Learner's Mindset Explained

What is the Learner's Mindset? Where does it come from?

While these are the two key or fundamental questions most people have about the Learner's s Mindset we will also address a few more key questions that most people often have:

  • What is its relationship with the growth mindset and the innovator’s mindset?
  • Can it be quenched and if so how do you get it back?
  • What support is there for these ideas?

Operational Definitions

Mindset – The view and/or state of being you adopt for yourself that profoundly affects the way you lead your life (Dweck, 2006).

Learner’s Mindset – a state of being where people act on their intrinsic capacity to learn and respond to their inquisitive nature that leads to viewing all interactions with the world as learning opportunities. This state enables one to interact with and influence the learning environment as a perpetual learner who has the capacity to use change and challenges as opportunities for growth.

How is this different from the Growth and Innovator’s Mindset?

Growth Mindset – Dweck (2006, 2015a, 2016b, 2016c) posits that with a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. Since these students believe they have a fixed amount of talent and intelligence they strive to look smart all the time and will even embrace ignorance to avoid looking dumb. In contrast, Dweck posits that with a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good instruction, and persistence. You learn to adopt a growth mindset by learning to listen to your fixed mindset voice that says, “I can’t” and you simply add the term “yet”.

Innovator’s Mindset – Couros’ (2015) innovator’s mindset builds on the growth mindset in that he argues that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed leading to the creation of new and better ideas. He posits that we must create a culture where teachers are reflective, observant, empathetic, problem finders, and risk-takers who embody the innovator’s mindset as they model creativity and resilience.

We suggest that the growth mindset and the innovator’s mindset are simply part of the learner’s mindset. These aforementioned mindsets provide beneficial pathways to restoring or reinvigorating aspects of the learner’s mindset that have been quenched.

The learner’s mindset also addresses some of the most significant limitations and criticism of the growth mindset. Research has shown that simply adopting a new way of thinking, belief, attitude, or mindset without addressing other factors like changing the learning environments has no impact on improving learning or achievement (Sisk., Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018). Dweck (2016b, 2016c) has also acknowledged that just espousing the growth mindset or promoting students’ potential without enabling them to realize that potential through some form of systemic change results in an empty promise or a false growth mindset. When the improvement doesn’t happen, those espousing the false growth mindset will blame that holder of the mindset. These sorts of empty promises along with just praising effort and simply promoting a positive attitude are key reasons why the growth mindset alone will not bring about improvement.

Since the innovator’s mindset is an extension or built upon the growth mindset it faces some of the same challenges due to its emphasis on a change in belief or attitude. While Couros does stress the attitude shift toward empathy, creativity, and resilience he moves beyond the growth mindset in the sense that he advocates that teachers become problem finders and risk-takers. This emphasis on action or behavior is a good start toward the change of behavior that is required to bring about effects change.

The learner’s mindset addresses the limitations of the growth mindset and innovator’s mindset by acknowledging the change in thinking about learning must be accompanied by a change in the approach to learning how to learn that is embedded in the creation of a significant learning environment in which learners are given choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities. When you factor in the need for this change in mindset, change in approach to learning, and the change in the learning environment needs to happen cumulatively and in close proximity, the learner’s mindset offers a more robust way to prepare learners for life.

The Synthesis of the Learner’s Mindset

The Learner’s Mindset is a synthesis of some of the best ideas from constructivist thought leaders like John Dewey (1916, 1938), Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966), Jean Piaget (1964), Seymour Papert (1993), David Jonassen (1994), John Carroll (1990), and many more. Back in the early 1990s, I began exploring how to walk that constructivist walk and started to research how to build the most effective constructivist learning environment. I knew how important the learning environment was but also realized that it was only one part of a bigger puzzle. In the mid-1990’s I started to explore how one’s thinking about learning and how different approaches to learning would factor into the learning environment in my doctoral research. By the time I had published my research on a web-based approach to instruction called, Inquisitivism: The HHHMMM??? What does this button do to approach web-based instruction (Harapnuik, 2004), I had confirmed that restoring the natural or intrinsic capacity we all have for learning was one more key piece to the learning puzzle.

From the early 2000s to 2014 I had worked on, or contributed to, the development of hundreds of constructivist courses and dozens of programs in a wide variety of educational settings. I had also been engaged in using technology to enhance learning and contributed to the development of many online, blended, and mobile learning initiatives at several institutions. While I believe all the work I had done in a variety of capacities at numerous organizations had been important, I knew we were not addressing the bigger picture and were missing the opportunity to maximize the learning. When I look back at these experiences, I see in some we overemphasized the platform or learning management system (LMS); in some, we focused too much on the technology or the device; in others, we focused too much on the professional development, and in others, we ignored the implicit power of the culture.

When I began co-developing the Digital Learning and Leading (DLL) Masters at Lamar University in 2014, I promised myself that this initiative was going to be different and needed to address all the key components that research revealed needed to be in a true constructivist learning environment. My co-developers and I agreed to create a significant learning environment (CSLE) in which we gave our learners choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities. While we were building the DLL program we also began to formalize the terminology of the COVA learning approach which we now refer to CSLE+COVA. We have confirmed through our research that in order for COVA to work you need all four components to function within a purposefully designed significant learning environment (Harapnuik, Thibodeaux, & Cummings, 2017; Thibodeaux, Harapnuik, & Cummings, 2017). With the CSLE+COVA approach to learning and the creation of a significant learning environment we had factored in two key pieces of the learning puzzle, but we still needed to address how to help our students change their thinking about learning. This part of the puzzle had always been there but we just didn’t see it. It wasn’t until we stepped back far enough and changed our focus like one would do with a stereographic image, that we recognized the learner’s mindset that my colleague and I lived and embraced was the missing piece our students also needed to embrace.

The notion of the learner’s mindset has always been part of my thinking about learning. Back in the 90’s when I was researching and confirming the importance of the inquisitive nature and arguing that we had to restore this natural or intrinsic capacity as a way to help adult learners overcome their fear of technology I had colloquially referred to Inquisitivism as a way of restoring the learner’s mindset. When I was exploring early childhood learning and the Project Approach as a way to help prepare my boys for life I knew I had to help them embrace a learner’s mindset so that they could turn life’s challenges into opportunities for growth and development. When my colleague and I were looking for a way to help our graduate students in the DLL program get over their fixation on grades, their difficulty in accepting constructive criticism, and their fear of failure or not knowing the right answer we looked for a way to help them restore their learner’s mindset and turned to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. By having our students explore and develop a growth mindset plan in one of their first courses we found that they became much more receptive to feedforward and started to see challenges as opportunities for growth. The growth mindset is a wonderful way to start overcoming the fixed mindset thinking that is, unfortunately, a systemic problem in our system of education. It is also a useful starting point in helping students move toward the learner’s mindset.

Learner’s mindset thinking has not only been part of my thinking about learning it is often something that my colleague and I take for granted. Her website subtitle is “Learner’s Mindset”. My website title is “It’s About the Learning”. If you are in the learner’s mindset then everything is about the learning. Being in the learner’s mindset can be likened to Csíkszentmihályi’s (1990) state of flow which is where a person is performing some activity fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. This notion of not being aware of something that is basic to everything is not a new notion according to the philosopher Alan Watts:

As the fish doesn’t know water, people are ignorant of space. Consciousness is concerned only with changing and varying details; it ignores constants-especially constant backgrounds. Thus only very exceptional people are aware of what is basic to everything (Sreechinth, 2017, p. 56).

This is why we argue that the learner’s mindset is a state of being where people act on their intrinsic capacity to learn and respond to their inquisitive nature that leads to viewing all interactions with the world as learning opportunities. When you are in the learner’s mindset you are like a fish in water. You don’t think about it because it is basic to everything that you do. Moving into or adopting this state of being requires that one change their thinking about learning, their approach to helping themselves and their learners learn how to learn, and by changing the learning environment.

Presupposition – Learner’s Mindset is Intrinsic

Before we go on to further explore the impact of the learner’s mindset and how it can be preserved or reinvigorated if it has been quenched, we need to establish the presupposition that the learner’s mindset is a natural or intrinsic capacity that we all have and that children manifest in their early years. The prolific educational researcher Jean Piaget who is one of the foremost authorities on development and learning argues that the capacity for learning is intrinsic and needs to be nurtured:

One need only watch an infant for a short period of time to know that they are curious, interested in the world around them, and eager to learn. It is quite evident, too, that these are characteristics of older children as well. If left to themselves the normal child does not remain immobile; they are eager to learn. Consequently, it is quite safe to permit the child to structure their own learning. The danger arises precisely when the schools attempt to perform the task for them. To understand this point consider the absurd situations that would result if traditional schools were entrusted with teaching the infant what they spontaneously learn during the first few years. The schools would develop organized curricula, in secondary curricular reactions; they would develop lesson plans for object permanence; they would construct audio-visual aids on causality; they would reinforce “correct” speech, and they would set “goals” for the child to reach each week. One can speculate as to the outcome of such a program for early training. What the student needs then is not formal teaching, but an opportunity to learn. They need to be given a rich environment, containing many things potentially of interest. They need a teacher who is sensitive to their needs, who can judge what materials will challenge them at a given point in time, who can help when they need help, and who has faith in their capacity to learn (Ginsburg & Opper, 1969 p. 224-225).

It is important to acknowledge that Piaget viewed his research as empirical support for Dewey’s theory of learning and also as a continuation of the research that Dewey has started decades earlier. Seymour Papert, who was a modern-day educational reformer comparable to Piaget and Dewey, also argued that the system of education squelched children’s natural ability to explore, experiment, evaluate, create, and learn. In an interview with Dan Schwartz in 1999 Papert stated:

Children, of course, come into the world as very powerful, highly competent learners, and the learning they do in the first few years of life is actually awesome. A child exploring the immediate world does that pretty thoroughly in an experiential, self-directed way. But when you see something in your immediate world that really represents something very far away — a picture of an elephant, for example — you wonder how elephants eat. You can’t answer that by direct exploration. So you have to gradually shift over from experiential learning to verbal learning — from independent learning to dependence on other people, culminating in school, where you’re totally dependent, and somebody is deciding what you learn.

So that shift is an unfortunate reflection of the technological level that society has been at up to now. And I see the major role of technology in the learning of young children as making that move less abrupt because it is a very traumatic shift. It’s not a good way of preserving the kid’s natural strengths as a learner.

Rather than reactively pursuing to restore what has been taken away, we recommend that we proactively maintain the learner’s mindset in which our children are born. We should strive to reinforce the natural passion to explore, to discover, to ask questions, and to learn which are part of the learner’s mindset. Unfortunately, as we have seen from Dweck’s (2006) research there is a tendency to quench our children’s inquisitive nature through the promotion and use of fixed mindset thinking and other systemically limiting factors. As a result, the growth and innovator’s mindsets that are a part of the learner’s mindset need to be restored or reinvigorated.


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