Teaching growth mindset can result in kinder students, says Johnnie Noakes, Director of the Tony Little Centre at Eton College

The work on mindsets by Stanford Professor in Psychology Carol Dweck has gained traction worldwide in education. It is easy to see why. It speaks to the heart of what educators do, and it shows how students can move beyond self-fulfilling prophecies of attainment. It has a simple central theory which makes intuitive sense to teachers: if you believe intelligence and other abilities are fixed, you are likely to avoid challenge or risk in order to avoid failure, no matter how limiting that can be. On the other hand, if you believe that you can change your abilities with effort you are likely to make more effort, and as a result, improve them.

Although the theory is not without critics, it is backed up by a solid body of research. This research shows that growth-minded students not only tend to have better academic outcomes than those with a fixed mindset, they are also more likely to be intrinsically motivated and to enjoy learning for its own sake. Dweck has also shown that growth-minded students are more likely to show respect and admiration for fellow students who succeed, while fixed-minded students are more likely to show resentment towards others’ successes.

The Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning was set up three years ago to promote pedagogical excellence, evidence-informed practice and research into teaching, learning and leadership in education. We collaborate with schools and universities internationally. Among other topics we have researched wellbeing, character education and growth mindset. Interested in work by Research Schools International (RSI) at Harvard which has shown that students who are more growth-minded are more likely to help their peers in need, we decided to collaborate with RSI to investigate the link between mindsets about intelligence and students’ prosocial attitudes (their willingness to be kind and empathetic) and social connections.

Researching growth mindset at Eton

First, researchers collected baseline data from 187 Etonians, who were divided into an experimental group and a control group. Eton teachers delivered the growth mindset course to students in the experimental group once a week over three weeks, focusing on mindset theory and brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change as a result of how it is stimulated, which exists throughout life but especially in adolescence). Researchers collected follow-up data from the all the students and then analysed it using quantitative and qualitative methods.

The results revealed that students who took the growth mindset course learned to be more growth-minded: they gave more growth-minded responses after taking the course, on average, compared to students in the control group. This difference was statistically significant. This adds to the growing body of research suggesting that by just learning about the power of your own thinking and your brain’s ability to change, you can become a more growth-minded person.

We also found statistically significant differences in other scales we used to measure the differences between the control and experimental groups. Interestingly, we discovered that after taking the growth mindset course many students developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many factors that contribute to abilities, including brain plasticity. They were also more likely to emphasise the role of determination and effort in success and to express respect for determination and effort.

But the findings didn’t stop there. We found a statistically significant relationship between students’ mindset scores and their prosocial attitude scores: students who took the growth mindset course actually improved their prosocial attitudes. That is, the growth mindset course led to a statistically significant increase in students’ prosocial attitudes; we did not find a change in the control group.

The findings that students who are growth-minded tend to have more prosocial attitudes and to feel they have better social support are particularly interesting to us, since they have the potential to inform our work in teaching individuals who are not only academically able but also value social support and character values highly. The students who took part in the course were more likely to link kindness to academic success, they were more likely to show support to others, and more likely to understand how this kind of social support is conducive to their success at school more broadly.

Since conducting this research, we have set up professional learning conversations among teaching staff on how to foster growth mindset in Etonians. As well as using instruction we have focused on the importance of the type of language we use, particularly in reports and feedback to pupils. We have also sought to counter some of the reductive misconceptions that commonly attach to growth mindset, such as that it is all about giving praise, or that it privileges effort over success.

More research is needed to better understand the relationship between student mindsets and prosocial attitudes, but our study provides insights into how we can support students to be both more academically successful and kinder. Even though we don’t claim that these findings can be replicated across different contexts, we suggest that encouraging a growth mindset towards one’s intelligence can promote better relationships