A leading geneticist has challenged the hugely popular growth mindset theory about pupils’ attainment, warning that it is “greatly overplayed” and could even be harmful to children.
Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, voiced his concerns in an exclusive interview with TES.
The growth mindset theory, developed by Stanford University-based psychologist Professor Carol Dweck, states that an individual’s learning is shaped by whether they believe their intelligence is fixed or can be changed.
Those with a growth mindset believe they can improve their abilities through effort and effective learning techniques, the theory states. But those with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are largely innate and are less likely to try to improve their academic performance through effort.
But Professor Plomin says that genetics play a big role in determining how much of a natural appetite and inclination to learn pupils have. Therefore, the assumption that changing their attitude to learning can make a big difference is misplaced, he argues.
“Growth mindset, I feel, is greatly overplayed,” Professor Plomin told TES.
“If you try to tell kids who have trouble learning, ‘You can do it, you can change’, you can actually do some harm. Because some kids are going to find it really difficult; it isn’t just a matter of positive thinking. Kids aren’t stupid. I don’t believe the evidence base is all that strong.”
Professor Plomin also said he was sceptical about the idea that children’s attainment could be improved through character education that aimed to build “grit”, an idea that education secretary Nicky Morgan has promoted.
He said his own experiment had found that the impact of “grit” was small and that the psychological trait of persistence was about 30 or 40 per cent attributable to the influence of genes.
“That’s not to say you can’t change growth mindset or you can’t give kids more grit,” he said. “You can, and it’s probably not a bad idea at some level. But if you think that’s really what it’s all about, God, it’s just a tiny piece of the action…
“I don’t want to knock it, but what I don’t like is that it’s a silver bullet, a quick fix. ‘Change these kids’ mindsets and they’re all going to go to Oxbridge.’ That’s nuts.”
Professor Dweck told TES that growth mindset had been taught successfully to thousands of students. That did not mean there was no “genetic predisposition to being more persistent or resilient”, but she said: “We can definitely teach a growth mindset that increases those qualities.”
She said she believed Professor Plomin’s view was based on a “misinterpretation” of the theory, adding that this misinterpretation was “very widespread”.
“I agree with Professor Plomin that a naive version of growth mindset is not helpful,” she said. “Simply telling kids they can do anything can indeed backfire, particularly if they don’t have the required skills, strategies or support.”
Professor Dweck said the growth mindset theory worked effectively when teachers would “sit with the children, figure out what they’re thinking and together they work out what you should try next” to help their learning, rather than “just saying, you can do it”.
“I believe my colleagues and I have a lot of hard work ahead of us to help educators go beyond an oversimplified version of growth mindset and to help them implement growth mindset effectively,” she said.
Professor Dweck said she and her colleagues had never claimed the growth mindset theory was a “silver bullet”, although she acknowledged that others had seen it in this way.
Ms Morgan has repeatedly stressed the importance of “grit”, saying in a speech in January that ensuring children had “resilience and grit” was “just as important to the next generation’s future as getting a sound academic grounding”.
The Department for Education has funded school debating programmes and cadet projects in a bid to develop these traits. But a spokesman for the department said such programmes aimed for wider results than improvements in academic ability, such as preparing students for work.
“We want all young people to develop a range of character traits – like confidence, motivation and resilience – that will help them succeed in adult life in modern Britain,” the spokesman said.
Read the full interview with Professor Plomin in Friday’s TES magazine.