Contextualizing Growth Mindset and Grit
April 28, 2021
by Sarah Porter, Ph.D., Professor of Student Development and Completion Counselor
During a year marked by remote work, physical distancing, “smooth brain” (i.e., intellectual blunting in response to a potent cocktail of overwhelm, stress, and boredom), and collective concern about the multiple pandemics we face, participation in the 2020/2021 Global Gender & Women’s Studies Faculty Learning Community (FLC) has been a true respite. This year’s FLC offered a wonderful opportunity to not only hear from leading scholars about their latest research but also connect with colleagues across disciplines to brainstorm ways to globalize and genderize our curricula.
As a faculty member whose roles straddle two worlds – counseling students full-time and teaching Student Development courses as an adjunct – I wanted to tackle a project that has relevance across both parts of my work life. When Dr. Christen Smith, an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at UT Austin, delivered a lecture on sequelae, the intergenerational transmission of police terror and its downstream effects in Brazil and the United States, her insights helped me better frame my thinking and bring my ideas into focus. I decided to look at how to contextualize growth mindset and grit, two constructs that are often discussed in counseling and in our Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for College Success courses.
Growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can be developed with an emphasis on effort and a focus on process over outcome, and grit, passion and perseverance for very long-term goals, are often touted as universal keys to student success. While neither concept is particularly controversial in and of itself, we must intentionally attend to context when teaching these constructs in the classroom or encouraging struggling students in the counseling office lest we overlook important gender, culture, and equity considerations.
For instance, researchers have noted the interplay between growth mindset and gender, which they term “the bright girl effect.” Girls are more likely to adhere to a fixed mindset whereas boys are more likely to embrace a growth mindset. Scholars suspect that this mindset difference may be attributed to the fact that girls mature more quickly than boys and, as a result, receive less process praise about behaviors (e.g., “good job staying in your seat and working so hard on that project today”) and more outcome praise about performance and innate ability (e.g., “look at that A on your test – you’re so smart!”), which reinforces a fixed mindset (Miracle, 2015). This effect seems to disappear in adulthood, but may be reactivated in situations where women experience stereotype threat (e.g., in a male-dominated STEM classroom) (Macnamara & Rupani, 2017).
While the data about gender differences in grit scores are mixed, evidence for grit as a culture-bound construct is mounting. According to Dreilinger (2021), researchers who studied over one million students from 59 countries discovered that a) passion was much more predictive of achievement in individualistic cultures than in collectivist ones, and b) within collectivist cultures, family support for interests was as predictive as passion. Likewise, Datu et al. (2017) posited that perseverance aligns well with the mastery approach to learning within many Asian cultures, but that passion is less relevant because the cultural value of collectivism emphasizes choosing interests based on what is good for one’s family or community and adjusting one’s goals to align with others’ preferences. Simply put, perseverance as a success factor cuts across cultures, but passion does not. As such, researchers recommend refining the definition and measurement of grit to take into account cross-cultural differences. As educators, we must use caution to avoid overstating the connection between finding one’s passion and success when providing encouragement to our students.
Above all, pushing growth mindset and grit without acknowledging the myriad ways in which systemic inequities and sequelae in students’ lives shape mindset and perseverance puts the responsibility for academic success (and failure) squarely on the shoulders of students without recognizing the very real effects of systemic oppression. If we do not account for the roles of implicit bias, inequitable policies, and intergenerational transmission of trauma, especially for BIPOC students, and actively work to dismantle the inequities within our educational system, we put too much of the onus on students to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when larger-scale change is in order.
Datu, J., Yuen, M., & Chen, G. (2017). Grit and determination: A review of literature with implications for theory and research. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 27(2), 168-176.
Dreilinger, D. (2021, March 16). Hiring and school decisions based on an individual’s ‘passion’ likely to miss talent, Stanford-led study shows. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2021/03/16/decisions-based-passion-likely-miss-talent/.
Macnamara, B.N., & Rupani, N.S. (2017). The relationship between intelligence and mindset. Intelligence, 64, 52-59.
Miracle, P. (2015, January 12). Understanding a mindset for success. Retrieved from https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/understanding-mindset-success.