The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Owen Carter

Growth mindset: what might a research-informed approach look like?

Mindset really does matter, but impact in one setting doesn’t always translate to impact in another.

Some concepts in education just seem intuitive. Who wouldn’t agree that people learn in different ways, and should be taught accordingly? Or that the curriculum should be relevant to young people’s everyday lives? Or that pupils should engage with what they’re learning, and not just be delivered it?

The problem is that seemingly uncontentious statements can lead into very dubious statements about pedagogy. People might express preferences for learning in one way or another: that doesn’t necessarily mean they learn better in that medium. (See this literature review).

Similarly, while we might want learning to be relevant to pupils, if there is core content that we want them to master, superficial links to their lives might not be meaningful. The art of teaching here might consist in making subject matter inherently interesting, rather than (and I’ve seen this) phrasing maths problems in terms of the number of likes on a Facebook photo.

Equally, engagement is no doubt crucial to learning, but there’s nothing to say that teacher talk is inherently unengaging. An observation about the way people learn doesn’t necessarily lead us to a cast-iron prescription on the way we should teach.

Growth mindset, I think, is in danger of becoming one of these intuitive concepts. Of course we should praise effort rather than attainment, and stress that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. But as we found in Making the link there is a huge gap between what research suggests and what we should do in the classroom.

So how to approach growth mindset?

Almost any educational idea is going to be hugely influenced by your context. To pick just a few:

  • the ethos of your school
  • the demographic of your pupils
  • staff ideas about teaching and learning
  • facilities available to teachers.

As Alfie Kohn points out, a lot of the growth mindset research doesn’t pay much attention to the details of assignments. Fair enough: Dweck is a psychologist rather than a teacher, so curriculum design issues are obviously less pertinent.

But in a school context these things matter hugely. The fact that school-based growth mindset interventions are showing more modest effects than lab studies might largely be down due to those complicating factors.

Self-evaluation should be a crucial part of a school’s approach to growth mindset (or any research-based innovation).

  • Are pupils’ mindsets a major limiting factor in your school?
  • If so, should you act on this?
  • How would you do so?

Then you could use Chris Hildrew’s thought experiment, which he outlined in a webinar for us. Imagine you are working in a growth mindset school. What does it:

  • look like?
  • sound like?
  • feel like?

This, careful, considered review process is a useful antidote to the rush to implementation, which makes growth mindset into quotations and posters, and ignores some of the thinking behind it.

What’s your evidence?

In Making the link we suggest a five step process for thinking about research evidence.


Start with your evidence (whether RCT or a teacher’s anecdote)

Evaluate it for biases, intended aims and context

Decide whether the evidence would be useful in your context

Model an inquiry: how would I use and assess this in my classroom?

Monitor and evaluate impact, feeding in new questions over the time.

Rather than saying ‘we are going to look at growth mindsets’, it might be more useful to say ‘let’s look at this specific study about growth mindsets’. (This influential mindset study might be a good place to start).

This process allows you to evaluate methodology, see the specific interventions employed by the researchers, and assess the possible strengths and weaknesses of the approach used – instead of presenting the idea as an unassailable truth.

Start small and scale up

The Sutton Trust’s ‘What makes great teaching?’ suggests that teachers’ beliefs about learning are likely to affect pupil outcomes. So it makes sense to start with yourself: do you believe that intelligence can be grown? And does your language always support that? In developing a talent for working hard, Linda Evans suggests that modelling behaviours to the class is a crucial practice for teachers looking to spread growth mindset ideas.

When we interviewed Chris Hildrew he put a firm stress on the small, influential changes to be made in the classroom. The language of praise became a key focus: teacher feedback aimed to zoom in as closely as possible on the elements to be improved. In place of ‘this essay could have been better’, teachers might say ‘when you discuss Shelley’s metaphor of fleeing ghosts in your third paragraph, what other implications does this image suggest?’.

Steps to take

All this might sound a bit more cautionary, a bit more difficult than our normal attitude towards research. But a considered and critical attitude will pay off in the long run.

Here are some resources to support and inspire you in developing that approach to growth mindset.

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