The Implications of Mindset Research on Science Classrooms

A recent article in Buzzfeed News shared an overview of some of the concerns surrounding growth mindset research and pedagogies focused on leveraging that research. The membership of KABT has considered the article and its critiques and has created the following response.


The Implications of Mindset Research for Science Classrooms

Mindset research, which focuses on the differences between growth and fixed mindset, has been popularized by Carol Dweck and her associates (Yeager, 2012) (Dweck, 2008) (Dweck C. S., 2012). While there is a growing market for classroom materials, publications and workshops related to promoting growth mindsets in students, there is a growing discussion regarding the inadequacies of the research base for mindset methodologies.


The initial work by Dr. Dweck has been criticized for some of its experimental design and statistical practice. Those mistakes have been accepted by Dr. Dweck and corrections and revisions have been acknowledged. The accumulating list of errors has led to concerns regarding the validity of the results. Statistical practice in social science is an area in need of considerable improvement and a demand for best practice from the consumers of the research, the practitioners, is a way to incentivize this improvement. Teachers should not shrug off statistical malpractice as only a footnote.


Strong statistical analysis improves the confidence of readers in the reproducibility (or lack thereof) of the work. In this instance the missing statistical confidence pairs with a lack of reproduction to this point. Reproducing education research requires tremendous skill in both pedagogy and experimental design. There are concerns that the small number of attempts at reproduction do not faithfully recreate the appropriate conditions for eliciting the effect. There are other questions about the value of the growth mindset effect if it is so small and fragile that reproduction by researchers is exceedingly difficult.


At its heart growth mindsets tap into a long-held belief that hard work is valuable. Many teachers find the idea of a student having agency over their own achievement to be desirable. Growth mindset is not the solution to classroom culture. Students need more than just hard work. Tremendous energy can be spent smashing into a door until you are through it, or you can simply turn the handle and open it. When mindsets augment a productive culture and a coherent curriculum they can be powerful.


When poorly-supported methodologies are used and the teaching practice is weak, a growth mindset is of little value. As the market saturates with products claiming to be based on mindset research, we must identify which are doomed to failure from unthoughtful application. Many flying machines failed due to ignorance of flight mechanics, but flight was always possible. Similarly, when a speaker with a shallow understanding of the literature fails to demonstrate value in a product we should remember that a failed application is not the same as a faulty concept.


Inquiry in the science classroom is well-supported by research as best practice. Interconnected understanding, developed through retrieval practice and responsive feedback, is superior to linear content delivery by a lecturing expert to passive audience members. Shaping that feedback through a growth mindset lens appears to have a positive impact despite the fact that reproduction of the research is proving difficult. Indeed, our job as educators is to do something that is hard! We must synthesize the research regarding mindset with best practices in assessment, classroom management, curricular design, differentiation, inquiry instruction, choice theory and many other overlapping domains to produce the strongest experience possible in unique students who change every semester. This is our job and they call us educators.


We must be faithful to the body of research. We can simultaneously incorporate aspects of the growth mindset research into our classroom and remain skeptical of the work. If future studies reveal flaws and allow us to develop a better description of how student perceptions shape learning, we should follow that work also. We also need to share our perspective from the field to shape investigations to be more useful and applicable. Perhaps more dynamic classroom methodologies will yield stronger signals in new mindset research. Perhaps responsive differentiation will allow us to visualize specific demographics who stand to benefit the most from a growth mindset. Perhaps training in retrieval practice as studying will increase the propensity of students to adopt and develop a growth mindset through greater yields from investment.


Ultimately we must close the gap between practitioner and researcher in education. Medical doctors consider experimental treatments and provide feedback on their results on a regular basis. Attorneys publish briefs and review frequently to respond to an ever-changing body of legislation. We, too, must become more than consumers of research. Teachers must communicate with researchers because our classroom experience can make experimental design better. We can demand stronger statistical practice, more meaningful treatment conditions and more targeted assessment tools. The improved research will return as more actionable results which we can use to improve our technique again.


We must allow our classroom practice to respond to the current literature while acknowledging and addressing its flaws. It is highly unlikely that a growth mindset is the educational silver bullet. It is also unlikely to be entirely smoke and mirrors. Instead we are trying to understand a remarkably complex system so that we can help it mature as effectively as possible. As far as promoting a growth mindset can further that goal, we should use it. When the body of research indicates there is a better approach, teachers should change methods. We should not switch a moment later than when the research publishes, but not a moment before either.


  1. Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67(8), 614.
  3. Yeager, D. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. . Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.


An Open Letter to my AP Biology Students

To my AP Biology students,


The scores are out and they are not what we wanted. The results are surprising and disappointing. The numbers on this report do not represent the competency I led you to believe you had developed this year. We have stumbled, together; we must now become better from this struggle.


I made some difficult choices this year in the pursuit of including more students in our course. From the outset I told you it would be different from past years, and it was. There is an answer I know and it is the application of tremendous effort and rapid coverage. That work has earned previous students success on exams past, but those methods left too many excluded from growth or discouraged from the larger pursuit of science. I am sad, but I am not sorry.


You worked hard all year long. Each one of you grew as a scientist and as a learner. You explored topics that interested you and made plans for the future. You considered yourself in a new light as you saw what the future might hold. Our course was not one in which you simply survived, and in May each of you left with justified assurance of what you had learned and awareness of what you had not. Your confidence, knowledge and growth is my greatest victory this year. I am proud, but I am not satisfied.


This is a moment when I am reminded my choices matter. My professional freedom has an impact on your life. These scores do not define you as scientists, but they do have consequence. We could have done better. It is my fault. I could have made different choices. I long for a control class to run with my students to know if I made good or bad choices. I must smile at the irony of teaching a natural science through social science. I am confused, but I am resolute.


I still believe in practice and supporting re-consolidation with the same primacy as learning. I will struggle in the coming months to incorporate this new data into my understanding of our class’ achievement. I refuse to revert to my previous model because I believe in you and what you’ve done more than test scores. Our time together has been my greatest work as a teacher. But so will next year’s. Remain invested. Believe in the growth you’ve seen and felt.
We need revision, but we are not finished.

In My Classroom #8 – Get At the Engineering

Welcome to the KABT blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.


The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:


My student teacher and I made a decision to try to do a better job of addressing the engineering aspects of the NGSS expectations this year. I wanted to take a new look at the end of my Scientific Method unit to insert some engineering considerations. Vivian Choong had the idea to discuss water quality and use the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a context for a PBL.


It's in the standards, seriously.
It’s in the standards, seriously.


We decided to retool my blackworm lab to use them as bioindicators of water quality and take measurements of the worms’ homeostasis before and after different remediation attempts on some “polluted” water. Students designed ecological water filters (soil, sawdust… that kind of thing, not chemical filtration) and considered the economic costs and ecological benefits of their interventions.

We thought the students would measure blackworm pulse rate or other behavior indicators, but they gravitated much more to measurements of water turbidity and coloration. It’s super cool and they’re really engaged with the topical nature of the problem. This is a keeper that I hope to formalize after some debrief and further revision.

Here is our anchor video for the activity. Don’t ask me for submission tiers, because we’re not there yet!

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That’s it for me. Tag Andrew Davis, you’re it.



DIY Circulation Chamber

In my recent 3D printing exploits I have realized that I need a clean way to circulate fluids around and through samples. My need is to pass D-limonene over HIPS prints to dissolve in-fill and support structures. I then realized others may have similar needs for circulation.

So I found a way to build a simple circulation system with a few relatively cheap components. It was also a pretty quick build once I had all the parts.

Part list:

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I hope most of the build is apparent from the pictures above. I would mention that I use the output line to dump the liquid on top of my part, so the hook holds the short line in place. Use the nut to secure the pump to the coffee can so it doesn’t rattle itself loose over time. I like using the lid as a drying platform to minimize my mess. I’m also using the top half of a pop bottle to hold my printed part up out of the the reservoir and still within the flow.

So that’s what I did today. What kind of summer projects are occupying everyone else?





Learning & Knowing – PD Opportunity

I’m pretty excited to offer an opportunity to attend a meeting to look at brain research and how it can/should impact a classroom. All are welcome and it’s free, but space is limited so shoot me an email if you’d like a spot. mralphoe[at]olatheschools[dot]org

Workshop Flier

Knowing and learning are not the same thing. Brain research has demonstrated repeatedly that the process of learning is distinct from what it means to know a concept. The traditional view of education focuses on learning processes but often neglects the skills required to know a topic afterwards. This has inexorably led to a linear view of curriculum, with teachers marching through content and providing carrots and sticks to elicit compliant students within their daily activities.

Join a workshop that offers a change in that paradigm. Learn what current research on brain physiology says about the best way to come to know something in the classroom. Discuss with other colleagues and current high school students alike what the impact of this cognitive research should be in a classroom. Be an active participant in a new kind of classroom that eliminates the trappings of the old paradigm.

Experience what it’s like to trash your notes following a lecture. Hear from students who create their own homework assignments and complete them without ever using the word “point” or “credit”. See how a fundamental shift in the approach to learning and knowing leads to 4 graded tasks a semester (FOUR!). Observe how a focus on building competency leads to natural differentiation of instruction.

Steve Young, the Anatomy and Physiology teacher at Olathe East High School, will be facilitating a free workshop to explore a new way to think about education. Bring nothing but a willingness to consider new ideas. All you have to lose is the old way of thinking.

Session Details:

Room 105, 14545 W. 127th St. Olathe KS, 66062

April 18th from 8:30a-1:00p