Artwork for podcast Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive
061: Can Growth Mindset live up to the hype?
9th April 2018 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:44:33

Share Episode


Growth mindset is everywhere these days.  Dr. Carol Dweck’s research showing that a growth mindset can help children to overcome academic struggles is being incorporated to curriculum planning across the U.S. and in many other countries, and school districts in California are even using it to evaluate schools’ performance.  I get ads popping up in my Facebook feed every day for a journal that helps children to develop a growth mindset, and judging from the comments those folks selling the journal are doing very nicely for themselves.

Which means that the science underlying the idea of growth mindset must be rock solid, right?

Well, perhaps you might be surprised (or not, if you’re a regular listener) to know that this actually isn’t the case.  The main study on which the entire growth mindset theory is based has never been replicated, which is the gold standard for considering whether an effect that was found in a study is really real.  And a variety of subsequent studies supporting the findings of the original one were either so tiny as to be not useful or failed to find any relevant effect (although in some cases they went on to report their findings as if they did…).

We’ll tease all this out in the episode, and will discuss whether growth mindset is something worth fostering in your child.


Other shows mentioned in this episode

Don’t bother trying to increase your child’s self-esteem

Do you punish your child with rewards?



Adams, J.M. (2014, May 5). Measuring a ‘growth mindset in a new school accountability system. Edsource. Retrieved from

Bandura, A. (1981). Self-referent thought: A developmental analysis of self-efficacy. In J.H. Flavell & L. Ross (Eds.), Social cognitive development: Frontiers and possible futures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Baumeister, R.F., Campbell, J.D., Krueger, J.I., & Vohs, K.D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4(1), 1-44.

Boykin, A.W., Albury, A., Tyler, K.M., Hurley, E.A., Bailey, C.T., & Miller, O.A. (2005). Culture-based perceptions of academic achievement among low-income elementary students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 11, 339-50.

Briggs, D.C. (1970). Your child’s self-esteem. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Brown, N. (2017, January 14). In which science actually self-corrects, for once. Retrieved from

Burnette, J.L., VanEpps, E.M., O’Boyle, E.H., Pollack, J.M., & Finkel, E.J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin 139(3), 655-701.

Chivers, T. (2017, January 14). A mindset “revolution” sweeping Britain’s classes may be based on shaky science. BuzzFeed. Retrieved from

Cimpian, A., Mu, Y., & Erickson, L.C. (2012). Who is good at this game? Linking an activity to a social category undermines children’s achievement. Psychological Science 23(5), 533-541.

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic mindset. PNAS 113(31), 8664-8668.

Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(5), 451-462. Full article available at

Duckworth, A.L., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science 16, 939-944.

Dweck, C.S., Walton, G.M., & Cohen, G.L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Full report available at

Dweck, C.S., & Reppucci, N.D. (1973). Learned helplessness and reinforcement responsibility in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 25(1), 109-116. Full article available at

Dweck, C.S. (1975). The role of expectations and attributions in the alleviation of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31(4), 674-685. Full article available at

Educuation Week (2016). Mindset in the classroom: A national study of K-12 teachers. Author. Retrieved from

Edwards, B. (1989). Drawing on the right side of the brain. New York, NY: Tarcher. (Note: The Amazon reviews say the 1989 edition is better than the more recent editions…)

Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., Dweck, C.S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S.C. (2013). Parent praise to 1- to 3-year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development 84(5), 1526-1541.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). Parents’ views of failure predict children’s fixed and growth intelligence mind-sets. Psychological Science 27, 859-869.

Lazowski, R.A., & Hulleman, C.S. (2016). Motivation intentions in education: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research 86(2), 602-640.

Li, Yue, & Bates, T.C. (n.d.). Does growth mindset improve children’s IQ, educational attainment or response to setbacks? Active-control interventions and data on children’s own mindsets. Retrieved from

Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1996, April). Implicit theories of intelligence; relation of parental beliefs to children’s expectations. Poster session presented at Head Start’s Third National Research Conference, Washington, D.C.

Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2ndEd.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M., Romero, C., Smith, E.N., Yeager, D.S., & Dweck, C.S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science 26(6), 784-793.

Pomerantz, E.M., & Kempner, S.G. (2013). Mothers’ daily person and process praise: Implications for children’s theory of intelligence and motivation. Developmental Psychology 49(11), 2040-2046.

Schmidt, J.A., Shumow, L., & Kackar-Cam, H.Z. (2017). Does mindset intervention predict students’ daily experience in classrooms? A comparison of seventh and ninth graders’ trajectories. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 46, 582-602.

Schmidt, J.A., Shumow, L., & Kackar-Cam, H.K. (2015). Exploring teacher effects for mindset intervention outcomes in seventh grade science classes. Middle Grades Research Journal 10(2), 17-32.

Strauss, V. (2014, August 21). For first time, minority students expected to be majority in U.S. public schools this fall. Washington Post. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Author. Retrieved from

Wentzel, K.R. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology 89(3), 411-419.

Wright, C.F. (2017). Teacher stress and curriculum reform: An illustrative example with the “Growth Mindset” movement. Unpublished Master’s Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from

Yeager, D.S., Mueller, C., & Dweck, C.S. (n.d.). Revisiting descriptive statistics from Mueller & Dweck (1998). Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from

Yeager, D.S., Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M., & Dweck, C.S. (2013, June 10). How can we instill productive mindsets at scale? A review of the evidence and an initial R&D agenda. Unpublished white paper prepared for the White House meeting on Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets. Retrieved from


Read Full Transcript


Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  Today we’re going to talk about Professor Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset.  We’ll walk through overview of what Mindset is and the study on which it is based, and then we’ll spend quite a bit of time evaluating the research to help us understand whether the effect that Professor Dweck describes is real and if it is, what implications it has for our children and students.


The topic of Mindset has been on my mind (as it were) as an episode topic for a while but I’m in the final throes of creating content for my course on how parents can support children’s learning in school, and one of the topics I wanted to address there was related to mindset, so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and cover it here too.  Professor Dweck began her research as a graduate student in the ‘70s so this idea has been around for a while now and I was once told that you’d have to have been living under a rock to not have heard of it (although I confess that I hadn’t until not long before that), but I’ll describe the theory anyway in case you haven’t heard of it.

Psychologists have been studying motivation for a long time, and especially motivation to learn, and there are a variety of different theories on what does motivate people to learn. Research on mindsets work traces a line back to the famous psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, which is about how people think about what they can achieve.  Self-efficacy theory says that people evaluate their perceptions of their ability at a task, the difficulty of the task, how much effort it will take to complete, the amount of help that might be needed, situational circumstances, and whether or not they have succeeded or failed in the past when they determine how much effort they are going to put into a task in front of them.

The research specifically on mindset stems from a paper published in 1998 by Professor Dweck and Professor Claudia Mueller, who were both then at Columbia University, on what motivates children to learn after they have experienced success or failure.  The professors conducted a series of six short studies on 128 fifth-graders, half of whom were mostly white and attended elementary school in a small mid-western town, and half of whom were from two racially diverse schools in a large northeastern city (and I will give them kudos for testing their work on a racially diverse sample rather than testing on middle-class white children and assuming the results are applicable to all children).  The professors wanted to find out whether children who were praised for being intelligent or for demonstrating effort and hard work would react differently to success or failure on a series of abstract verbal reasoning tasks taken from a standardized test.

In the first test, children were asked to choose between “problems that aren’t too hard, so I don’t get many wrong,” “problems that are pretty easy, so I’ll do well,” “problems that I’m pretty good at, so I can show I’m smart,” and “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart.”  This was to test what type of problems the students preferred, but they were told they would only get to work on their choice problems if there was time after they worked on pre-selected problems, so they each had the same expectations about the difficulty of what they were about to do.  After four minutes of working on problems the experimenter scored their solutions and no matter what score they achieved, they were told they had solved 80% of the problems, which was a really high score, and were told either “you must be smart at these problems” or “you must have worked hard at these problems,” or a control group received no additional feedback.  Then the children were asked again if they wanted to work on easy problems so they would look smart or difficult problems where they would learn more, but all children really received a difficult set of problems and after four minutes of work they were told they had only solved about half of them correctly.  After receiving the negative feedback they were asked how much they wanted to keep working on the problems, how much they enjoyed the work, how well they thought they had done, and why they thought they hadn’t done well on the second set.  Then they worked for four minutes on a final set of moderately difficult problems to test how well they performed after the failure on the second set.

The results showed that children who were praised for their intelligence after the first problem set considered their smartness to be significantly more important to their performance than children who were praised for their effort.  67% of the children who were told they were smart then went on to choose easier problems that they would get right so they could continue to seem smart, while 92% of those who received feedback about how much effort they had put in chose to work on difficult problems that they would learn from.  Children who were praised for their effort as well as children in the control condition were more likely to say that they hadn’t done well on the second set of problems because they hadn’t put in enough effort, while children who were praised for intelligence after their initial success attributed more of their failure to a lack of abililty.  Children who were praised for intelligence were less likely to want to keep working on problems than the effort or control groups, enjoyed working on the problems less than the other groups, and actually got one more problem wrong in the third set than the first, even though their familiarity with the problems should have led them to achieve higher scores by then.  Children in the control group only achieved an average of a tenth of a problem improvement in the third set, which children in the effort group got almost 1 ¼ more problems right on average.  So all this is to say that praise for intelligence doesn’t seem to teach children that they are smart, but rather teaches them that when they fail, they can’t change their performance because it’s due to an inherent ability rather than something they can change, like effort.

So all of that was the first of the six experiments reported in this paper; the subsequent five elaborated on various aspects of the first one.  In the second study, children who were told they succeeded on a first set of problems and then immediately given a chance to choose what type of problems to work on next; the ones praised for intelligence still picked the easy problems, indicating that the effect holds true in success and in failure.  In the third study, children who were praised for their ability elected to read information about the performance of others after their second set of ‘failure’ problems, while 75% of the children who were told they must have worked hard chose to read information that might help them solve problems more effectively in the future.  In the fourth study, after doing problems children were asked to rate how true is the statement “You have a certain amount of intelligence and really can’t do much to change it,” and were then offered a folder containing information about the performance of other children or information on strategies to solve problems.  Children who were praised for intelligence were almost twice as likely to rate intelligence as being fixed than children praised for effort; the control group fell in between.  And it was the children who are most concerned with their performance who were most likely to handicap themselves by sacrificing an opportunity to gain information about problem-solving strategies that might have benefitted them.  Studies 5 and 6 attempted to eliminate two alternate explanations for the findings; that the experimentor’s perceptions of their abilities impacted their performance, and that the children praised for intelligence might have thought the second difficult set or problems represented an intelligence test, while the children praised for effort would not.  Both outcomes supported the original study’s results.

I want to take a short detour here and give us a bit of historical context, because it turns out that this study was published at a very interesting point in our development of theories about how children learn.  You might remember that we did an episode a while ago on self-esteem, which was all the rage in the starting in the early 1970s.  A book called Your Child’s Self-Esteem that is actually still in print today advocated for increasing children’s beliefs that they “have the capacity” to succeed and that this will “turn on their go-power” and “help motivate them to learn.”  It can take a while for psychological trends to catch on but in 1990 the State of California released a report stating that low self-esteem is linked to a variety of negative outcomes like poor academic results, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, poverty, and chronic welfare dependency – and as a result, schools began doing everything they could to boost students’ self-esteem.  By 1996, when Professors Mueller and Dweck surveyed parents about what they thought about children’s perceptions of their ability and motivation to succeed, 85% of respondents thought that praising a child’s ability and intelligence when they perform well on a test is necessary to make them feel they are smart.

The pendulum began to swing the other way in 2003 when Professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues published an immense 44-page meta-analysis of the research on self-esteem, which called into question all of the findings of the California Task Force Report and found little evidence that self-esteem causes the host of positive outcomes it is commonly believe to cause, and secondly that parents tend to praise children with low self-esteem even more than children with high self-esteem, and that this praise would lead the children with low self-esteem to choose easier drawing tasks just like the children who were told they were intelligent chose easier tasks in Professor Dweck’s test.  So self-esteem went out of favor right around the time when Professor Dweck’s work was ramping up, and Mindset theory was poised to take over the baton of the...