Growth Mindset: Another Flavor of the Month?


It’s difficult to escape conversations about new or relatively new initiatives in both K12 and higher education without the concept of Growth Mindset mentioned. Briefly, the concept was researched by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck who drew the distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. According to Dr. Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.” But will the Growth Mindset become another initiative among many that were poorly executed?

Armed with Dr. Dwek’s research, educational leaders are working to implement the Growth Mindset concept in K12 schools and in institutions of higher education in order to help students shift their mindsets from “fixed” to “growth.” However, Dr. Dweck has had to warn about the oversimplification of Growth Mindset (click here).  In addition, once teaching professionals perceive a new initiative as a “new flavor of the month,” we can rest assured that implementation will most likely be compromised. We shouldn’t automatically blame teaching professionals for their skepticism. Let’s face it, education tends to be initiatived to death and teachers are not always provided with strong structures, processes, and effective leadership to implement well. No matter the size—a single school or a large university—bureaucracies are notorious for believing they’re implementing an initiative, when those “down-in-the-trenches” say otherwise.

For example, many years ago a couple of educational leaders from the same district told me that schools were implementing a teacher collaboration model, Instructional Rounds (IR). When I asked a couple of well-respected principals about IR implementation they both stated almost word-for-word, “We did learn about it, but we’re not doing it.” This disconnect also happened a multitude of times when I discussed the topic of another initiative, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This is how the conversation often transpired:

District: Schools are doing PLCs.
Me: How’s implementation going?
District: Good.
Me: How do you know?
District: We went from one day of training to two.
Me: Are teachers continually improving their practice as a result of PLC implementation?
District: Ask Principal X.
Me: Principal X, how are PLCs coming along?
Principal: We’re really not implementing PLCs.

Although, from my experience, the K12 examples above have not been as frequent in higher education, I've had division people tell me a particular initiative is being implemented only to learn that faculty members had little to no buy-in and ownership for the initiative. To be fair, not every education organization exhibits the level of dysfunction described, but if it occurs in only one organization, that's one organization too many because students ultimately pay the price for weak initiative planning and implementation.

How can we mitigate or avoid this potential disconnect with the latest “fad,” Growth Mindset? Regardless if it’s for K12 or higher education, consider the process elements for initiative development I described in this post (LinkedIn log-in required) or this post (no log-in required).

In short, the process elements ask:
1. Purpose: Why should we pursue this initiative?
2. Evaluation: What makes the initiative planning process successful?
3. Leadership: Who is the champion for the initiative planning process?
4. Expertise: What type of expertise is needed?
5. Impactful Meetings: How do you make the best use of meeting time?

I believe Growth Mindset is a promising practice, in large part, because I’ve learned from many teachers and faculty members who are eager to leverage the evidence behind this concept. As veteran teaching professionals, they know this concept is not necessarily new. Dr. Dweck gave the concept the research base it needed.

Now let’s not compromise the Growth Mindset concept through poorly executed planning and implementation or it will forever be remembered in many education organizations as “that flavor of the month we tried a while back.”

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