Why the World Bank Supports Developing a Growth Mindset in Schools

Charles Towers-Clark
5 min readMar 7, 2023
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

After hundreds of years of industrial schooling and work practices, the idea that success at work is derived from more than just technical skills is gaining traction. However, it has taken 100 years to get there. A study by Harvard University and others in 1918 concluded that 85% of job success comes from soft and people skills and only 15% from technical (or hard) skills, and this is something we are still debating in 2023.

Despite purporting to prepare young people for the world of work, however, schools still do not have specific classes in soft skills (my preferred term is ‘human skills’, to differentiate from those skills that are, or will be, better mastered by artificial intelligence). Likewise, at work, a 2011 report by the Association for Talent Development showed that only 27% of funds for workplace training in the US were spent on human skills. Even if 50% of workplace training budgets are spent on human skills today, there is still not enough emphasis on human skills in the workplace to overcome the lack of training in schools.

In this context, and following on from last month’s article on whether growth mindsets can be nurtured, it is therefore heartening to read work undertaken by the World Bank to teach growth mindsets at school and initiative at work. Recognition of the importance of growth mindsets and their relevance today, is key to changing attitudes towards the need for human skills — originally identified 100 years ago.

Growth vs fixed mindsets in schools

A quick recap on growth vs fixed mindsets. People who believe that intelligence is malleable have a growth mindset, compared to those who think that intelligence is fixed. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to succeed over the longer term due to their willingness to explore new learnings and view challenge or failure as an opportunity for growth. Comparatively, those with a fixed mindset are less likely to be looking for situations in which they are likely to be challenged or likely to fail.

Various projects to promote growth mindsets, particularly among poor students are, or have been, carried out by the World Bank. The Bank works with governments and others to diagnose, design and evaluate behaviorally informed interventions to support poverty and inequality reduction. For example, with the Peruvian Ministry of Education, the Bank wanted to explore whether a growth mindset had a positive effect on exam results. In a controlled study, ‘¡Expande tu Mente!’, they designed and provided materials for tutors to teach a 90 minute session across 400 schools in Peru (with another 400 schools acting as a control group). The impact of these sessions were measured after two and 14 months.

10% improvement with a growth mindset

At a minimal cost of $0.20 per pupil, the results were impressive. Even 14 months after the intervention, mathematics, reading comprehension, history, economics and geography results were about 10% higher than the control group. However, the improvements were not universal. The schools being studied were split between regional and metropolitan locations — and the improvements were only seen in the regional locations.

A similar anomaly was found on the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia in a study of 160,000 students in year 9 (last year of secondary school). Through the use of comic books and classroom sessions (at a cost of $0.25 per student) to teach a growth mindset, on the island of Sumatra where academic results are historically lower compared to Java, end of year results improved by 3% — 6% in different subjects. The effect was lower in Java, which is more than twice as populous and much more metropolitan compared to Sumatra.

A similar study to test the teaching of a growth mindset (albeit with different content that was centred around videos) in South Africa led to an 11% improvement in the exams after the intervention, and, even more impressively, a 17% gain in a subsequent exam. Interestingly, the growth mindset training had an effect on high school pupils, but not primary age pupils.

Overcoming adversity

Whilst these growth mindset trainings should be replicated (and at a minimal cost per student, the education ministries intend to expand training to all schools in their regions), it is interesting that the researchers in both the Peruvian and South African studies identified that students who are suffering some sort of adversity benefit most from growth mindset training. Teaching a growth mindset then may disproportionately benefit those that have traditionally been left behind by school systems, and have a negative view of their ability in education. If this is the case, then our children and the future workforce could be dramatically altered for the better by promoting a growth mindset in areas that will benefit the most.

As explained by Luis-Felipe Lopez-Calva, Global Director for Poverty and Equity at the World Bank “Socio-emotional skills help people achieve better outcomes in school and the workplace, enhancing their contribution to economic growth, and ultimately help lift people out of poverty and improve equity.”

A low cost and high-impact solution for schools

As quoted in the World Bank report, providing growth mindset training is “a low-cost, high-impact intervention, it not only promises sustainable and impactful results at the school level, but has potential implications for when students enter the labor market.”

The World Bank has many critics, but large scale studies in developing countries such as those carried out by the World Bank provide the proof that schooling systems can change for the better. These studies show that whilst there is no one size fits all solution, there is no question that for the right children, directly teaching children to have a growth mindset can be transformational. A lesson that politicians in developed countries could do well to learn as well.

In next month’s article I will be talking to Dr Samantha De Martino, an economist with the Mind, Behaviour and Development Unit in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice of the World Bank, about growth mindsets, confidence and initiative at work.



Charles Towers-Clark

Becoming an expert on initiative and proactiveness in organisations. Author of "The W.E.I.R.D. CEO", Forbes contributor, ex-Chairman of Pod Group.