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A Growth Mindset Could Buffer Kids From Negative Academic Effects of Poverty

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Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, along with other education researchers interested in growth mindset, have done numerous studies showing that when students believe their intelligence can grow and change with effort, they perform better on academic tests. These findings have sparked interest and debate about how to encourage a growth mindset in students both at home and at school.

Now, a national study of tenth-graders in Chile found student mindsets are correlated to achievement on language and math tests. And students from low-income families were less likely to hold a growth mindset than their more affluent peers. However, if a low-income student did have a growth mindset, it worked as a buffer against the negative effects of poverty on achievement.

“This is not a sample; this is everyone in school,” said Susana Claro, a doctoral candidate at Stanford's Graduate School of Education and lead author of the article “Growth Mindset Tempers the Effects of Poverty on Academic Achievement,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Claro, along with Stanford scholars David Paunesku and Carol Dweck, wanted to know if at a very large-scale (168,000 students) growth mindset would correlate with academic performance. They found that it did at almost every school in Chile, a correlation stronger than they expected to find.

When students in Chile take national exams measuring language and math, they are also obligated to fill out a lengthy survey from the Ministry of Education on a range of subjects, from bullying to healthy eating, sports and how well they liked their teachers. The survey questions change every year, and in 2012 Claro convinced the ministry to include two questions on growth mindset. Teachers and parents are also surveyed, which is why Claro and her colleagues have such detailed income information for each student.

“This is the first time that we can see the landscape of growth mindset in a complete population,” Claro said. “We’ve always been using samples before.” She and her colleagues wanted to know if a study this large would reveal the same correlations seen in representative samples in the U.S. or whether the large sample size would be “too noisy.” To Claro’s surprise, the findings were very clear.


“This is the first time that we measured that there is a growth mindset gap across socioeconomic groups,” she said. Researchers are convinced that growth mindsets are socially created, not biologically, so these findings suggest that something in the environment of children from poor families is fostering a fixed mindset.

“Children are capturing messages that are in their environment,” Claro said. Whether those messages are coming from parents, teachers, the general environment or all of the above is unknown, but Claro said pinpointing where the messages are coming from and trying to change them could be an important strategy for improving academic achievement. And, the easiest place to start is school.

“We don’t really know if changing mindsets of students is possible at a larger scale and how to work with teachers,” Claro said. She acknowledged that even when teachers are well intentioned, they might be sending messages to students that don’t promote a growth mindset. But, “good teachers do this naturally,” she said. “They send growth mindset messages, and we are learning from them and trying to disaggregate what they do.”

Claro acknowledged that whether students achieve academically or not is a result of a complicated mix of factors that include poverty, trauma and motivation, among other factors. But she believes that these growth mindset findings indicate that, at the very least, focusing on building growth mindsets in students should be part of the conversation.

“The main message is that this is not the solution, but we can’t ignore this,” Claro said. She herself is from Chile and helped found a non-profit there to train teachers. She said she doesn’t remember receiving growth mindset-oriented messages during her days in school and says even now growth mindset is not a popular concept among teachers in Chile the way it has become in the U.S. Even the phrase “growth mindset” doesn’t transfer well into Spanish.

The Chilean Ministry of Education has not included the growth mindset questions in its national survey again and hasn’t done anything with the information gathered from the 2012 data that Claro and her Stanford colleagues analyzed. Claro hopes the findings of her study will prompt the ministry to look more closely at how they can support teachers to include growth mindset in their classrooms.

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