Choosing the “Learner Mindset” in Challenging Times

Efficacy.  The notion that you can do it…the belief in yourself that with practice and the appropriate supporting conditions, you can learn to do anything or to think in a new way.  You can achieve a “permanent change in thinking and behaviour” (Katz and Dack, Intentional Interruptions, 2013) – which is my favourite definition of learning.  In our educational world, we are required to model this sense of efficacy daily with our learners; in order to do so, we need to truly have a growth mindset. Growth mindset and efficacy go hand in hand…I believe that I can choose my attitude towards learning, can adopt the belief that with hard work, persistence, risk taking and feedback,  I can succeed, as I know that I can grow my brain and thus, reach higher levels of achievement.  I believe that a critical piece of this “formula” for learning is the notion that I can choose where my thoughts are taking me and thus, I need to be constantly aware of where my thoughts are taking me.  For example, when times get tough (perhaps when EQAO scores are released or the Fraser Report) does my sense of efficacy kick in?  Or do I resort to blame?

In her book, Teaching that Changes Lives: 12 Mindset Tools for Igniting the Love of Learning(2013) author Marilee Adams introduces us to the “Choice Map” that “provides a way of managing how we respond to circumstances and even our own thoughts and feelings” (pg. 25).

Capture Choice Map

In her model (above), people take one of two paths – a Learner path or a Judger path – each of which represent possible mindsets that we can adopt.  Adams (2013) posits that the Learner adopts traits such as being accepting, responsive, responsibility, and sees the limitless possibilities in a situation, whereas a Judger is reactive, knows-it-all, blames, is protective and sees only their perspective (see the chart below for more traits).  “And to tell the truth, when we’re upset or things don’t go our way, our natural reaction is to head right down the Judger path…that’s everybody’s default position” (Adams, 2013, pg. 26).


The Judger mindset is one which I argue, does not fit into our educational realm, but I think that it comes into play often due to a lack of complete understanding – we choose it as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves in an uncomfortable situation.  When we enter a learning environment, it is imperative that we model the traits of the Learner Mindset, to avoid the negative distractors that define the Judger Mindset as they don’t focus on the possibilities of the future and when acted upon, can create such a negative environment that no forward movement occurs.

So let’s take the statements that we hear often in the realm of education:

I don’t know what they are teaching those kids in elementary school, but they sure aren’t ready for high school.

How can we expect students to submit assignments on time if they were never held accountable in high school?

This “no retention” policy is the reason why so many kids aren’t ready for the next grade.

And think about what these statements actually say to us about the Learning Mindset of the educator who spoke them.  When we find ourselves frustrated and making these types of statements (many of us have heard them  from educators at the College/University level through the primary grade levels…and maybe from our own mouths) we recognize a couple of things. They are Judger mindsets; they represent the notion that learning is fixed, that the learner cannot continue to grow and change, and that we, as the teacher, cannot make a difference. Efficacy has been lost.  When we reflect on why we became teachers, this isn’t where we want to be!

Now let’s contrast this with the educator who understands and truly believes that all students can learn, given the appropriate time, support and conditions (such as our Conditions for Learning) and works to fully implement an environment that is student-centred.  This educator spends time deeply investigating research about best practices, taking risks in their classroom by trying these practices out and perhaps modifying them according to what they are discovering about the needs of their particular students, continually enhancing the practices as they seek  to truly understand and to learn these practices – which means that the practices are embedded into their way of being. They attend professional development with other educators (especially those from outside of their building – as Fullan suggests in The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, 2014), learning from and with those individuals, and approach this learning with a mindset that is focused on getting as much as possible out of that experience and from their colleagues – and they return to their classrooms to continue to practice this new learning, and to continue to explore and refine this learning.   Does this remind you of the definition of learning – a permanent change in thinking and behaviour? This is what defines us as a profession  – our own ongoing learning in response to the ever changing learner.  When we focus on this type of mindset, the many negative distractors that the Judger Mindset leads some of us to begin to disappear, and the growth that we are seeing in our learners becomes the focus – and our efficacy increases. This is why we became teachers. This defines our profession.

When I reflect on my response to challenging times, what I know is that I can choose my mindset.  I can recognize that these challenges times create a true sense of urgency in me – an urgent need to ensure that we are focused on student learning needs and that we are responding positively. Michael Fullan in The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact (2014) speaks to us about this sense of urgency and the need to ensure that it “focuses a powerful desire to win, right now; a sense of great opportunities coupled with the realization that there are hazards everywhere; and relentless, fast moving, alert activity directed toward important issues” (pg. 21), rather than “false urgency that accompanies persistent failure, including repeatedly failed solutions; anxiety, frustration, anger, and a feeling of ‘what a mess’” (pg. 21).  Challenging times have the potential to push our work forward in a positive way – they create the urgency and the platform for us to practice our Learner Mindsets.  When we put the traits of the Learner Mindset into action – thinking about the possibilities, engaging in genuine wondering about how to overcome the challenge, engaging in reflective practice, and understanding that together, we can make a difference, I believe that amazing growth can occur. When we focus on a particular area for growth and improvement, we get better at it…and thus our efficacy grows.  Let’s rise to that challenge together by continually choosing the Learning Mindset.

Until next week…your thoughts?



8 responses

  1. I like the map…but as I was reading I kept thinking how interwoven that map really is as we have to make those choices each time we look at a new situation and many times while we work through each situation…there are many chances to fall off or jump back on that learner pathway. I think the first step is that we recognize or become conscious of the fact that we are making a choice and then we have to revisit what we’re doing and thinking to make sure that it’s how we want to proceed.


  2. Thanks once again for the reminders … So often when we are frustrated we tend to forget that we have options and although taking the “learner” mindset approach may take extra time or effort the payout will be better for all in the long run. As I approach individual challenges as well as system challenges, I am grateful for relationships that have been developed with colleagues that allows me to share my curiosities (thinking) without being judged. It is through these conversations that many plans and much learning occurs.


  3. I was recently reflecting on previous work about our mindset on students who come from struggling homes etc. We truly thought that we were being responsive to our learners needs by providing warm clothing, food, or even a hug or friendly conversation. This is of course important, however, we were only responsive to their well being needs and left out the academic portion as the other piece of the puzzle. Now that we have been engaged in a mindset to balance both needs, we have seen growth and positive results. Challenging times will always occur, our mindsets and actions are what help navigate in the learning journey.


    1. I came across this ‘social experiment’ of a freezing child in a big city. I wanted to post it because it makes me proud that I come from, and work for a board where ‘small schools make a difference’. The phrase “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story” comes to mind. Although academics may be the last thing on a struggling student’s mind, school often becomes a comforting place in which a spark can ignite. 🙂


  4. George Drazenovich | Reply

    I am always amazed at how so many of the basic ideas around CBT reframing and growth mindset seem to parallel each other. Changing our thoughts towards any given setback, does impact our behaviour and our behaviour then impacts our thoughts and so on and so on. And I like how you made the issue very concrete and topical. it is precisely in challenging situations that we need to call on these strategies more and more. As colleagues we can support each other – through inviting one another to think about these challenges differently when we are having private conversations or venting about challenging situations that occur as a result of our respective roles and tasks, That to me is what a critical friend is – not someone who hops in the judging pit with you and just reinforces further frustration and/or.blame But one who can step back and invite us to think about it differently using the questions above, especially the “what assumptions am I making”? and “what are my choices”? We have to understand that the judging pit is not a good place to be and I would venture to guess most of us already know this from personal experience. When we do it in our private and public lives, it will make our work teaching, leading, etc. more authentic.Obviously, the problem is most often the object but talking about solutions creates solutions and then yes, evaluating whether that solution was the correct solution will give rise to better solutions.I had a great critical friend once who always said that the “answer” is always there and that the “correct” answer will reveal itself and when it does we will know and we will act on that. A bit zen like but true.


  5. I too like the map and see how it is a challenge to stay in the learner path. It takes work and for me that comes through reflection and being in tune with what is happening around me. I appreciate George’s sharing about a critical friend. That person helps to keep you grounded and return you to your true purpose and belief.


  6. Growth mindset is a fabulous focus for staff and for students! The more and more we look at it, the more we will grow and learn. I love listening to students who are facing challenges and listening to their outlooks. I love it when they are positive and resilient but I love it just as much when they aren’t but acknowledge their need to be! I too find myself to have a growth mindset at times, but also realize that it is situational for me. And this is something I am working on.
    I also am working on being patient with my learning. There are some things that I work on and work on and work on and still need to work on. Patience and confidence and desire are something that are tied in very closely to growth mindset, or I guess you could say they are important components of it!


  7. Thank you to everyone who posted responses this week. I have found them to be inspirational. I agree with Melissa, am very proud to work with such dedicated individuals. The video that Melissa posted on the Homeless Experiment was incredibly powerful and made me think about how important it is to create schools where students are active change agents. The belief that they can change the world is important to develop…and I know that this relates to our work around growth mindset and efficacy. We can do it!


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