Growth Mindset is Better Taught in Context Than By Intervention

Growth Mindset is Better Taught in Context Than By Intervention

As a writing teacher, I have spent the bulk of my career working with conscripts, rather than volunteers. 

Very few students are enthused about their composition class, having developed a marked suspicion of writing in school contexts.

One of the biggest hurdles to helping students improve as writers is changing some of these attitudes, particularly the attitudes of students who will declare, “I’m not a good writer,” and then promptly confirm that suspicion by going through some desultory motions and turning in work demonstrating the bare minimum of engagement.

For years, it has been widely believed that one of the keys to success for students is to reject attitudes like “I’m not a good writer,” which suggests that their abilities are fixed and immutable, and instead adopt a “growth mindset,” where they believe that they are capable of changing these personal characteristics. 

I long ago lost track of the number of times I have wished for the one magic button that would get a student to switch to the on position when it comes to learning to write, and getting students to embrace a growth mindset seemed like as good as anything I’d come across. That there appeared to be a significant research base supporting the efficacy of interventions that helped students develop a growth mindset was only icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the cake might be something of an illusion, and the research supporting the efficacy of mindset intervention has been significantly overstated. A meta analysis of research into growth mindset interventions written by Brooke Macnamera of Case Western Reserve University and Alexander Burgoyne of Georgia Tech and published in Psychological Bulletin finds that problems with study design, analysis and researcher bias may have skewed the results when it comes to this research.

For example, according to Macnamera and Burgoyne, “Authors with a financial incentive to report positive findings published significantly larger effects than authors without this incentive.”

That’s academic-speak for we think maybe some shenanigans were going on.

So what are we supposed to learn from the strong possibility that the benefits of teaching students to adopt a growth mindset have been something of a mirage?

For one, it’s important to understand that these studies examined by Macnamera and Burgoyne were interventions that attempted to directly teach students a growth mindset. The findings suggest that a growth mindset is perhaps something that cannot be effectively taught.

However, that does not mean it cannot be learned.

I often tell students that I cannot teach them how to write, but what I can do is create the atmosphere that is most conducive to helping them progress as writers. An explicit part of my framework of “the writer’s practice” is helping students embrace the attitudes that writers employ, the most important of which is to understand that there is no terminal proficiency when it comes to developing as a writer. I sum this up with a quote from a guy named Jeff O’Neal, himself a one time teacher of writing who has gone on to a varied life as a writer and purveyor of the Book Riot website. He says, “You are going to spend your whole life learning how to write. And then you are going to die.”

Perhaps a bit morbid, but also true. 

The way I demonstrate this truth to students is not to tell them to have a growth mindset, but to provide them writing-related experiences which allow them to have direct contact with an obvious change in their writing knowledge, skills, and habits of mind, the other three elements of the writer’s practice. 

I reinforce this growth by asking students to reflect on the things they know, and the things they can do now that they couldn’t do before.

When we at Educational Endeavors do these kinds of writing activities with students in our summer program with the Daniel Murphy Scholars (rising 9th graders) and we ask how their writing has changed over the course of a week, we receive this kind of response:

“My attitudes towards writing have changed. I used to view writing as something stressful, but now I have learned steps to make it easier. My writing process has also altered. I used to just start writing, but now I have learned that prewriting plays a crucial role.”

That looks like a shift in mindset to me without explicitly telling students they needed to change their mindsets. We have dozens and dozens of other student testimonies just like it. I’ve seen similar shifts among the college freshmen I’ve worked with most of my career.

Beliefs change with experience, not just because you’re telling someone to change their belief. 

We don’t need to teach students to have a growth mindset out of the gate. Instead, if you give students a path to have success as writers, that growth will be a natural and beneficial byproduct of the experience itself.