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Psychologist Carol Dweck invoked her research on children’s beliefs to explain the attainment gap between boys and girls.  A number of small scale studies have been published which divide pupils into two broad categories according to their beliefs: (i) “incremental theorists” who believe their mathematical ability can be developed with effort, and (ii) “entity theorists” who believe that mathematical ability is fixed.  It is then argued that boys, in general, tend to be incremental theorists, while girls in general – and “bright” girls in particular – tend to be entity theorists.  Dweck’s writings leave the reader in no doubt as to which belief system is superior; incremental theorists will always have the edge on their peers who subscribe to an entity theory of ability.  When mathematics becomes challenging, girls will always lag behind boys.  However, it is revealed in what follows that large-scale public examination data can be used to stand Dweck’s thesis on its head.

The following passages are from Dweck’s Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality and development, published by Psychology Press.  These passages illustrate how she traces underachievement among “bright” girls later in their school career (when mathematics questions become really challenging) to their having developed harmful entity-focused beliefs during their grade school mathematics education (when the subject lacks real challenge).

“In our research we have found that the students with the most striking history of success are often the most, rather than the least, vulnerable.  In grade school they are far and away the highest achievers. … These bright girls may look very confident and well put together as they go about their academic work, and teachers probably do not think of them as vulnerable.  This is because these girls can easily master what is asked of them in grade school.  Yet as we will see, they are a group that does not want challenge. … And when they are presented with challenge or obstacles, they are a group that readily blames their ability and falls into a helpless pattern” (p. 53).

“We described earlier how bright girls are the highest achieving group in grade school: They earn the highest grades, they exceed bright boys in reading achievement, and they equal bright boys in math achievement.  Moreover, teachers agree that these girls are the stars.  Nevertheless, when we and others look at bright girls in our studies, we find that they are the group with the greatest vulnerability to helplessness.  They are more likely than boys to hold an entity theory of their intelligence. … Moreover, when school begins to get more challenging, as it does in junior high school, these girls traditionally have begun to fall behind their male counterparts, especially in math and science achievement … These motivational patterns, then, can help us understand why girls, who are the stars in grade school, have not traditionally been the stars in the later world of achievement” (pp. 123-124).

“[W]hen these girls hit junior high or high school, these same desires can cause problems.  The work (especially the math) suddenly gets harder, and immediate mastery is often not possible. … Quite the reverse may happen for boys”(p. 147).

Dweck cites a range of small scale studies to bolster her thesis that pupils’ beliefs can play a central role in explaining the “paradox of bright girls” (p. 123).  Alas, Dweck’s reasoning is contradicted by the public examination system in Northern Ireland.  For many years bright girls have outperformed boys at almost every level in mathematics.  The mathematics involved is highly challenging, incorporating differential and integral calculus, the solution of polynomials equations, complex variables, the application of advanced trigonometry, trajectory problems, motion with variable acceleration, and so on.  The examinations are conducted under carefully supervised conditions over a period of up to six hours.  “Examination boards” are charged with ensuring pupils and their teachers do not have sight of the examination paper prior to their entry to the examination hall.  No analysis of the grades of these thousands of pupils who takes mathematics papers supports Dweck’s reasoning.

Dweck’s explanation of the achievement gap between boys and girls in the USA, therefore, fails completely when tested on a large scale in Northern Ireland.  If this were an isolated refutation of Dweck’s worldview, one could be generous and interpret it as demonstrating that her self-theory/mindset research holds up in some cultures but not in others.  (Even this conservative reading would rule out the mindset approach as a psychological principle.)  However, the most likely explanation of the fact that the Northern Ireland data contradicts Dweck’s thinking is that her reasoning – involving “brainology” and “putting” subjects “into” one mindset or another – is plain incoherent.    For a careful analysis of the deep conceptual flaws in Dweck’s research see The flaw in Dweck & Boaler’s  Mindset research  on this blog.


Stephen Elliott