Bridging the gap between research and practice
February 18, 2019
By Dr Nicolas Matthee

Have you ever heard of EBP? To many, it might sound like a medical condition but it actually refers to what is known as evidence-based practice. Evidence-based practice is a movement and methodology with the aim of applying scientific and clinical research to practical contexts such as the classroom. The field of Mind, Brain, and Education is firmly rooted in this paradigm and also includes the theory of growth and fixed mindset.

The growth mindset theory is transformative in that it can influence your teaching and the performance of your students. There is, however, an ongoing challenge with EBP – and that challenge is known as the research to practice gap.

Exploring the gap

The research to practice gap refers to instances where research struggles to be applicable to practical contexts such as the classroom. Two of the most prominent areas where this can be observed is in research that is simply too theoretical to have any practical use and in research that gets misinterpreted and therefore applied wrong. Both of these instances are equally frustrating, especially in educational contexts.

For the remainder of this article, we discuss the latter of the two challenges – those cases where research was misinterpreted or misunderstood and therefore applied in ways that did not benefit the practice of teaching and learning.

This is always the risk with seemingly simple learning theories such as the growth mindset theory. We intuitively think we understand the theory and start applying it in classrooms without the proper critical reflection on our own understanding of the theory. This results in what Carol Dweck refers to as the false growth mindset. The irony is that a false growth mindset actually enforces the very principles embodied in a fixed mindset approach. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, Carol Dweck helps us understand the subtle differences and nuances between a growth mindset and a false growth mindset by stating:

Listen for the messages in the following examples:

“You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!”

“Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”

“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”

If you’re like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem-boosting messages. But listen more closely. See if you can hear another message. It’s the one that children hear:

“If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.”

“I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.”

“I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.”

Does this mean we can’t praise our children enthusiastically when they do something great? Should we try to restrain our admiration for their successes? Not at all. It just means that we should keep away from a certain kind of praise – praise that judges their intelligence or talent. Or praise that implies that we’re proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than for the work they put in.

We can appreciate them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies. And we can ask them about their work in a way that recognizes and shows interest in their efforts and choices.

“You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It really worked!”

“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one that worked!”

It is very important to note that effort cannot simply be praised for the sake of praising effort. This is still a misunderstanding of the fundamental concept of having a growth mindset. Simply praising effort is one of the core areas where Dweck’s work is misinterpreted and in an interview with The Atlantic (Gross-Loh 2016) Dweck states what she believes:

“A lot of parents or teachers say praise the effort, not the outcome. I say that’s wrong: Praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress; tie the praise to it. It’s not just effort, but strategy … so support the student in finding another strategy. Students need to know that if they’re stuck, they don’t just need effort. You don’t want them redoubling their efforts with the same ineffective strategies.”

Avoiding the gap

What does this mean for educators and parents attempting to foster a growth mindset in themselves and their children/students? Avoid falling into the gap! Applying any research to a practical context demands effort. Research regarding a growth mindset is no different. Even though it might sound simple to implement, the growth mindset is still a theory that needs to be understood to be applied effectively.

If you would like to explore some of the latest research on a wide variety of learning theories including the growth mindset, please visit our website for more on professional development and brain-based study methods.