This fall, nearly four million teenagers in the U.S. are making the difficult transition to high school. Over the next four years, roughly one fifth of them will earn grades so low that they won’t graduate, which puts them at risk for a life of poverty, poor health, and social dysfunction.
Society often looks to scientific innovations to solve intractable problems like this. And social scientists like me have for decades been using the scientific method – hypothesis, experiment, data, results – to look for reliable solutions. But there is something profoundly broken in the relationship between education research and what actually happens in American classrooms.
Promising ideas that produce positive results in experiments get over-simplified and touted as “the answer.” Then educators or policy-makers apply them indiscriminately, as if they’re Jack’s magic beans that boost students up no matter where they’re planted. Savvy teachers have learned to sit out this “education hype cycle.” They nod their heads during training sessions and then go back to their rooms, close the door, change very little, and wait for the fad to pass. In just the last three decades, examples of this hype cycle have included small schools, instructional coaching, learning styles, and the self-esteem movement, all of which have fallen short of their initial promise.
“Promising ideas that produce positive results in experiments get over-simplified and touted as ‘the answer.’ Then educators or policy-makers apply them indiscriminately.”
If scientists want to break the hype cycle and help students in a lasting way, we need to change our practices. The most important thing we can do is to conduct studies showing where our ideas don’t work, as well as where they do. And then we need to spread the word responsibly about how to make our ideas work reliably.
I reached this conclusion only after many years conducting research – and a serious examination of my own role in the education hype cycle. My area of interest is growth mindset, the belief among students that their intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed with time. Growth mindset is based on the laboratory experiments of the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, and it has a solid scientific foundation. But growth mindset is tailor-made for a hype cycle because it can seem like a simple solution to complex problems.
A few years ago, Carol Dweck and I and a few other colleagues undertook an experiment that we hoped could break that hype cycle. In August 2019, in a paper in the journal Nature, we reported the results: A short, 50-minute online growth mindset intervention—teaching students that the “brain is like a muscle” and gets stronger with learning—increased motivation among 9th graders in high schools across the U.S. and led to a modest but meaningful increase in the grade point averages of low-achieving students.
“The most important thing we can do is to conduct studies showing where our ideas don’t work, as well as where they do. And then we need to spread the word responsibly about how to make our ideas work reliably.”
The overall results were clearly good: the study showed that growth mindset is among the most cost-effective interventions for preventing 9th grade failures ever evaluated (because the intervention can be done on a computer and is available for free to schools). What’s more, we used the most rigorous kind of design imaginable: a randomized trial, conducted with a random sample of 65 high schools and over 12,000 students, with independent analyses—the first study ever to do so.
It was tempting, with these kinds of results, to jump right into the growth mindset hype cycle. And there are payoffs to scientists for focusing only on the best parts of their results: media attention, philanthropic support, interest from schools and educators. Of course we do believe in our results, and we want kids and schools to benefit from them. But this time we chose to do something different in an attempt to avoid the boom and bust, the hype and disappointment. Rather than asking whether the growth mindset worked, we wanted to ask where it worked—and just as important, where it didn’t.
“Some practices that educators adopt in the name of growth mindset turn out to be wholly ineffective, such as exhorting students to ‘try harder’ or ‘stay positive,’ or explicitly telling them to ‘have a growth mindset.'”
Our national study found that a growth mindset intervention didn’t boost grades when the peer culture didn’t support growth mindset. If your classmates were all telling you that having to work hard meant you weren’t talented, a 50-minute online module wasn’t going to convince you to defy them. Nor did the intervention work in classrooms where teachers’ practices contradicted the growth mindset belief; that is, in classrooms where teachers showed that they do not believe their students can grow smarter.
We also identified ineffective practices that educators sometimes adopt in the name of growth mindset that turn out to be wholly ineffective, such as exhorting students to “try harder” or “stay positive,” or explicitly telling them to “have a growth mindset.” Slogans alone are not enough. When the intervention did work, it was because teachers made a growth mindset something you could act on.
Growth-oriented teachers encouraged low-achievers to ask clarifying questions. They allowed students to revise and resubmit their work. And they worked closely with students to clear up misunderstandings, rather than simply telling students to plow through more worksheets alone. What these practices have in common is that they send students the message – through actions, not slogans – that they can master difficult concepts through effort, good strategies and the support of their mentors. Those are fundamental elements of a growth mindset.
“Good teachers send students the message – through actions, not slogans – that they can master difficult concepts through effort, good strategies and the support of their mentors.”
In the past year, my team and I have traveled to all of the 65 high schools that were in our national study, so we could share our findings with the schools that produced them. Teachers and principals were excited by the promise of growth mindset but also said they appreciated our admission that growth mindset is more complicated than simply saying your brain is like a muscle. Because we weren’t trying to sell them hype, they trusted us enough to keep working with us. And that’s important, because we need their help in the years ahead to figure out how best to make this intervention work for the greatest number of students.
Educational innovations are not magic seeds. But they are a lot like normal seeds. They need fertile soil to grow. Tilling the ground is hard, but it helps a small seed grow into something big.
The fact that more and more schools are ready to get to work on improving the growth mindset environment in the classroom is good news for students, but it also means we need to accelerate research on this topic. And hopefully our experiences can serve as an example for how other promising educational innovations can avoid the boom and bust of the education hype cycle.
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C. L., Tipton, E., …Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature.