Telling kids they’re smart could lead them to do worse in school. That’s the eye-catching finding from work done back in 1998 by a pair of psychology researchers from Columbia University.
In a series of six studies, the researchers showed that when students performed well, whether they were praised them for their intelligence rather than their hard work made a difference. Students who were praised for their intelligence responded by seeing intelligence as more fixed. They became less resilient to failure and ended up performing worse than children who were praised for their effort.
These findings have led to the idea of having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. The basic theory is that whether people believe achievement is a result of innate ability or hard work can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since 1998, this notion has caught on. Educators have increasingly focused on encouraging their students to see learning as a process of growth rather than as an expression of innate intelligence. The New York Times ran a piece proclaiming that If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow. In fact, the idea of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets has become so popular that Carol Dweck, one of the original researchers, has cautioned against taking things too far and oversimplifying the original research.
But do growth mindsets live up to the hype? Does encouraging students to see achievement as a result of growth and hard work have the potential to change our education system?
To shed light on these questions, a team of researches did a meta-analysis of existing research on how growth mindsets impact academic performance. And as it turns out, the results are a little underwhelming.
The researchers approached the topic with two analyses. The first analysis looked at whether having a growth mindset was related to academic achievement. The second looked at whether interventions encouraging students to have growth mindsets could boost academic performance.
In both cases, the researchers concluded that the evidence was “weak.” In other words, fostering a growth mindset doesn’t seem to be a cure-all for students’ academic woes.
However, the meta-analysis did support the idea that developing a growth mindset can be especially effective for certain groups of people, particularly low-income students. Indeed, previous research has suggested that having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset explains some of the differences in academic achievement between low-income and high-income students.
All else being equal, it’s still probably better to approach school with an awareness that success comes partly from a willingness to grow and put in hard work. This appears to be especially true for students who are prone to believing that academic success is is mainly a result of innate intelligence, like low-income students. That said, it’s looking like the power of a growth mindset has definite limitations, and we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about the ability of the growth mindset to fix what’s wrong with our schools.