A growth mindset is a tendency to explain things in a certain way

While I’m starting to feel more comfortable believing in growth mindset research, there’s still one thing that bugs me, which is how growth mindset is defined. Here is the definition from Mindset Works, a company founded by Carol Dweck & Co.:

When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

This is fine, and I think I get it. But what does it mean for kids to “believe they can get smarter”? Not to get extremely pedantic, but I have some very pedantic questions to ask. What does “believe” mean? Does it mean that you sit a kid down over a nice glass of apple juice, start shooting the breeze about life, work, how busy we all are, and then raise the question: do you think you can get smarter?

And what does it mean to “get smarter”? Or to “understand” that effort makes one “stronger”? What if I think that working hard increases my knowledge but leaves me at the same smartness? What if I tell you over apple juice that effort makes me stronger, but then in the moment I curl up in a ball of learned helplessness?

Pedantry aside, after reading up and thinking about these things I don’t think any of these questions really matter. There’s a way of defining growth mindset that makes a lot more sense to me, and I think it’s true to research. Here goes:

When students have a tendency to explain their successes or failures in terms of their efforts, they tend to work harder. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

I think this has a few advantages over the “belief”-based definition. Here they are:

  • If you have a “belief” and an “understanding” about intelligence then you presumably carry that around with you from room to room. But a tendency to explain your experiences in certain ways can quite clearly vary from room to room, even minute to minute. (Maybe this tendency is really just what we mean by “belief”?)
  • It makes clear that mindset training does not require lying to people. Every success we have is the result of our innate abilities along with our efforts. Defined in terms of a tendency to explain, the only question is which of these factors we are paying attention to in the moment. If our attention is constantly drawn to innate abilities, that will be demotivating. If our attention is drawn to the equally valid factors that are in our control, we will likely be more motivated.
  • It explains why some of those studies have such eye-popping results. Not because they’ve instantly changed some deeply held belief concerning the nature of intelligence with a few videos and lectures about brains. It’s because they have created a context in which students have are set up to explain successes/failures in terms of effort. If you’re running an experiment and researchers make a big stink about effort, and then in the context of that same group activity you have a success/failure, you will of course be more likely to turn to that explanation.

So I’m very happy with all this.

One thing I wonder is whether it’s somehow important, for the purpose of all these materials and studies, to define mindset in the Mindset Works way. It makes less sense to me, but maybe it’s important. The interventions involve taking a thing that we think of as innate and telling people that it’s actually malleable. “Intelligence can grow”; “Smartness depends on effort”; “Your brain gets bigger”; “Talent takes hard work.” If this messaging is effective, maybe it works because people with a tendency towards innate reasons are reminded of it when they reach for those “fixed” explanations?

Probably. Probably it’s a bad messaging to say, “of course you have some innate limits, but life goes better if you don’t stew on that and instead think about the things you can control.” God knows that I’ve spent my fair share of time stewing about how life would be different if I had spectacular literary talent, a tremendous hook shot, God-level charisma and an inspiring childhood, the ability to create a search engine in 1998. Probably the innate-to-malleable messaging in its most direct form — “talent is a matter of effort” and so on — is perfectly appropriate.

But that’s the messaging that for years left me unsure whether I should believe the results of growth mindset research. They might be good messaging, but they rang untrue. But if “teach people that practice grows your brain” is just a snappy way of saying “encourage people to explain their achievement in terms of effort,” I can absolutely live with it.