As the academic year began at my university, I was confronted with how the very worst of K-12 public education reform continues to creep upward, engulfing higher education.
In this case, growth mindset was central to the faculty keynote address, prompting me to resist an outburst in front of my colleagues. I did, however, weigh in on social media, including Facebook—where a few faculty were intrigued and reached out by email.
Last week, then, we held a faculty discussion on growth mindset, and of the three panelist, I was the only one calling for at least a skeptical view if not an outright rejection of the concept (along with grit, which was mentioned in the keynote but not central to the presentation).
For simplicity and clarity, I want to outline here briefly (since I have written extensively about both growth mindset and grit; see the Categories here on the blog) why I call for skepticism and even rejecting the practices associated with the terms.
At the first level, I question the ideological motivation for doing research to find the source of success and failure within individuals—assuming that individual character and behaviors are primarily or solely the source of both success and failure.
As a colleague noted during comments after the keynote, this is a “very American” way of thinking; and I would add, a flawed view of the relationship between human behavior and social forces.
Here, I recommend Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and argue that social forces are primary to human behaviors. I also call into question the rush to characterize what is success and failure—since a tremendous amount of both outcomes are more strongly correlated to a person’s environment of birth than any accomplishments by the person.
At the second level, I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level—both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).
Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.
Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.
The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character—ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.
K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.
Finally, stepping back from these levels, I also remain skeptical of growth mindset and grit because they are very difficult to disentangle from deficit perspectives of students and from monolithic, thus reductive, views of identifiable groups by race, class, gender, or educational outcomes.
Instead I endorsed what Paul Gorski argues about equity literacy principles:
Equity literate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class communities, reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.