The danger of growth mindset

Written by: Paolo Canonica | Published:
Paolo Canonica, head of psychology at Ibstock Place School, London, chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society

Growth mindset theory has dominated education practice in recent years, but its message and application is often misunderstood and misinterpreted, warns Paolo Canonica

Developing a “growth mindset” has been at the heart of many education initiatives in the past decade. The growth mindset message, however, could lead pupils to develop mental health problems unless it is carefully presented.

In my years of teaching and counselling pupils I have come across a problem linked to growth mindset: pupils who try very hard indeed, but still do not achieve. Often these pupils have embraced the growth mindset message that intelligence, talent and ability can be grown through effort and determination.

This had given them hope: those who had previously thought they lacked ability were told that if they put in more effort they would improve. The message may have been valid, but a message is only as good as how it is interpreted. And the message of a growth mindset is often misunderstood, as its pioneer Professor Carol Dweck herself has said (Anderson, 2016; Gross-Loh, 2016).

Although these pupils were told “effort will improve your ability” what they heard was “effort will improve your results”. More extreme misunderstandings go further, and turn this into “effort will get you good results”. So when these good or improved results do not materialise, the children have two options...

Some question the message: they stop believing that talent and ability can be improved by practice and revert to a “fixed” mindset. Other children begin to question themselves. This is more insidious: they believe that if they had not achieved despite their efforts then their starting ability must have been incredibly low. Many give up, stop trying, and their self-image is damaged by their false realisation.

The root of the problem is a misunderstanding of what a growth mindset actually implies. The valid message is that through effort and perseverance anyone can improve their ability. However, new theories are often adapted and simplified in our minds: details and subtleties are lost and knowledge can be distorted to fit that which we already hold.

One reason for this adapting of growth mindset is that “improvement” is hard to differentiate from “achievement”. Pupils who are told their “ability will improve” through effort will look for evidence of this in their test results.

However, in a school context the material covered becomes increasingly difficult, so an improvement in ability may simply mean that a pupil who achieved a grade 4 previously is able to achieve a grade 4 again but on more difficult material.

A further reason for adapting the growth mindset message is its similarity to a very well-known schema: the American Dream. Many books, films and stories promote the message that “through hard work and determination anyone can achieve anything”. We are bombarded by tales of people who failed, persevered, and at last succeeded.

But these stories never point out the time this takes or the myriad of cases where effort and perseverance leads to nothing. All this conspires to create the belief that “effort and perseverance pays off with good results”.
As the message of the growth mindset is only subtly different, the two concepts get merged.

The original phrasing of growth mindset may have been that “through effort and perseverance anyone can improve their ability”. This gets pared down to “effort leads to improvement” or further still to “effort leads to better results”. Throw in our understanding of the American Dream ideal, and the message is now “effort leads to success”. But does it?

In some cases, yes. However, effort alone can never guarantee results. Why? Because our aspirations may not fit our abilities, or perhaps due to luck or other circumstances...

An additional problem arises from a common flaw in mental logic: that if A leads to B, a lack of B is due to a lack of A – if effort leads to success, this must mean that a lack of success was due to a lack of effort. This further modification of the growth mindset message is one of the most common psychologically damaging beliefs I have encountered among teenagers.

First, it is not true – there are many reasons that might explain a lack of success. Second, it lays the blame for failure on the students themselves.

These misinterpretations are often reinforced by teachers and educators, leaving students convinced that “if I try harder I will succeed”.

Why is this message dangerous? Its purpose is to motivate pupils to persevere, try again, keep going, improve. These are admirable, life-serving traits.

But this message is dangerous because it can harm self-esteem. Students who believe that a lack of success is due to a lack of effort will eventually take failure very personally. This usually happens when they know that they could not have put any more effort in, yet were still unsuccessful. This attacks their self-image, and leads to anxiety, depression, or both.

The idea of a growth mindset leading to increased perseverance and a greater chance of success is valid, powerful and worth pursuing. I argue not that a growth mindset is harmful in itself, but rather that incorrect interpretations of it – by students and educators – can cause psychological problems.

It is the abbreviated versions (effort leads to success) which cause harm – and its converse (lack of success is due to lack of effort) most of all. It is these two which we need to avoid.

What do we have left of growth mindset though if we stick to its unadulterated message? That effort leads to improvement, and that ability (and intelligence) can be improved through effort. It is a message worth promoting, certainly, but we must take care that we do not inadvertently promote its malevolent derivations.

By all means tell children that they can grow their ability through effort, but make it clear that this will not guarantee better results. Temper any message with the idea that success is never just solely down to you, your abilities, talent, intelligence or effort.

Yes, we want our children to work hard and bounce back from adversity, but we also want them to be happy. The way to encourage both is to remove a little of the responsibility for success and failure from pupils and place it back on the world around them where it belongs.

  • Paolo Canonica is head of psychology at Ibstock Place School, London, a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Further information

  • The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point, Jenny Anderson/Quartz, January 2016: http://bit.ly/2HJwQ45
  • How praise became a consolation prize, Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, December 2016:
    http://bit.ly/2EjWlIr
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Professor Carol Dweck, Random House, 2006


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