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  • 2022semplephd

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Do Mindsets Matter?: What can we discover from the learning experiences of secondary school students about the relationship between identity, Implicit Theories of Intelligence, and growth?

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Alison Semple
  • Alison Semple
Publication date05/2022
Number of pages136
Awarding Institution
Award date28/06/2022
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Concepts from cognitive psychology are making their way into the school sector to inform school improvement, including Dweck’s work on Implicit Theories of Intelligence which was being taken up by educators in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There is strong empirical evidence to suggest believing that intelligence is a fixed trait (i.e., having an entity theory) impacts negatively on academic growth whilst believing that intelligence is malleable (i.e. having an incremental or Growth Mindset) can have positive outcomes in terms of progress. Studies have also shown that Implicit Theories of Intelligence can be manipulated so that learners increase effort and become more resilient.

However, it is proving difficult to find interventions for use in schools that have significant and sustained impacts. Dweck herself has expressed concerns about how her theories are being misunderstood by practitioners and there is a danger that the school sector will start to dismiss an idea it once found interesting without really giving Implicit Theories of Intelligence a chance to inform policy and practice.

This longitudinal nested case study used interviews with students and their parents alongside school tracking data in an attempt to glimpse inside the “black box” of learning and discover how Implicit Theories of Intelligence form part of individual children’s Learner Identities and how these identities are affected by family narratives, parental influence, early educational experiences, and the participants’ current lived experience of school in order to determine the extent of the individuals’ academic growth. The study also looked at the learning mechanisms that formed the process whereby participants were able to achieve academic growth and examined the interplay between learner identities and learning mechanisms.

Coding interview transcripts resulted in the identification of key elements that made up individual students’ Learner Identities and the emergence of a new element, learning literacy. It is this learning literacy that mediates between a learner’s identity and experience at school, particularly their access to the main mechanisms of learning identified in this study, to produce negative or virtuous cycles.

The final phase of the study builds on the learning from the case studies and from the literature review to suggest that, rather than use “one-shot” interventions, it would be better to build a whole school system around the understanding that growth mindsets lead to better academic growth, starting with a clear shared model and language of learning.