Why is a Growth Mindset so difficult to maintain?

Nurture your Growth MindsetI am great believer in the view that the way in which we view intelligence and ability can have a major impact on achievement. So-called ‘implicit theories of intelligent’ have managed to reach a much wider audience through the continued efforts of Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck. Unfortunately, Mindset theory has been over-marketed during the past few years with a multitude of authors using it in order to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, the theory remains sound and easily understood using just two publications: Dweck’s Self-theories and her quintessential Mindset.

Despite being a fervent supporter of Growth Mindset, I don’t always practice what I preach. In my own school the theory has never really taken off (despite significant training for some staff a few years ago) but despite this I always try and encourage it in my own students. However, there are certainly times when I drift from fixed to growth and every shade in-between. This is also true of my students – when things are going well, a growth mindset is easy to maintain; when things aren’t going so well, it becomes more of a struggle.

There are certainly psychological explanations for this. Continual negative experiences grind us down – a personally disappointing grade on a test might not seem so important at the beginning of the year, but if it continues as the year progresses (and exams begin to loom) learned helplessness begins to creep in and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that GM position. Of course, with constructive feedback and continued support we like to think that this situation should never occur – but it does, doesn’t it?

My Year 13 students have reached the stage where, for some, their worlds are beginning to collapse. They are worried about not getting the grades they need for university and, specific to us, rapid changes in school generally and Sixth Form specifically have left them battle-weary. Maintaining a positive mental attitude and a GM becomes difficult in such circumstances and many have reverted to the fixed mindset position I tried so hard to eradicate a year-and-a-half ago. While I support many of these changes, I can’t help thinking that the welfare of students has been eclipsed by the desire to get the boxes ticked and the hoops jumped through. Perhaps this is simply the result of my lifelong (healthy, I think) disrespect for authority.

A Growth Mindset cannot simply be encouraged and then abandoned – it’s an on-going process, one that requires careful nurturing and constant care. Furthermore, recognising that change (positive or negative) can be a potentially destructive force if not carefully managed should be at the forefront of all our minds.

A Growth Mindset can be fragile – it should come with a ‘handle with care’ label.handle-with-care-logo


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