Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
First, just to make it crystal clear, this blog is NOT about bashing Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory. Dweck is a respected researcher and her work on motivation over the last 40 years has been very influential (e.g., Dweck & Leggett, 1988). There are, however, some challenges with her work on growth mindset. For now, we think we’re better off focusing on self-efficacy and attribution theory when trying to understand what influences learners’ perception of their own abilities, the impact those perceptions can have on their (learning) performance, and what we – as learning professionals – can do influence those perceptions in order to support learners and improve their outcomes.
Before we dive into efficacy and attribution theory, we briefly explain why we think we should stop throwing around growth mindset as if we know what we’re talking about or as if we understand how we should apply it to support learners.
First of all, recent attempts to replicate Dweck’s research findings have not led to unequivocal results (e.g., Sisk et al., 2018), leading to a somewhat snarky comment by Russell Warne (2020) that the one variable that makes growth mindset interventions work is having Carol Dweck in charge of your intervention. To put it simply…. That learners “think differently about competence and intelligence is true, but the influence of these ways of thinking on learning performance has never been well demonstrated” (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020, pp. 91).
Also, so far there’s no experimental research on growth mindset in a workplace context. Yes, there are some studies on growth mindset (e.g., Jang & Lee, 2018 or Visser, 2012) in a workplace context but these don’t have control groups and there’s no intervention to speak of. In other words, these studies aren’t very convincing. Yet, organizations use ‘growth mindset’ all the time when it comes to discussions around how to help people be(come) continuous, lifelong learners.
Overall, Dweck’s work on growth mindset theory is very much misunderstood. In schools and organizations alike, the theory is reduced to cheesy motivational one-liners (“Failure means ‘not yet’ and not ‘I can’t’, for example) and false claims that innate ability doesn’t matter but effort does.
Yes, figuring out how to best encourage and support learners to keep learning and to continuously improve themselves indeed includes the need to understand why learners perceive their own abilities the way they do and how these perceptions influence their (approach to) learning. However, the common interpretation of the difference between ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindset looks something like the image below. How is it helpful to say to the learner: Work hard, embrace challenges, and just work harder when you fail?
What self-efficacy and attribution theory have to offer is way more specific and useful in practice (and we think that when we dive into both, it will also become clear why this interpretation of growth mindset is potentially damaging for learners). Let’s start with self-efficacy.
As Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) explain in Chapter 7 of their book ‘How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice’, self-efficacy – the judgment how well you think you can deal with a specific challenge – is the reason that learners of similar ability and experiences perform very differently in certain domains and/or situations. Bandura’s key idea (his seminal work on self-efficacy was published in 1977) was that it’s not so much about the actual situation which initiates your behaviour towards it, but rather it’s how you anticipate the situation. In other words, what you expect to happen, determines your behaviour.
When it comes to self-efficacy, there are two key things to keep in mind. Number one, self-efficacy is largely domain-specific. There’s no such thing as ‘global’ self-efficacy. After all, the more ‘versed’ you’re at something, the better you’ll be able to determine if you can deal with the challenge at hand. Hence, you’ll have high self-efficacy. If you know nothing yet or haven’t done something before, you will have low self-efficacy and for good reasons (and, oh dear, there’s also the possibility that you’re completely unaware that you’re completely incompetent. We’ve written about the Dunning-Kruger effect before here but John Cleese also does an excellent job here explaining Dunning-Kruger in less than one minute). This is why generic claims like “challenges should be embraced” can be harmful. It really depends what kind of challenge and where you’re at as a learner.
The second key thing is that self-efficacy is a strong predictor of success in a particular domain (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020) and therefore, self-efficacy is affected when learners experience success in that domain. In turn, when learners have high self-efficacy, they’re more likely to take on a task and they’re better able to deal with failure as they’ll perceive it as a means to eventual success. But, again, this is really domain-specific and not generic in any way. So, instead of saying “effort is a path to mastery”, it would be better to say “through mastery, the learner perceives success and might therefore feel more motivated to continue to put in effort.” Quite a different focus!
But there’s more. It’s not just about perceptions of your own ability. It’s also about what you attribute your success to. Sometimes, learners attribute success to external factors (e.g., luck) while other times, they might attribute their achievement to their own effort. This is where attribution theory (Weiner, 1985) comes in and this plays a key role when it comes to learner motivation to keep going.
Where self-efficacy is about how you anticipate a situation and how well you think you’re able to complete a task, attribution theory is about what we think causes your success or failure. It looks specifically at how those perceptions affect your emotional state and how that affects your subsequent motivation for future tasks. Similar to self-efficacy, the perception is more significant than the actual situation.
Attribution theory is about motivation and emotion and causal ascriptions play a key role. Weiner proposes three dimensions: locus of control (internal/external), stability (stable/unstable), and controllability (controllable/uncontrollable).
|Stable||Effort||Ability||Instructor bias||Difficulty of task or test|
|Unstable||Domain||Mood||Lack of help, luck, knowledge|
Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020, p 101
As Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) explain it in Chapter 10 of their book:
The perceived stability of causes influences changes in expectancy of success; all three dimensions of causality affect a variety of common emotional experiences, including anger, gratitude, guilt, hopelessness, pity, pride, and shame” (pp. 99-100).
In turn, expectancy and affect guide motivated behaviour. In other words, when learners experience success or failure and attribute causes to those outcomes, those attributions in turn affect their expectation of future failure of success. One could argue that attribution influences self-efficacy. It goes something like this:
Let’s see how both self-efficacy and attribution theory can be used to support learners in practice.
How to use self-efficacy and attribution theory in practice
These examples are both applicable in schools and in the workplace.
How well you think you can deal with a specific challenge
What you think causes your success or failure
Hopefully, it’s clear why we’d like to say goodbye to growth mindset for now and say hello to self-efficacy and attribution theory. Both not only help us better understand what influences learners’ perception of their own abilities and the impact those perceptions have on their (learning) performance, they also give us clearer interventions to influence those perceptions to help learners learn and perform better.
We’ve said this before and we keep repeating it until we drop: Let’s focus on what we know works instead of holding onto something that might sound attractive but doesn’t give us the nuance or practicality we need to do our jobs: Support learners to achieve the best they can.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Towards a unifying theory and the organization. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), 256-273.
Jang, H. Y., & Lee, C. S. (2018). Mediating effects of growth mindset and grit in relation to authentic leadership and organizational effectiveness. International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics, 118(24), np.
Kirschner, P. A., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. London: Routledge.
Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549-571.
Visser, C. F. (2013). Professional helpers’ growth mindset, work engagement and self-reported performance. pp. 1–5. Available at: http://www.progressfocusedapproach.com%5Cnwww.progressfocusedapproach.com/uploads/visser2013-2.pdf
Warne, R., (2020, January 3). The one variable that makes growth mindset interventions work. russellwarne.com. https://russellwarne.com/2020/01/03/the-one-variable-that-makes-growth-mindset-interventions-work/?fbclid=IwAR20jnGSOZC_u1sbz_s2E3PrK_bHbYqONi7-AI94MXD9P7Az0qbq0sgLd54
Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.