Sunday, October 4, 2015

Growth Mindset Just Ain't Enough

As a kid, I knew that my intelligence could be developed. I knew that embracing challenges and working to overcome obstacles required effort, but I always thought that effort was worth it. I heard criticism from others as a guide to improvement rather than a personal attack.

I could have been one of Carol Dweck’s poster children for growth mindset.

It makes sense, right?. What you think you can, you can and what you think you can’t, you can’t. All my life I have seen that attitude plays a role in my own and others' outcomes.

So when my superintendent opened the school year with Carol Dweck’s TED Talk about growth mindset, why wasn’t I jumping out of my metal folding chair with applause?

I couldn’t name it at the time, but these chapters from Nakkula and Toshalis have given me some frameworks and language to now explain my skepticism.

First, I think an emphasis on growth mindset ignores the important role that adults play in co-constructing meaningful opportunities for development. 
One of the main signifiers of a growth mindset is the willingness to embrace challenge. This is certainly an important life skill. However, growth mindset seems to be employed under the assumption that all students have equal access to meaningful, developmentally appropriate challenges. I worry whether students who consistently face challenges that are not relevant, too difficult, and not within their ZPD (think: ELLs forced to take PARCC, Lorena pre-rowing, etc.) will be able to develop this growth mindset - thus continuing their cycle "failure."

As Nakkula found in one of his research projects, education professionals are trained to identify deficits. This is important in order to know which skills to build. However, he also noticed that many students who were referred for support services did not have individual problems, rather “the more accurate diagnosis was the lack of meaningful opportunities for healthy development” (66). It’s not that the students had problems/were the problem. Instead Nakkula and his colleagues recognized that the students’ had strengths and interests that were untapped. They have foundations that could be built upon and used to help imagine the future. While I think Nakkula and Dweck would agree in the importance of possibility development, I think they have different opinions about who is responsible for imagining the future. Would Lorena have ever considered rowing if it weren’t for Maggie’s suggestion?

Along with this, I think an emphasis on growth mindset ignores the role of mutual relationships in learning. 
Sure, Dweck believes that part of a growth mindset is being “inspired by and learning from the success of others” (as seen in the poster above), but this is cursory. This wording implies that the student is the one solely responsible for seeking that inspiration and learning from it. Moreover, it implies that they can only be inspired by others’ successful outcomes, which I think disregards the power of learning from mistakes and devalues process. My beliefs are much more in line with Nakkula’s: “to live well, to live fully, is to co-create, to invent possibilities for living and to work toward actualizing those possibilities collectively” (67). As with the example of Steve, Lorena, and Mr. Harrison, all three people were important for success of the project and developmental growth.

Although Mr. Harrison did a lot of the arranging, Steve and Lorena absolutely learned from each other. the Search Institute (mentioned in Chapter 3) created a chart that outlines the “Developmental Relationships Framework.” While they acknowledge the absolute importance of caring adults, they also make clear that developmental relationships can also exist with friends, siblings, and other peers, as seen between Steve and Lorena. I’m wondering how this could be used alongside the growth mindset framework...

And, finally, would someone remind Dweck that energy is finite? 
One danger of being a growth mindset poster child is the immense pressure that comes with thinking you can and should be able to do anything and everything. It’s exhausting to take on every challenge presented to you and devote full effort to each challenge all the time. Nakkula provides some sensibility, however, in recognizing that “energy is finite and skill development requires energy” (73). To move from diffuse identity to moratorium and ultimately an achieved identity, adolescents have to make some decisions about how they focus their energy. Nakkula explains the key role that educators play in this: “by pointing out what might be gained or lost with their investment of time and energy, we help them to see more clearly the possibilities they are imagining and to recognize the ones they might leave behind” (72). Again, I worry that growth mindset downplays the role that adults play in adolescent development. Adult mentors are not relieved of responsibility once students develop a growth mindset. They must continue to ask questions that help adolescents navigate the complexity and make informed choices about their imagined futures.

Now What...
I guess I can’t just sit back in my metal folding chair at PD next week, huh? I’m not sure exactly what it will look like and sound like, but now that I can name my concerns and I have research to support me, I need to speak up. I need to share. I need to ask questions of my colleagues and administrators. It’s time to take some risks.


  1. Brittany, I like the way that you challenge what is traditionally thought of as one of the right ways to think about a person's mindset. I also think you're right when you acknowledge that mindset is a bit more challenging than fixed vs. growth. Yes, mutual learning and adult encouragement are so vitally important to building a human being. I think Nakkula also understands the complexities of developing individuals, but he also understands that it is not just the individual but others involved in that individual's life--co-constructing all the time. Let me know what you say and how it goes at the next faculty meeting!

  2. Brittany, I also like how you get into the fact that energy is finite. Someone who wants to take on the challenges and meet them all, often gets overloaded with them. What about those who do not want those challenges, or maybe they want challenges but the kind they need/want are not being offered to them?

  3. Brittany, I love the way that you challenge the growth mindset idea, but mostly because I love the way you are able to articulate and break down exactly why you don't agree with it. I agree most with your second point, which points out Nakkula and Toshalis's view that "to live fully is to co-create..." This allows students to be a part of the things and learning that they create within the classroom and outside the walls of the school, with their friends, parents, peers, and teachers. THAT is what is missing from Dweck.

  4. I think your outlook, and what you discuss in the beginning, has a lot to do with the discussion we had earlier in class regarding the stack of chips we have in front of us. The more chips we have, the less threatening critical feedback seems to us, and the fewer chips, the more we need to protect what shaky identity we have to hold on to. Whether talking about adolescents who are just beginning to get into the game, or a (like my group) student who struggle to meet life's basic necessities, we need to be careful about how the message is delivered, not just the content or intent in it.
    Good for you, having a plan to confront your questions with your faculty, there you go risking again!