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The Growth Mindset: Carol Dweck’s Learning Theory and its Canadian Mutation

3 April 2017
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Developing a Growth Mindset in students and their teachers is perhaps the hottest trend in the education world outside of Canada. Originating in psychological science research conducted by Carol S. Dweck over thirty years of studies and continuing at Stanford University, it burst upon the education scene in 2006 with the publication of Dweck’s influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success[1] and has become a favourite topic in education faculty classes and professional development sessions.

The so-called Mindset Revolution, like most education fads, has also generated its share of imitations and mutations. Two of the best known are the Mathematical Mindset, promulgated by Math educator Jo Boaler [2], and a more recent Canadian spin-off, The Innovator’s Mindset, the brain-child of George Couros, a division principal of Teaching and Learning with Parkland School District, in Stony Plain, Alberta. While Growth Mindset 1.0, got little traction among Canadian policy-makers, the second-generation iteration dreamed up by Couros is increasingly popular among tech-savvy Canadian and American educators.

Legions of professional educators and teachers in the U.S., the UK, and Australia, have latched onto Growth Mindset theory and practice with a real vengeance. One reliable barometer of ‘trendiness,’ the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, Edutopia, provides a steady stream of short online videos extolling the virtues of Growth Mindset (or GM) in the classroom. The growing list of GM e-zine pieces @Edutopia purport to “support students in believing that they can develop their talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others.”

Figure 1: The Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset (Carol Dweck, 2006)

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Dweck’s theory of the Growth Mindset gained credibility because, unlike most educational ‘fads,’ it did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in case studies with students in the schools. Leading education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings and applied them to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment. He adopted this equation: Talent = Hard Work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset) and offered this endorsement: “The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

For much of the past two years, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie have been alerting researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what is termed a “false growth mindset” [3]in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as in the U.S. and the UK. Too many teachers and parents, they point out, have either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept, reducing it to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it’s educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.”

Dweck’s greatest fear nowadays is that Growth Mindset has been appropriated by education professionals to reinforce existing student-centred practices and to suit their own purposes. That serious concern is worth repeating: “It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement.” In a December 2016 article in The Atlantic, she conceded that it was being used in precisely that way, in too many classrooms, and it amounted to “blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not.”[4]

A “false growth mindset” arises, according to Dweck, when educators use the term too liberally and simply do not really understand that it’s intended to motivate students to work harder and demonstrate more resilience in overcoming setbacks. “The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them,” she reminds us. “It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter. “Far too many growth mindset disciples, Dweck now recognizes, reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” in the learning process and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

The Canadian mutation, George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset [5] seeks to extend Dweck’s original theory into the domain of technology and creativity. Troubled by the limitations of her model and its explicit emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, he made an “awesome” (his word) discovery that GM could be a powerful leadership tool for advancing “continuous creation.” In his mutation of the theory, the binary “fixed” vs. “growth” model morphs into a more advanced stage, termed the “innovator’s mindset.” In his fertile and creative mind, it is transmogrified (transformed almost beyond recognition) into a new theory of teaching and learning.

Figure 2: The Innovator’s Mindset (George Couros, The Principal of Change, 2017)

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Taking poetic license with Dweck’s research-based model, Couros spins a completely different interpretation in his fascinating professional blog, The Principal of Change[6]:

As we look at how we see and “do” school, it is important to continuously shift to moving from consumption to creation, engagement to empowerment, and observation to application. It is not that the first replaces the latter, but that we are not settling for the former. A mindset that is simply open to “growth”, will not be enough in a world that is asking for continuous creation of not only products, but ideas.” 

Promising educational theories – even those founded on some robust initial research – can fall prey to prominent educators pushing their own ‘pet ideas’ and pedagogical theories. A 2016 Education Week report [7] demonstrates that Growth Mindset initiatives can produce mixed results and British education researchers are currently having a field day picking apart Carol Dweck’s research findings[8]. Having another version of her creation circulating in mutated form will make it even harder to assess her serious case studies being replicated around the world.

[1] Dweck, Carol (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

[2] Boaler, Jo (2013). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. Forum, 55:1, 143-152. 

[3] Dweck, Carol, and Lewis and Virginia Eaton (2016). Recognizing and Overcoming False Growth Mindset. Edutopia, January 11, 2016. 

[4] Gross-Loh, Christine (2016). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize. The Atlantic, December 16, 2016.

[5] Couros, George (2015) The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Kindle Edition. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

[6] Couros, George (2017). A World that is Asking for Continuous Creation. The Principal of Change Blog, January 27, 2017.

[7] Education Week (2016). Mindset in the Classroom: A National Study of K-12 Teachers. Arlington, VA: Education Week Research Center.

[8] Didau, David (2017). Is growth mindset bollocks? The Learning Spy Blog, January 25, 2017.

The CEA's mission is to

The CEA's mission is to transform public education by:

  • convening divergent stakeholders to advance ideas and to mobilize a pan-Canadian movement for change in education
  • supporting and promoting the innovation and courageous leadership that is driving change in Canada’s education systems
  • producing and disseminating research that can impact practice and enhance student engagement
It seems to be ironic that this post is shared on the platform of an organization with the aforementioned mission.... especially being critical of a book that shares ideas that align so well with the mission.
Discourse is important but I struggle with a post that is simply critical and fails to recognize any positives... and fails to share any ideas to help with the mission of the CEA.
There are few educators and writers that have helped create more positive change in the schools I have worked in than George. His book shares success stories of many Canadian educators actually doing the work to create more innovation and effective change in schools.
I am confused at which aspect of the 8 characteristics of an innovative mindset that you would say is not important or that you disagree with... being: empathetic? reflective? problem finders? resilient? creators? risk-takers?
Whether you agree with the term "Innovator's Mindset" or not, why would we not want to follow GC's lead and highlight the work of Canadian educators in actually creating change? Should we not be highlighting his work (and the work and ideas of so many others within his work) rather than simply throwing stones and adding no original ideas to the conversation?
I have a ton of respect for the CEA and do my best to be involved in helping with their vision and mission. I just do not see how a post that basically embraces the status quo helps do what is intended of the association. 
Someone once said to me, "if you have a great idea, don't give it a name" because then someone will take the idea, generalize it, misuse it, and cause it to lose its power.  There is no shortage of critics that are minimizing great work by focusing on the name and dismissing it as a "fad" but when you look beyond the name, I struggle to see how the many stories, ideas and characteristics shared by Couros within the book are "fads".  
As I said, I have no problem with asking questions, but the tone of this post seems personal (with cynical "compliments") and the purpose of this post does not seem to be clear (other than offering an unbalanced critique and dismissing the work within the book (of many educators) and lumping this work all as a fad). 
I follow a few educators who I know have different beliefs than I do and this helps me see things from a different perspective. I have had some interesting online conversations with Paul about a few issues in education and I can appreciate that he has contrarian views on progressive ideas (and those that are trying to create positive change). He can often raise some key questions that cause me to think.  Unfortunately, I believe this post did not offer the same as it did not present any alternatives to creating change, had a disrespectful and cynical tone, and it did not make me think (other than to simply support the work of people within the book)... but did make me concerned that the post is critical of many Canadian (and US) educators and it was posted on the Canadian Education Association site. 
I would have less of an issue if this was posted on Paul's blog as he would be solely representing himself.  I do not think this post is a good fit for the CEA as it now represents the association, yet it does not align with the mission and fails to move us forward in any way. 

I feel compelled to comment

I feel compelled to comment on this article as I am deeply concerned about both its content and tone.

The first fallacy is your hasty generalization that Dweck’s Growth mindset got “little traction among Canadian policy-makers” Are you talking about all of Canada? Provinces except Ontario? Where is the evidence to prove this? When I worked at the District level and collaborated with other peers in Districts throughout Ontario, Growth Mindset provided the very foundation for work in literacy and numeracy. I also participated in many Ministry-led sessions where Dweck’s work was the primary focus.

While I certainly appreciate you tackling the “false growth mindset” which is often oversimplified and contributes to empty praise, The Innovator’s Mindset (IM) is in no way doing this. One of the tenets of the book, in fact, is that failure is a process to achieving success. Your article points to the fact that Dweck believes “hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.” Where exactly in IM do you read anything that in any way contradicts that? In fact, everything in the book as well as George’s own achievements, point to the importance hard work, dedication, and determination to achieve success.

The greatest offence I take is your tone. Since when does a serious journalist or author use ad hominem to further an argument? The numerous attacks on George’s person; both inferenced and blatant, in this article are quite distasteful and beneath what I would expect of a publication of CEA’s calibre. There are so few references to the book itself that I am led to wonder if you have even read the Innovator’s Mindset? Is the direct target towards a successful leader in education simply a ploy to increase readership?

Yes, George does have a “fertile and creative mind” because he understands that in order for a Growth Mindset to truly take root, it requires a complete re-culturing of what education looks like. In fact, Couros quotes Ron Canuel, CEA president and CEO  (from Innovation vs Circulasticity) in the book:

“In my opinion, true innovation in education will only happen when a new structure is created: one that nurtures critical thinkers, supports risk-takers and encourages ongoing transformation, and that places a high value on creative and insightful learning / teaching in classrooms”

What George does in the IM is attempt to create a new structure by creating a new mindset for leaders which builds upon Growth Mindset; never undermining the original at all.  He does take “poetic licence” as you suggest, but this is quite purposeful in its intent. But if you had read the book, or participated in any of the online communities that have grown as a result of the book, you would understand that.

And while there is no empirical evidence, YET, there is much directly observable evidence to suggest that your claims that having this “mutated form” circulating in any way contradicts the work that Dweck is doing. In fact,if you take a closer look  and observe the teachers and leaders who have read the book, and who have formed communities which focus on learning and growing together; the results have been nothing but positive for students and school culture.  

So perhaps you could focus on “mutations” that are harming students instead of ones which are creating a more positive culture, and limit your arguments to facts rather than fallacies.

  First of all, I agree with


First of all, I agree with Jennifer's comment 100%.  This seems to be a surface level attack on influential educators based on their use of the term mindset (as you reference as a “mutation” of growth mindset) and actually shows a lack of understanding of the work and impact of both George Couros and Jo Boaler.

The reason I am bringing this up is that I personally have seen the impact that George Couros and his book, "The Innovator's Mindset", have has on educators and their students all over the world.  I was surprised to learn this was not a personal blog but posted on an organization that is called the "Canadian Education Association", which goals of the organization include:

  • supporting and promoting the innovation and courageous leadership that is driving change in Canada’s education systems

  • Where education systems are more adaptive to the rapidly changing and diverse needs of all learners.

George Couros promotes and models forward thinking and transformation to align our schools with the changing world.  Based on the goals of your organization, I would encourage you to read the book and explore some of the stories that describe many Canadian educators doing amazing work for and with students.  I would also encourage you to check out some of the innovative and courageous leaders that are driving change in diverse communities that has been inspired by the book and George’s work on #innovatorsmindset #IMMOOC.