Making a difference rarely makes any difference at all

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

We haven’t been able to translate the research on growth mindset into practice with actual benefits:

In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.


Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’


  1. Graham says:

    I think the phrase “growth mindset theory” may have finally soured me completely on educational or indeed workplace psychobabble, and I have had to develop a pretty high tolerance for it. More needed every year, perhaps every day up here. The engine of this is the American campus, but Canada has long been a cluster of enthusiastic lab rats. Monkeys, if you prefer.

    One exception to the engine point- Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at least for Canada the al-Azhar of this stuff. I bet only the actual Muslims on its faculty would even get that reference. If even them. They’re very diverse and aware and modern at OISE you see.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’ve never even heard of this drivel, before. And, reading about it, I don’t feel like that’s a major loss, either.

    The root problem to a lot of this crap is people wanting easy shortcuts, and thinking that there is some magical solution to things, something that they can do or put into effect that will enable the lazy and slovenly to succeed. Guess what? There isn’t anything that substitutes for hard work, dedication to craft, and commitment–Except more hard work, more dedication, and more commitment.

    You are not going to wave your hand, and reform someone who lacks “the necessary”. Only from within does that change come–And since you’re not within their soul or mind, you’re not changing shit about them or their performance, no matter what you say or do.

  3. Graham says:

    I went to grade school from junior kindergarten to grade 5 in one school in inner suburban Toronto, middle school in another, high school in a third. From September, 1974. It was good public education, to a fairly uniform standard in the Ontario of that day, so nobody had even theoretical grounds for egalitarian complaint. The schools were pretty much the same.

    Still ed theory had a good early grip. My mother made sure I got the old school grade 1 teacher from the two choices available. I suspect I benefited.

    On the other hand, and perhaps more interesting to me than others, my parents were of what might now be considered slightly liberal, environmentalist views. Imagine Scots and Presbyterians with the associated work and discipline values, but without real notions of predestination, which I imagine to be the religious version of hereditarianism in education. So I also benefited from expectations of both accomplishment and work to attain it. Or at least dithering and procrastination were noticed. This combined for an odd mix of old [old school teacher preferred, get your nose to the grindstone], and new [work produces the results, not innate qualities].

    So sometime in the early grades we all get called in to the school library at intervals to do some kind of testing. Probably some sort of early psych test… All I remember of it is that one of the questions was something like “why do some people do better in school than others?” Now understand I would have been between 6-9 at this point. I hadn’t made any definite commitments to environmental or hereditarian positions, and the answer I gave could technically be applied to either innate traits or lack of effort. But still, my answer, I am fairly confident word for word, “Because some people are dumb”, was the source of considerable uproar.

    Good times.

  4. Graham says:

    Not that it isn’t a world full of all types- gifted dilettantes wasting away drunk or doped, or designing software, moderately intelligence people making major contributions through sheer effort, and every type in between.

    But even then, as there is an environmental component that brings out capabilities, so there is an innate element that generates commitment, dedication, and willingness to work.

    We won’t create any of the successful types of people by blathering about anything that involves growth, mindsets or theory. Or assuming all must have prizes, all can handle college, all should try college, or any of the rest.

  5. Wan Wei Lin says:

    Graham: Sounds like you are exploring the concepts of Human Geography, as I understand it, which considers the dominant influences on a society such as resources, culture, geography, etc. Your excellent observation on ‘dumbness’ also affects societies as an input since a base level average IQ is necessary to organize a civilization making it possible to develop a functional culture. Mindset theory apparently ignores this. From your examples of grade school and Scot Presbyterians, culture is the dominant influence. I agree, but observe as culture is diluted by political correctness and unassimulated immigrants society is reverting to the mean of history….nasty and brutish.

  6. Kirk says:

    Modern civilization enables an awful lot of parasitism, which would have been culled from the gene pool back in the days of yore, when we still ran around in hunter-gatherer bands.

    Of course, the likely reason that we were stuck in that mode for so long boiled down to there not being enough “agents of change” in the population group, and let’s face the facts: The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is awfully damn attractive. Look at how many European indentured servants and children of early colonials ran off into the woods to be Indians, who were far more congenial than their square parents and masters.

    If I had to guess, the fact is that most of civilization exists only because of the steadfast efforts of a certain small percentage of the population. Take them out of the equation, or discourage them? Kiss goodbye to civilization.

    One wonders what it might look like should that percentage decide to do something about all the excess baggage and useless mouths they carry along with them. I’m not sure that that has ever happened, but it might well prove to be… Interesting. I think C.M. Kornbluth’s Marching Morons went over a potential scenario, but he did not follow up with a projection to what came after they rid themselves of the moronic majority.

    Of course, the other question is just how you go about determining who the morons are. My algorithm for determining who represents the excess baggage would no doubt include a lot of people I just plain don’t like, and might well effectively throw out the baby with the bath water. Maybe we need the mass of inert population in order to function, but I have a sense that we might well be better off without them.

    Which is not to say I ought to be put in charge of such a project, either…

  7. Sam J. says:

    “…Look at how many European indentured servants and children of early colonials ran off into the woods to be Indians, who were far more congenial than their square parents and masters…”

    It’s because they weren’t servants they were slaves. 50% did not survive their “servitude”.

  8. Kirk says:

    It depends on which ones you were talking about, and the time you’re talking. In a lot of cases, the “indentured servitude” amounted to outright chattel slavery. In others, it was a contracted period of labor that paid for your passage to the Americas. I’ve got access to family records that show more of the latter than the former–Because we were the indentured servants. Actual mileage may vary…

    The other point was that quite a considerable number of the “masters” didn’t survive the indentured servitude period, either–One of my ancestors wound up holding his own contract after an epidemic swept through and killed the owner of his contract, and left him the only fit adult male to take over the business, which he did. Also, marrying the wife of the contract owner… Cooperage near Plymouth Plantation, if I remember right.

    Conditions of the times were not ours. If you were a poor person with few prospects, selling your ass to get out of England wasn’t entirely a bad idea, nor was it outrageous to take advantage of that need, either.

  9. Graham says:

    Wan Wei Lin,

    Yes, I find plenty to agree with in that approach. The chief thing that strikes after all these years is that even a critique of modern methods based on “culture”, which can go quite far into realism, will ultimately fail because too many of its proponents see “culture” as infinitely malleable. The same goes at the individual level for, let’s call the aggregate of a person’s traits “personality”.

    Culture and personality are the deep environment but they aren’t the deepest drivers.

    Not that you can’t muck around with both for the better, changing them or at least plugging in modules that enable them to adapt. Degrees of success will vary depending on the original material and the nature of whatever it is you want them to adapt to.

    If you have an ideal template in your head, some cultures and personalities will be more adaptable than others, often because the template was precooked with their preferences in mind. But not everyone will adapt, and even the preferred cultures may never match the template exactly, unless literally they were used to define it down to the last detail.

    Then there are the cases in which perhaps a culture could adapt in the second sense I gave – plug ins, modules, means to get along or translate ideas into their idioms – but we’re trying instead to completely overwrite them, and if that fails, writing them off instead of considering less radical approaches. Or our ideal template is too much for everyone and these cultures are just early failure points.

    Sooner or later you get into serious conflict about whether the ideal template actually is the way to go, and somebody manages to rally serious force against it. Or its proponents have such an all or nothing mindset that they can accept no substitutions.

    On the individual level, it applies whether you are trying to design a system that can send everyone to college, or a college that can usefully accommodate everyone. On the cultural level, well, are we trying to pacify Afghanistan, solve the problems of African Americans, or Native Americans, or Appalachian Americans, or what? And by assimilating them to what exactly?

    Occasionally I think American progressives know all this and can’t admit it, because as pursuers of the perfect society template they cannot admit that many will not belong, and what would have to happen next. Except maybe for the Appalachians, they had a good run of openness about that in 2016. OTOH, if you idea of society doesn’t demand perfection, you can be pretty flexible about letting people(s) find their way, compete, conflict with others, etc.

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