them “Growth Mindset activities” to (a) rationalize the presence or importance of these interactions, or (b) appear to be current.

   But if schools are implementing Growth Mindset interventions from, for example, from Mindset Works (or another vendor), we identified four concerns.

   The most troubling of the four involve the negative emotional and academic effects on the students who receive growth mindset training that is (predictably) unsuccessful. This may result in teacher criticism that they “are not doing what they have been taught to do.”

   But it also might discourage analyses that demonstrate that students are not academically achieving because they lack prerequisite academic skills, inadequate curricular materials and supports, and/or effective teacher instruction.

   The result is that students might emotionally or socially withdraw due to the criticism, and their academic performance may suffer. . . or continue to be unaddressed.

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   Thanks for reading this important Blog. While I believe that all educators’ hearts are in the “right places” for their students, it is important that our minds be aware of the potential effects of culturally-fluent ideas.

   As most of us make our transition into the new school year, know that I am always available for a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you and your colleagues move “to the next level of excellence” during the coming months. Please feel free to reach out and let’s talk.

Best,

Howie