Education, learning

Some Thoughts on Alfie & the #GrowthMindset

I can remember the very first time I experienced the brilliance that is Alfie Kohn. I was in Rhode Island with one of my most beloved educational mentors, Gert Nesin, at the annual NELMS convention– not yet finished with my certification program and increasingly eager to “unschool” myself from the teacher education I experienced as an undergrad. I watched Alfie from the third row of the auditorium, my eyes shining, as he pounded his fist into his hand and flailed his arms at the hypocrisy and the foolishness that he was passionately railing against. Immediately after his keynote, I ran to the exhibition hall and scooped up his newly-issued book Punished by Rewards (1993/1999) and holed myself up in an empty corridor for the remainder of the morning, devouring its pages and blowing off the sessions I had planned on attending.

A loyal fan was born that brisk March morning, and since then I have eagerly awaited each article, book, and tweet from Alfie, occasionally visiting his website to ensure that I haven’t missed anything of significance, that my Alfie collection remains complete.

So when Salon posted his latest work, “The Perils of Growth Mindset Education” (titled “The ‘Mindset’ Mindset” on Kohn’s own website) this week, my heart literally raced as I clicked on the link to read it. (*cough* NERD *cough*) In it, Alfie lays out the problems with the ubiquitous growth mindset concept/movement–which if you aren’t familiar with, Google it and report back– and its implications for our students and their attitudes toward their own learning. In my favorite paragraph from the piece, Alfie 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? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).

He goes on to bemoan the movement’s “can-do, just-adopt-a-positive-attitude spirit” and its ironic ties to a very “fixed” educational system that continues to favor the adoption of generalized, student-centered concepts such as growth mindset and its cousin, “grit,” over much more difficult concepts like taking a long, hard look at our educational system as a whole and why it no longer works (if it ever did) to ensure authentic, sustainable, equal-opportunity learning for our students.

As someone who has always railed against our profession’s tendency to support Band-Aids over reconstructive surgery, so to speak, I agree with every single point that Alfie makes about the way growth mindset can be more harmful than helpful to our students (and the system in general).


I worry that this article, which is being shared and tweeted over and over again, will inadvertently steer some of us away from the benefits that having a “growth mindset” can have on our work in the interest of jumping on the Alfie Kohn bandwagon. (If you think I’m being unfair, so be it. But let’s not kid ourselves about how often something like this happens–I’ve been guilty of it myself.) Because to me, growth mindset has always been less about the students’ attitudes about themselves and more about teachers’ attitudes toward their students. How many of us have heard a colleague talk about her “low kids”? His “gifted” students? How many of us have thought that the group of students we happen to have that year “just aren’t deep thinkers”? What embracing a growth mindset can do for us is remind us how harmful it is to think about our students in this manner, how such a “fixed” view of learners inevitably exposes itself through our actions, our behaviors, and our language, leading to a similarly fixed mindset in our students. (Self-fufilling prophecy, anyone?)

As someone who works closely with teachers, I have the same worry about teachers’ attitudes toward themselves–as well as toward other educators. Just two weeks ago, a colleague of mine expressed her wariness toward my high expectations for teachers–and the profession as a whole–by telling me that “some teachers are never going to ___________.” This particular mindset goes against everything we’ve learned about neuroplasticity and the ability of our brain’s ability to change and grow. The creation of new neural pathways is, of course, not entirely reliant on a simple “I think I can” attitude, but rather is the result of a series of successful experiences and repeated, meaningful practice.

But if, as sometimes happens, we focus too breathlessly on the catchy headline–which Salon, not Alfie, created–and/or a watered-down summary of Alfie’s cogent (but perhaps incomplete) argument about the growth mindset phenomenon–we are in danger of overlooking the advantages that come with such a shift in thinking.

And while I don’t think Alfie would necessarily disagree with me, I do wish his latest piece had addressed this.

Please share your thoughts below!

5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Alfie & the #GrowthMindset”

  1. Great response and reflection on Aflie’s piece. I, too, teach teachers, and growth mindset appears twice:

    First, about how need to foster a growth mindset in their students. Or really, about how easy it is to find a student with growth mindset (or, more likely, NO mindset about his or her ability to learn chemistry or linguistic) and flip them to fixed. All it takes is one microagression, one thoughtless comeback, once ignoring their raised hand.

    Second, and more importantly, in my class we talk about how they need a growth mindset about their (future) students ability to learn. You have to believe they can learn your material. Because if you don’t, if you think a student won’t get it, you won’t give them the support they need. You won’t cover the right material, assign the right homework, give the right feedback.

    That’s why I will continue to include Dweck’s mindset in my curriculum.



  2. “Because to me, growth mindset has always been less about the students’ attitudes about themselves and more about teachers’ attitudes toward their students.”

    Thank you!!! I never understand why so many of my colleagues can become so negative so quickly. As Kohn himself so often says, “children need non-judgmental feedback and unconditional support. ” If I can adapt the way I use Growth Mindset techniques to provide that for my students…would it be so bad?


  3. Seems like we share a obsession with all things Alfie Kohn! But I totally agree with you that even if we give kids something truly valuable to work through, nothing will change unless we change, too. And that means not just developing a growth mindset but taking a stance as a learner in your classroom, your school & your life.


  4. Shawna- I grappled with this article as well! Your post reminded me of Peter Dewitt’s article about how the effect size of growth mindset is actually negatively impacted if teachers don’t have a growth mindset:

    “As Hattie continued to speak, he said the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom.”

    I’m guilty of this sometimes (just ask me about my artistic abilities) and it’s yet another reason to support teacher reflection and maybe even a little unschooling. 😉


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