‘Growth mindset’ and student remediation: compatible?

Growth mindset in education is all the rage, but the way we do school often fails to cultivate positive changes in teacher and student self-perceptions.

I can be a reluctant public speaker. I am not proficient at Microsoft Excel and managing large swaths of data. At times, I have struggled to implement technology in the classroom while keeping students on-task and engaged.

But I can cultivate positive relationships with most students. I can write well. I can design curriculum that aligns to standards, providing a variety of assessments to measure learning.

Luckily, I’m not asked to solely work on my weaknesses as an educator and professional. Not that I’m opposed to improving upon my weaknesses, it’s just that if that’s all I was asked to do, I’d feel demoralized and frustrated. I want to engage with my skill set and passions in a meaningful way. I desire to build upon my strengths as a professional more than remediate my weaknesses.

There’s no doubt we need should embrace a growth mindset in education, both for teachers and students. If I don’t strive to improve and take risks as an educator, my teaching will become stagnant, fewer students will be engaged in learning, and I’d quickly become disillusioned by the myriad daily challenges in the classroom.

If students don’t believe in their power to improve and change the trajectory of their learning, outcomes aren’t positive. This is a given.

This Education Week article by Peter Dewitt questioning the efficacy of widespread growth mindset implementation caught my eye. I’m no statistician, so I take an expert’s word for it when describing the effects of strategies and approaches to learning. Dewitt shares insight from his colleague John Hattie about why the “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset” approach isn’t apparently having as strong an impact on student learning as it could:

…he said the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom. We put students in ability groups, they get scores on high stakes tests that help label them, and then we place them in Academic Intervention Services (AIS) which adds to their fixed mindset. Once students enter into AIS or Special Education, very few leave.

This is a powerful statement, with the implication being that the widespread, “fixed” practices we embrace–often focused on remediating student learning deficits–may not be getting as much bang for the buck as we’d like to help alter student perceptions about their ability to grow in meaningful ways.

Imagine being a student who is frequently asked to do things he or she struggles at, but is rarely–if ever– asked to engage in learning that taps into a personal strength or new possibilities. All of a sudden, the idea of growth mindset isn’t so appealing, is it?  When we encourage students to not give up within the paradigm of a deficit-based approach to teaching and learning, we aren’t doing enough to foster a growth mindset that encourages curiosity and risk-taking.

As an alternative, we must consider more exploration of strengths-based education, an approach that is sure to change classroom practice. I don’t want to solely ask my students to improve upon their weaknesses. I want to help them build upon what they bring to the classroom, both intellectually and socially, in order to cultivate inquiry and passion.

This is just one way we can revamp classroom practice to fully achieve the benefits of a growth mindset. Let’s question whether or not our classroom cultures, assignments, and tests provide fertile ground for students. The catch is we must open ourselves up as educators to continuing reflection and revision of our own practice.

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  • BeccaLeech

    Special Education and the Growth Mindset

    As an educator with more than 20 years experience teaching in the field of special education, I was bothered by John Hattie’s recent comments on several levels. First, to say that we teachers are the cause of the small effect size of growth mindset interventions seems to be nothing but teacher-bashing without the support of any evidence. This conclusion is particularly troubling from a writer and researcher who values the power of data above all else in making judgements about causal relationships.

    I also completely reject the idea that identifying a student as having special needs prevents them from cultivating a growth mindset. A growth mindset approach encourages students to identify skills they haven’t achieved yet, with an emphasis on the steps they can take to aquire those skills and the expectation that they will progress. That seems, to me, to be at the very heart of remediation. And no, of course a student shouldn’t spend their entire school day remediating. That is why an individualized education plan allows students identified with special needs some flexibility in coursework and pathways so that they can pursue their strengths. While many observers complain that IEP’s let kids “get away” with things students without IEPs can’t do, one of the reasons so few students exit special education is that it is very hard for the students and parents to let go of the specialized interventions and customized education that is afforded through an IEP.

    Frankly, I am tired of this perception that students are “dumped” into special education and that we special educators “trap” them into our services. My experience has been that many families advocate for services that are beneficial for their children (which is the job of parent) and continue the services because their children have benefitted from them. The very first step in the IEP process is to identify student strengths, so that they can be used to develop a plan that uses those strengths to remediate areas of need and develop skills using a whole-child approach. I find this to be helpful process in the development of a growth mindset.

    • PaulBarnwell

      Perhaps model should be emulated…


      Thanks for adding to the discussion. It seems to me like the IEP process you’re describing–identifying student strengths–is something that all teachers should strive for with all students.

      I only read Hattie’s comments in context of the article I linked; you’ve encouraged me to look more into his most recent work. I still think that his overall observation about HOW we do school and it’s potential to inhibit more growth from students has validity.

  • SandyMerz

    How widely is the growth/fixed mindset language known?

    I wonder how deeply the Dweck’s work is know and studied by teachers. I had never heard of it until a couple of years ago. Now, when I hear the terms, they’re normally used as buzzwords with little depth. So, it’s no wonder that many of our practices don’t reflect a growth mindset in a real way.

    • PaulBarnwell

      It’s like “Grit.”

      …in that it’s easy to extol the virtues of perseverance, etc., but much more difficult to be reflective and change teaching and learning conditions so that grit and growth mindset are seen as worthwhile for our disadvantaged and dissillusioned students.

  • KrisGiere

    Teaching from a place of Strengths

    Hi Paul,

    My situation is quite similar thought at the post-secondary level as I teach students who’ve been tested as “not college ready.”  (A term I dislike immensely and work to eradicate) In my personal teaching, I work diligently to infuse as many strengths-based approaches into my curriculum as possible.  I have implemented StrengthsQuest from Gallup, I have tapped into elements of PBL, Growth Mindset, and a variety of concepts from positive psychology and neuroscience known to enhance people’s motivation and positive mindsets.  What I have come to accept (though I knew it going in as well) is that until our deficit system and deficit mentality as a culture changes, none of these practices will be working at their optimum capacity.  For now, I accept this, and I implement a mixture of mindset altering approaches to normally prescribed curricula.  I am happy to report that often I see growth, and I will not give up.  However, I cannot help but notice how much time I spend each semester helping students overcome “fixed mindset” concepts. To be clear, I am not lamenting my investment in my students’ self-confidence, I am not blaming individual who had these students before me, and I am not complaining intentionally. I just have noticed this weight, this burden that my students carry with them every day and can’t help notice how much of it is systemic and deeply rooted into cultural myths of what a “good” student looks like.

    I have hope for positive change.  CTQ and the teachers who make this place vibrant is one of many places I find that hope.  I look forward to where this discussion goes.



  • BillIvey

    Of roots and hope

    Paul, you, Rebecca, Sandy, and Kris all make great points. I’m going to suggest that hierarchical thinking and judgment are at the root of so much of what we are discussing here. Turning “growth mindset” into a one-dimensional buzzword on a checklist. Rigid school structures. Either-or binary thinking that makes it difficult to find a place for nuance. Yet, all of us here understand the power of strength-based education. All of us here are focused on holistically identifying what students bring to the table and working with that person to help them grow in multiple ways based on their abilities and skills. All of us here reject nuance-free, deficit-based thinking. None of us have fallen into the traps I’ve noted above. And I’m guessing all of us personally live our own lives in a true growth mindset framework.

    I know I’m not completely free of hierarchical thinking – it was infused into me basically from birth as an integral part of patriarchy, structural racism, and much more. So, I seek to uncover and discard it. I uneasily give myself credit when I think I’m doing well. I look around me and connect with others who are on the same journey, often much further along than I, including my students. And all of this helps me maintain hope.