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Unicorns and Growth Mindset

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last spring, a student said to me, “Well, I'm just not a map person. I'm not good at maps.”

And I responded, “Well, Adam, flying unicorns are real.”

To which Adam replied, “Um… what?”

Growth mindset isn't just a cute idea

The preponderance of evidence supporting the brain's malleability and the human ability to learn new things makes the belief system underlying Adam's statement akin to the belief system underlying mine. From what I know (and I'll confess a lack of research here), there's no evidence to support the real, flesh-and-blood existence of flying unicorns. Similarly, though Adam may not prefer learning where countries are located on a map, and though he may not have experienced success in similar activities in the past, there's no evidence to suggest that he is permanently not a map person.

What I'm getting at is the now hackneyed concept of growth mindset, a term that is often discussed and taught in ways contrary to what it actually is. Adam had certainly heard of growth mindset before, but it obviously hadn't affected how he viewed his ability to learn geographic information. And just as the medieval belief in medical bloodletting was damaging to its believers, so too Adam's belief in “not being a map person” is damaging to him. While other students advanced their knowledge of geography (and, thus, their level of literacy), Adam gets left behind.

Thankfully, Carol Dweck, the Stanford researcher who popularized her research in her best-selling Mindset, hasn't ridden off into the sunset of book royalties and high-level speaking engagements. She now works to correct misapplications of growth mindset and provides the following advice for lessening the number of Adam's that we pass on each year [1].

Dweck's recommendations for helping kids not to believe in flying unicorns

  1. A growth mindset isn't just about effort. Don't tell Adam, “C'mon kid, work harder on those maps! Have a growth mindset!”
  2. Fixed mindset shouldn't become a scapegoat. The question great teachers ask isn't, “Why can't that student learn?” it's “How can I help that student learn?”
  3. Beware of false growth mindset, or the situation in which growth mindset becomes “the right answer” or “the right thing to have.” If you teach kids about growth mindset and any of the research behind it, guess what? Most of them will score really well on a Dweck's growth mindset survey, even as their study behavior won't change much. The Adams that I teach would probably score decent growth mindsets. It's the same exact phenomenon I see in many of my fellow Christians: “loving Jesus” is the right answer, it's the right thing to say, but it doesn't work itself out into actual living [2]. This brings us to an important question: how do we avoid false growth mindset?
  4. Treat mistakes and failures as instructive. The soil of the mind is never so ripe as right after it has made a mistake. My oldest daughter is learning to ride her bike right now, and I'm finding that the times she improves her skill the most are the times when she wipes out. My job in the wipeouts is to go to her, comfort her, get any scrapes kissed or patched up, and then talk her through what happened. She's doing the learning; I'm doing the perspective setting. It's normal to crash your bike when you're learning because it's normal to make mistakes when you're learning anything. But when you're afraid to make mistakes, or you feel the need to run away or hide from them, it's hard to learn. This is why, in Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov calls for building “cultures of error” in our classrooms, environments “where [our] students feel safe making and discussing mistakes so [we] can spend less time hunting for errors and more time fixing them.” [3]
  5. Legitimize the fixed mindset. This recommendation is straight from Dweck. She says that
    1. We're all a mixture of both mindsets,
    2. We probably always will be, and
    3. We're not going to expand the reach of our growth mindsets unless we “stay in touch with our fixed mindset thoughts and deeds.”

That last bit is exactly what I ended up doing with Adam. After the flying unicorn bit (which got the whole class perplexed), I explained how I used to tell myself that I couldn't speak in public, and how that belief still affects me today when I become overly nervous about a speaking engagement. I asked the class to raise their hands to show how many of them have thought the same thing about speaking in public, and then how many of them have proven themselves wrong with their pop-up debate participation this year. (Many hands both times.)

Fixed mindset is normal — I still struggle with it, and Adam will, too. What must stop being normal is the mere lip service we often give a concept so central to the flourishing life.


  1. See “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset,'” EdWeek, 9/22/15.
  2. It should be noted here that the existence of false Christians no more disproves the intended focal point of Christian belief — Christ — than the existence of false growth mindset disproves the validity of Dweck's years of research.
  3. Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, p. 57.

Thank you to Hadassah Stuart, my oldest daughter, whose lessons to me about the proper terminology for flying unicorns (alicorns) were likely the reason that I brought up unicorns on that day in class with Adam.


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