My Response to Alfie Kohn's Attack on 'Growth Mindset'

Alfie KohnAlfie Kohn was the first edu-author I read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. Unlike many others, he wasn’t what we in public education call “completely full of $#!+”. He’s still not, near as I can tell.

I was troubled, however, by his recent piece in Salon (which has been making the edu-rounds). And, seeing as I lack both the status and qualifications to challenge such a personage, I figure I’d throw in my two cents. Who knows? Maybe I can be loathed by a much wider audience than those for whom I normally spew my pith. 

The title gives the first clue as to the problem: “The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system.” I don’t know that these are even Kohn’s words – perhaps some editor at Salon came up with this heading – but they do capture two of my biggest issues with the piece.

First, I’m no expert on Carol Dweck, but I don’t recall her arguing – even indirectly - that we need to “fix” our kids. If we equate any effort to teach or help young people with impersonal disdain for them, the very thought of ‘raising a child’ or ‘teaching a class’ becomes offensive.

This sort of sophistry isn’t helpful. It feigns offense at the very suggestion any child might need adult guidance in any way.

Second, this is a false dichotomy right out of the gate. I can’t imagine educators lining up in opposing camps, one committed to dealing with students and their issues and the other determined only to reform the system itself. 

That’s silly.

Here’s how the piece opens: 

One of the most popular ideas in education these days can be summarized in a single sentence (a fact that may help to account for its popularity). 

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of tone. I love the way this perfectly calm, fully defensible little intro manages to remain so dry even as it drips with disdain. It’s like a rhetorical martini.  

Here’s the sentence: 

Kids tend to fare better when they regard intelligence and other abilities not as fixed traits that they either have or lack, but as attributes that can be improved through effort. 

I’ll risk some belittling and agree with that sentence wholeheartedly. 

I consciously strive to shift students away from the idea that they will succeed or fail, learn or not, solely by the whims of destiny. I despise Calvinism pedagogically as much as I do theologically. 

I see no point in a life devoid of agency, in or out of the educational system. I can’t promise my students success, or even equity, but I can help them grasp the value of personal choice – conscious aim and deliberate action. This does NOT equate to ‘control’ – the world is still an unjust and brutal playground – but a lack of omnipotence doesn’t render us inanimate. 

…Carol Dweck used the label “incremental theory” to describe the self-fulfilling belief that one can become smarter. Rebranding it more catchily as the “growth mindset” allowed her to recycle the idea a few years later in a best-selling book for general readers. 

When we address documents and multiple sources and points of view in class, one of the elements on which we focus on is the author’s use of language and what it suggests about their audience and their purpose. I’d expect my students to notice word choices like “rebranding”, “more catchily”, and “recycle”. 

Bonus points if they question the potential aspersion of “best-selling book for general readers.” 

None of this suggests Kohn is wrong, or even unfair in his implied accusations – but it’s worth noting he doesn’t merely disagree… he despises all things Dweckian. And he’s escalating: 

By now, the growth mindset has approached the status of a cultural meme. The premise is repeated with uncritical enthusiasm by educators and a growing number of parents, managers, and journalists — to the point that one half expects supporters to start referring to their smartphones as “effortphones.”  

“Ignorant drones! We must mock them – for being SO effing wrong, yes, but mostly for their sheepish lack of discernment and heavy reliance on trendiness and pop culture!“

Like I said, I love me some tone. I’m all about bitterness and caricaturization. Let’s note, however, that this is not groundwork for an argument so much as the opening salvo of a rant. It’s personal.  

But, like the buzz over the related concept known as “grit” (a form of self-discipline involving long-term persistence), there’s something disconcerting about how the idea has been used — and about the broader assumption that what students most need is a “mindset” adjustment. 

If we don’t force kids to come to school in order to change their ‘mindsets’, why ARE they here? 

It’s a difficult delineation, separating the doctrine from the believers. We see it in religion all the time – angry atheists who point out problematic individuals to invalidate whatever holy book they cite. Believers trying to defend their ideals apart from their application. Sometimes it even gets messy.

At times, Kohn clearly distinguishes between Dweck’s basic assertion that students benefit from understanding their potential to improve and those who wield this research like a weapon against their kids: 

Dweck’s basic thesis is supported by decades’ worth of good data… Regardless of their track record, kids tend to do better in the future if they believe that how well they did in the past was primarily a result of effort.

But “how well they did” at what? 

Ah, yes indeed. That IS a valid question. What is it that we, as part of public education system, think it is students should be learning or doing? What is it we wish for them to be getting better AT? 

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). 

YES! Once again, Kohn has nailed it. His tortured nights tossing and turning, worrying about my approval, may be at an end – I wholeheartedly concur. Abso-$#%&ing-lutely.

And as long as he’s on this pathway, he and I could get along famously. There could be nodding involved – maybe even awkward bro-hugs. 

…books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).

Preach it, edu-brother.

Small wonder that this idea goes down so easily. All we have to do is get kids to adopt the right attitude, to think optimistically about their ability to handle whatever they’ve been given to do. Even if, quite frankly, it’s not worth doing.

Uh-oh. He’s beginning to conflate the idea that students benefit from recognizing their own agency with an oversimplified faith in a perk and pluck. And there’s that tone again.

The most common bit of concrete advice offered by Dweck and others enamored of the growth mindset is to praise kids for their effort… rather than for their ability…

The more serious concern, however, is that what’s really problematic is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation. A substantial research literature has shown that the kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise. 

Kohn makes this case wonderfully in Punished By Rewards. If you want your son to learn to be respectful to his elders, you don’t flip him a dollar every time he scores ‘polite’ points. Doing so actually detracts from the internal rewards of not being a dillweed. If we want education to be meaningful, we have to get away from throwing points and letter grades at everything and find the inherent value and intrinsic rewards of the learning. 

But this isn’t really the kind of praise in dispute in the whole ‘growth mindset’ argument to begin with. Its inclusion here further muddles an already strange line of reasoning…

A: Dweck has written extensively about ‘growth mindset’. She did not address the quality or nature of the tasks or skills to which this mindset could or should be applied.

B: Many educators have misguided ideas regarding which tasks or skills are best for young people. They often use Dweck’s research to help students get ‘better’ at the wrong things. Therefore, Dweck is a deceiving wench and her platitudes damning. 

C: We must eliminate the idea that students have any control over their own learning or abilities, or we will be unable to focus on the problems with the current system and its outdated, over-tested curriculums. 

D: Besides, any verbal encouragement given to children demeans and devalues them. 

We need to attend to deeper differences: between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and between “doing to” and “working with” strategies.

And now we’re besties again. If only I hadn’t given that friendship necklace to Daniel Pink…

Unfortunately, we’re discouraged from thinking about these more meaningful distinctions — and from questioning the whole carrot-and-stick model (of which praise is an example) — when we’re assured that it’s sufficient just to offer a different kind of carrot.

I don’t understand this conclusion at all. I see nothing about wrestling with educational priorities or teacher/student interactions which is precluded by making a conscious distinction between ‘nice shot – those hours of practice paid off!’ and ‘you are a born basketball god!’ 

And this brings us to the biggest blind spot of all — the whole idea of focusing on the mindsets of individuals. Dweck’s work nestles comfortably in a long self-help tradition, the American can-do, just-adopt-a-positive-attitude spirit. (“I think I can, I think I can…”) 

This is the sort of logical slight-of-hand that fuels social media - condemn any argument based on its extremes. If I believe students can help themselves at all, I’m a flag-waving Horatio Alger – and a Tea Party Conservative at that. “You know who else believed in hard work? Hitler!”

The problem with playing such games is not simply that they’re inaccurate or not helpful - they’re overtly destructive and dangerous. The longer we grapple over whether your chocolate’s in my peanut butter or my peanut butter’s on your chocolate, the more consolidated the reign of the guy pushing those disgusting Birthday Cake Oreos. 

I’m not suggesting we’re both ‘equally right,’ or that the truth is ‘somewhere in the middle’ – but let’s save the melodramatic dichotomies for pop culture. (“Caitlyn is SO BRAVE!” / “Bruce is SUCH a freakshow!”)

The message of that tradition has always been to adjust yourself to conditions as you find them because those conditions are immutable; all you can do is decide on the spirit in which to approach them. Ironically, the more we occupy ourselves with getting kids to attribute outcomes to their own effort, the more we communicate that the conditions they face are, well, fixed.

I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I’m sufficiently horrified by this conclusion that I may begin to use… tone.

It's in giving our kids agency and helping them explore the possibilities of their own choices that the system can best be changed. Certainly this doesn’t negate our obligations as adults and professionals to subvert the dominant paradigm along the way, but I’m appalled at the suggestion that the best thing I can do as an educator to overhaul the status quo is to teach my kids they’re helpless cogs until someone above them takes action.

God forbid.

Kohn’s conclusion makes a final effort to tie together these disparate pieces and leaps:

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. 

So, we don’t need to teach kids their abilities are fixed, as long as we also don’t teach them they have the power to improve. Perhaps we should just send them home?

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. 

This reminds me of my evangelical days, when eager preachers would say things like “You don’t need stitches and antibiotics – you need Jesus. Only He can truly heal your deepest wounds.”

Well, yes… perhaps. But when people of faith deny the value of stitches and antibiotics out of their commitment to higher power, it’s kinda nutty. I can’t accept Kohn’s rejection of student agency as not only insufficient, but detracting to systemic reform. 

There’s much he argues along the way with which I do agree, and much I like about the questions he raises – but I wouldn’t dare tell him. That would ruin his motivation for life and prevent me from ever again trying to fix the system. 

Comments

Nailed it! Sorry, can't hate what you wrote.

Great article taking on the Guru of truth; well, the Guru of Truthful-ish ideas. I swear, I resonate with Kohn, and his beautiful ideas of non-violence and understanding. His ideas about punishment and guilt and parents who suck get my attention. Then, the nagging vocie in my head, the same voice that screams at me during all Harry Potter movies something to the effect of, “What’s the big freaking deal about Harry Potter?” Okay, I admit it, I can’t ever totally buy Harry Potter, and Kohn, too, fails to ring the total truth deal. So, growth mindset sucks? it is a system of thought, thus a system? Kohn hates all systems, and the educational system sucks? Is that close?

In my head I hear the screams and they want me to listen to their question, which is, "What IS the educational system that Kohn invented? What are the statistics immediately a few years out, and in 5 years? Because come on, just because someone can gripe about the system doesn’t mean they’ve solved the system’s problems and are now ready to roll out the new and improved guaranteed to cure our country’s neuroses In fact, someone may just be a divisive element. Who knows? I feel like I’m almost all in, then there’s the awkward mental pause...and the wait...for the solution...BUT IT ISN”T THERE.

Thank you so much for this well thought out response. I was so frustrated with Kohn using extreme examples. He peppers his writing with words like "may be", "sometimes" and "presumably" before launching into what amounts to an educational diatribe, often centered around semantics.

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