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Does the Focus on Student Mindsets Let Schools Off the Hook?

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 (Amanda Lucier/MindShift)

It's hard to be connected to the education field today and not have heard about Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset. The Stanford psychologist has spent her career researching how adult messages impact the way kids think about their abilities. Working to teach a growth mindset has now become popular in schools, with teachers across the country working to praise students' process, not their product and to celebrate productive failure. Still, as with any education theory that catches on like wildfire, there are those who believe changing student mindsets isn't the panacea it has been made out to be.

Alfie Kohn, a well-known critic of the education system, writes in a Salon article that the focus on mindsets is masking deeper structural problems in schools that must be attended to first. Kohn writes:

"The problem with sweeping, generic claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done?"

Kohn also worries that focusing on how teachers praise students ignores that fact that any kind of verbal praise is a form of manipulation. He'd rather see schools work to provide compelling learning experiences that engage students and promote an intrinsic desire to learn. And he worries that focusing so much on performance will undermine intellectual engagement completely. Later in his article he writes:

"I'm not suggesting we go back to promoting an innate, fixed, “entity” theory of intelligence and talent, which, as Dweck points out, can leave people feeling helpless and inclined to give up. But the real alternative to that isn’t a different attitude about oneself; it’s a willingness to go beyond individual attitudes, to realize that no mindset is a magic elixir that can dissolve the toxicity of structural arrangements. Until those arrangements have been changed, mindset will get you only so far. And too much focus on mindset discourages us from making such changes."

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