The racket was alarming—a crash, followed by my mother’s footsteps rushing down the cellar steps as she hollered my father’s name.
In a rare driving mishap, my dad knocked down one of our home’s main support posts while backing into the garage. Once she established that Dad was unharmed, Mom marveled that the house was still standing. Apparently the house Dad built was more robust than his one-time vehicular blunder.
Support posts, or pillars, keep more than houses in a sound state.
Healthy minds (whether they be our own or the collective minds of our classrooms and schools, our businesses, or our goal-focused groups) cultivate a learning mindset—a mindset supported by seven pillars: attitude, curiosity, gratitude, passion, creativity, growth, and future-mindedness.
Mid-1980’s, boom boxes blared vocal powerhouse Patti LaBelle, singing, “I’ve tidied up my point of view; I’ve got a new attitude!” We all need occasional attitude adjustments; without them, we shackle ourselves with self-defeating perspectives. And since groups and organizations are made up of individuals, a widely shared attitude informs (and possibly imprisons) the collective viewpoint.
Like LaBelle, tidying up our own points of view can foster a new attitude, one with three healthy characteristics: humility; acceptance of, but not contentment with, failure; and a commitment to understanding before evaluating.
A proud spirit resists learning; humility is one of growth’s prerequisites.
An influential college professor from my undergrad days stressed that the moment we educators-in-training considered ourselves experts, we would cease to be professionals. To her, a professional was someone who never stops growing, who never stops exploring and pursuing better ways to work his craft, and who perpetually wants to know better. When we complained that, from our point of view, she was suggesting we stay in graduate school forever and that as poor teachers we couldn’t afford endless enrollment, she retorted, “Can you read?” To her, it was each individual’s responsibility to remain a learner, to remain humble enough to never say, “I already know all there is know about that.” To her, hardened clay was on its way to becoming a cracked pot.
In the athletic realm, coaches extol the virtues of the “coachable” player. When asked what characterizes such an athlete, coach and sportswriter Jonathan Washburn responds, “A coachable player is first and foremost humble.”1 Washburn explains that humility enables a player to listen and accept input from a coach who knows more and has the player’s and team’s best interests in mind.
Growth on the court, the field, and the course begins with humility. Growth in our personal, professional, and organizational lives has the same starting point.
Acceptance of, but not contentment with, failure
Failure is part of learning, and never failing indicates a lack of challenge, a lack that hinders growth.
In fact, failure is one of the most powerful avenues to learning. Research suggests that when we become aware of failure, when outcomes do not match expectations, our brains are in optimal states for learning but only if we, individually or organizationally, are willing to examine the failure. (Which brings us back to humility.) The learning mindset approaches failure this way: Hmm, this didn’t work; let’s figure out why and how we can change our approach to achieve success.
Notice that blame, self- (or organizational-) loathing, and surrender are not part of the response. Instead, failure prompts the learning mindset to re-examine, adjust, and continue pursuing positive results.
Dr. Robert Brooks recommends the following teacher response to student error: “This strategy you’re using doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.”2 Such a response directs attention to the strategy being the problem (not the student), brings teamwork into the process (“Let’s…”), and communicates that success is possible. Failure is accepted but not an acceptable end.
Likewise, we learn, in part, by attending to our failures and then moving forward, by accepting failure but identifying its source and adjusting accordingly to achieve success.
Commitment to understanding before evaluating
Want to feel tough? Cross your arms in front of your chest. Although this posture is popular among attorneys seeking attention via highway billboards, it is a defensive, not inviting, stance.
Unfortunately, it is a posture we assume, at least mentally, when we think we know better even before we understand what another is offering.
Recently, I’ve been asked to lead professional development sessions on technology as a learning tool. I’d characterize the sessions as introductory; my goal is to help teachers relax and consider how technology may be used to deepen student learning. The day is designed to be as reassuring as possible. However, within the first hour, arms start being crossed, both physically and mentally. A few participants think they know better before I’ve suggested a single implementation idea. I strive to put them at ease, knowing their potential growth can be snuffed out before a spark is ignited. Before they understand what is being offered, their assumptions trap them behind crossed arms of I-know-better.
I’ve seen the same stifling stature taken by organizations when leadership assumes an all-knowing stance or, alternatively but just as damaging, assumes that its job is to prevent the organization and its members from tackling challenges. (Challenge can make people temporarily unhappy, an emotional state some leaders fear.)
Evaluation is essential, but it must follow understanding to be valid and to avoid rash rejection of potentially profitable ideas. How much do we lose by rushing to judgment?
The learning mindset begins with the beliefs that more can be known, that failure is part of the process, and that understanding before evaluation allows knowledge nuggets to be uncovered.
Let’s “tidy up” our points of view and GROW!
Washburn, J. Facebook chat (September, 2013).
Brooks, R., “Mindsets for School Success: Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners.” (presentation at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement, November 2007).