The Growth Mindset misunderstood

The width and depth of this misunderstanding is demonstrated in this Guardian headline.

New test for ‘growth mindset’, the theory that anyone who tries can succeed – Researchers are going to examine the theory from American psychology that has taken UK schools by storm. Can it improve Sats results?

It would be hard to get more misunderstandings into a headline.

First, it is not the theory ‘that anyone who tries can succeed’.

This is an especially dangerous misunderstanding as it implies that anybody of any age who does not understand something has just not been trying hard enough. This false notion feeds much of the behaviourist disciplinarianism  that is currently corrupting the English and US education systems and is being used to justify restrictive, rule-driven regimes for school pupils, especially in schools that have adopted the Hirsch knowledge based approach which is explained in this BBC News story.

Hirsch misdiagnoses the difficulty some of his students have in understanding his lessons.

“It wasn’t that they lacked reading ability. It wasn’t even that their vocabularies were excessively small – it was just basic factual information they lacked, which would enable them to understand what they read.”.

The Hirsch solution to understanding hard stuff is to first learn by heart the basic knowledge. According to Hirsch, failure to understand derives from failure to learn the basic facts. Who would argue with that? It appeals to common sense, but when it comes to how learning actually takes place, common sense is frequently wrong, as it is here.

A digression on the general common sense fallacy is needed. It cannot be easily summarised except to state that the laws of nature and the nature of reality are frequently contrary to common sense. This is especially true in relation to learning and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Here are some suggested references.

The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert (1993, new edition 2000)

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)

See also this article

Learning Matters, Roger Titcombe (2015)

The clearest statement of why Hirsch is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky, who is the main historic learning theorist whose work underpins ‘The Growth Mindset’.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

 As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that  Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

Well, momentum = mass x velocity

 Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

‘Alice’ a hypothetical student whose cognition is at the formal operational level, who understands Newton’s Laws of Motion, will also be able to apply her System 2 thinking ability to all concepts that are similarly hard to understand. ‘James’, a student whose cognition has not developed to that level will not only be unable to understand Newton’s Second Law of Motion, he will have the same difficulty with any other concept with the same level of cognitive demand, including those outside maths and science, no matter how hard he tries or how much ‘basic knowledge’ he learns by heart.

Crucially if you give Alice and James a cognitive ability or  IQ test at the stage in their education where Alice understands, but James does not, Alice will come out with a higher score than James. ‘The Growth Mindset’ insists that this is not a fixed difference between them. It is possible that James can be taught to develop the same level of cognition as Alice, but not by memorising facts.

 All teachers know that ‘clever’ students can understand harder stuff than ‘duller’ students, so schools put them in higher streams or sets and leave the duller students in lower streams or sets where they will not face constant failure. How can Hirsch be sure that his students that fail to understand his lessons do not ‘lack ability‘? Has he tested their general cognitive ability levels?

The ‘Growth Mindset’ is not about forcing James to ‘work harder’, it is about teaching James how to learn in such a way that his cognition develops to the level where he can understand harder concepts. The ‘Growth Mindset’ demands the rejection of ‘fixed intelligence’ combined with the recognition of the essential role of failure in the acquisition of understanding.

Forcing pupils to learn things by heart in the absence of understanding makes them not cleverer but dimmer, by denying them a transformative experience of failure and mistakes. For failure to be constructive the learner must be able to consider and evaluate possible reasons for the lack of success, then have another try. This requires the second essential element of ‘The Growth Mindset’, which is called ‘metacognition‘. The pedagogy of ‘The Growth Mindset’ is designed to develop the process of personal individual metacognition by testing it against the metacognitive suggestions and ideas of other students through peer to peer discussion assisted by interventions from the teacher in the form of, ‘what if‘ questions.

Talking and discussing with peers is therefore a key feature of ‘Growth Mindset’ teaching and learning.

 It is not, therefore, going to take root in a school culture that discourages talking where the assumption is that teaching is ‘telling by the teacher’ and learning is ‘listening by the learner, followed by silent rote learning reinforced by regular testing. Of course teachers must impart facts and provide explanations and students must listen to their teachers and to each other, but this is not enough without personal engagement with the essential concepts.

This explains why the ‘Growth Mindset’ does not mean than anyone can understand anything if they try hard enough, and also why English Academies and Free Schools that restrict pupil conversation and have coercive, punishment driven behaviour policies will not succeed with this approach.

To move on to what the ‘Growth Mindset’ actually involves requires consideration of the second major fallacy in the Guardian headline. The theory is not originally from ‘American psychology’. Although much recent excellent work has been published by Carol Dweck in America, the core principles were established by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

The concept of ‘plastic intelligence’ and the development of a practical pedagogy based on its principles are largely down to the lifetime work of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. You can read about this here.

A very good easy read guide to ‘The Growth Mindset’ is, ‘The Growth Mindset Pocketbook‘, Barry Hymer & Mike Gershon (2014)

Here are some quotes. My comments are in square brackets.

For those with fixed mindsets, challenges carry with them the prospect of ‘failure’ and the consequent ‘exposure’ of a limited intelligence.

 When children learn that sticking at tough, challenging tasks leads to changes to their brains [I prefer minds – I am suspicious of neuro-babble] that make them smarter [cleverer], we have a way of disrupting fixed mindsets and reinforcing growth mindsets.

Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education’ (CASE) predates ‘The Growth Mindset’, which draws on the same principles. ‘Learning Intelligence‘ (2002) is a collection of articles from various authors that demonstrate applications of the Cognitive Acceleration approach in a variety of subjects for pupils of all ages.

Section 5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘ addresses principles of ‘The Growth Mindset’ through the work of Shayer and Adey. Here are some quotations.

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs.

 It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

 Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. The idea is that as learners experience cognitive development they also develop a general metacognitive ability that can be characterised as a higher level thinking skill in itself. Einstein described such thinking as ‘thought experiments’, but everybody can be taught to do it.

Lessons that develop cognition and so raise intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

 Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

 A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

 There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the DfE, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts and consequent alienation.

 Not only is ‘The Growth Mindset’ approach not an American innovation, but many of the learning interventions involved, which I have described, have been researched by the DfE funded ‘Education Endowment Foundation’ (EEF). The results of their work and the fact that the conclusions have been largely ignored by the Academy and Free School movement, which is ideologically obsessed with ‘fixed mindset’ approaches, is discussed here.

The thoughtful teacher and education blogger Debra Kidd comes to similar conclusions with regard to the corruption and misunderstanding of ‘The Growth Mindset’ movement. She writes about this here.

The international PISA research into the effectiveness of national education systems comes to similar conclusions as the EEF. My analysis of the results from the latest (2015) round of testing reveals the key relationship between mean national intelligence and the mean national scores on the PISA tests. I go on to show that when student cognitive ability is taken into account the international league table of school system effectiveness is completely changed.

I also speculate on the nature of national cultures that gives rise to differences in mean national intelligences here.

The ‘Growth Mindset’ approach, when not misunderstood and corrupted to justify ‘fixed mindset’ school cultures, allows optimism that the considerable scope for improving the level of intelligence of the general population may lead to population-wide improvements in the quality of knowledge and understanding of the many complex issues confronting UK society and the world as a whole as well as enabling our school leavers to play a full part in our national life and economy.

However the national education systems of the UK and the US are currently following ideologies that lead in the opposite direction and there is little indication that this going to change any time soon.

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9 Responses to The Growth Mindset misunderstood

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    “Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Force = Rate of Change of Momentum”
    I was taught (& remember) this law as Force = Mass times Acceleration. As is shown here with Newton’s Second Law Illustration ( the same force on a small mass gives a large acceleration is compared to a large mass getting a small acceleration ie F=mA=Ma. Common sense.

    Whilst I appreciate that Physics needs a bit of controversial publicity (including fancy TV ads) I believe this anti common sense bandwagon is going to far and I blame Brian Cox, for one. Now I can appreciate that at the top end of the school syllabus a bit of philosophical controversy to get sixth formers exercised can be useful. However stupid statements like: “Common sense is completely worthless and irrelevant when trying to understand reality” from his book Human Universe are just dumb. He, of course has track record of making such provocative statements eg Was Brian Cox wrong? – Sixty Symbols

    Now when I have a little more time I will read the rest of your post and comment but I just wanted to get the above off my chest.


  2. “the same force on a small mass gives a large acceleration is compared to a large mass getting a small acceleration ie F=mA=Ma. Common sense.”

    Fine, but when you pick up a large (heavy) mass and feel the large gravitational force on it (its weight), common sense and Newton’s 2nd Law tell you that it should fall to the ground faster than if you drop a smaller mass. To understand why it doesn’t you have to understand that the second law also creates the concept of inertia, which is where ‘rate of change of momentum’ is helpful. The common sense fallacy is all too true and always has been. That is why we humans were picking up, throwing and dropping rocks for hundreds of thousands of years before Galileo established (and Newton proved) that the acceleration of free fall is independent of mass.

    In the history of science the common sense fallacy is well established. T H Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog) espoused that ‘science was just common sense’. He was wrong. When nature (and maths) is investigated it gets very complex very quickly and common sense very soon lets you down.

    So sorry, you are wrong and I am with Brian Cox.


  3. Y Yn says:

    Very true indeed. I attempted to do algebra at grade 1 and tried to read up on political philosophy at age 11 to no avail; I could tell that my cognitive aptitude was deficient. I could not hold multiple numbers in my memory span and do backward operations nor could I decontextualize linguistic markers to interpret unknown words, phrases and relationships. Indeed, pigeon-holing and brute-forcing x^n operations of direct write-and-read memory never works for me and always turns out terribly, although for brains more suited for understanding concreteness/details- they are superior to me in all respects to subjects that require thorough-depth leveled understanding of X is to Y as A is to B when I do not invest time in comprehension, integration and recall.

    Whether it be molecular biology, organic chemistry, quantum mechanics, systems biochemical engineering or whatever, not precipitating a solid foundational level of understanding always hindered me. One can only feint so many ‘memorized’ concept-puzzle heuristics (plug & chug, derive line and change form) or other simple linear-transformations of represented information as a way of showing off academic achievement, but is unsuited to doing anything remotely above the conventional or norm when the question asks a sophisticated level of ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ with no prior ‘hows’ and requires the usage of multiple systems of abstraction that can only be put together if you understand how it works in the first place, with holding the aspect of knowing what system to use and its effectiveness.

    It is annoying that I am unable to reach a higher level of cognitive complexity for comprehension, integration and synthesis (practical new knowledge and insights) because I always find myself having to back-track down multiple leveled abstracted layers of X means Y, Y + Z means A, A + B + C with no Z means D, therefore X implies E and not F & G which anyone of four standard deviations above the mean could do without a moment’s repose. Unfortunately, this level of manipulation is limited to such individuals of sufficient intellect, and also such passions for teaching, instructing and guiding others. The best can only be taught by the best as its worst. A 100 IQ teacher is unsuited to teaching a 130 IQ teacher as the 100 IQ teacher’s methods will lack any coherent explanation beyond simplistic mechanical descriptors F = ma. What a travesty indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Y Yn says:

    Look at any exam-intensive guide in China or in Asia and you find that it uses simple reverse engineering techniques on exam questions over the years (TOEFL, AP, …) giving the user the method of identification, the requisite base knowledge, the correct approach/solution to any minutae change in variable in problem formulation but almost nothing in terms of open-ended real-world questions of unknown complexity, unknown scope and unknown consequences (which mirrors real life).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Neil Postlethwaite says:

    What moron put this website together. With the pictures in the backgtound, it’s almost impossible to read.


    • Hello Neil. I welcome comments to my articles including those that are critical. However please do not be abusive. Wide screen multimedia monitors limit the proportion of the screen taken up by the text. This will apply to all text displayed on your computer, not just this website. You can change your display settings to alter this. I have viewed my website on many computers using Windows XL, 7 and 10 operating systems and see no problem. Sorry you don’t like the background but the text always occupies most of the screen and is easy to read.

      My articles are getting more than 8000 visits per year from all over the world, which I think is quite a lot for an educational website that is heavy on theories of learning. Yours is the first such comment on the display and presentation. I hope you will persist and find a way to read this article and I await your comments on the content.


      • Neil Postlethwaite says:

        If you can send me an e-mail, I can send you a screenshot of the page to illustrate how bad it is to read, and no it’s not on a widescreen monitor, it’s a standard Lenovo laptop at 1440×900 – fairly commonplace. Black text on top of black/dark of a uniform in a repeating photo is only readable if you select the text to highlight it.


  6. Pingback: Is the mental health crisis in English schools being driven by the changes in teaching methods demanded by marketisation? | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  7. MrsK says:

    I am by no means an academic though I do teach. I do not consider myself particularly intelligent but I am wise enough to know when I see common sense principles.

    I find that many senior leaders interpret a theory such as “growth mindset” and use it to fuel their own personal agenda without fully understanding their interpretation of the theory.

    Having worked in Mat’s for a large part of my career there is not the freedom or creativity to learn through making mistakes though this is a fundamental principle of learning. This article acknowledges this matter.

    The mental health endemic of this generation is likely caused by helicopter parenting and a zero tolerance approach to children behaving like children by most schools.

    We need to have more artistic freedom as teachers to be able to deliver subjects in a way that is not dictated by SLT or to provide evidence to Ofsted. When teachers are allowed to be innovative and creative our children will learn. I remain hopeful of the interpretation of the new ofsted criteria.


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