Growth Mindset: the Good and the Bad

Jan 26, 2017

Jade Rivera is an experienced educator who designs innovative learning environments for neurodivergent learners. We asked her for her thoughts on the Growth Mindset.

You may have noticed, here on Outschool and otherwise, an increase in people referring to students, children, and even themselves as “learners”. This term, in part, is meant to question those that see students as passive participants in education and to remind people that students are at their best when actively participating and questioning the world around them.

We say “learner” with the hope that children will embrace learning as a lifelong affair, beyond what happens Monday through Friday within the confines of a classroom.

“Learner” as descriptor stems from a larger educational movement based on the groundbreaking research of Dr. Carol Dweck. Dweck posits that two types of mindsets exist: fixed mindset and growth mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset view learning as static. They may think that some people are born with an ability to understand complex subjects, and if that ability is not demonstrated early on, there is not much a person can do to get better.

Those with a growth mindset see learning as fluid. They understand that ability and talent can improve over time through hard work and commitment. Practice and effort are the keys to triumph, according to this mindset.

And I agree! In 2009, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Dr. Dweck in the Bay Area. I was impressed with her compassionate understanding of how we learn and how we can help children have a more positive educational experience.

As with most popular psychology movements, there is a dark side to the concept of growth mindset. Too often, it is stretched and twisted to minimize some of the real experiences that many of our brightest children face in the classroom each day. These experiences include:

  • Undiagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia
  • Giftedness, twice-exceptionality, or other forms of neuro-divergence
  • Bullying and other forms of abuse
  • Societal struggles like poverty and racism

In education, the concept of growth mindset has become an easy scapegoat for those that would rather not spend time addressing complex issues such as those listed above. And when this happens, children receive the message that it’s their fault they aren’t achieving, that they aren’t trying hard enough, or that they aren’t putting in enough effort because they have a fixed mindset. This twisted interpretation of growth mindset doesn’t take into account that learning is a nuanced and complicated endeavor that is both in and out of control of the learner.

Of course I want children to become lifelong learners! I’m in the camp of people who believe that learning should be enjoyable, dynamic, challenging, and multifaceted. What I don’t want is for our most underserved students to unfairly shoulder the blame for a system that doesn’t take their real-life experience into account.

My request is this: if you find yourself in a scenario in which a student seems to give up easily, please ask yourself, “Is this a mindset issue? Or am I working with a kid who is having difficulty with a larger and more complex challenge?”

Jade Rivera

For nearly ten years, Jade Rivera has made educating, writing, and coaching for marginalized, neurodivergent children her mission.