The classroom environment is familiar to most everyone, although the types of classrooms you’ve experienced may differ. Whether participating online or in person, whether teaching or receiving instruction, you’ve had to decide how to approach learning. Are new things exciting challenges to master or scary obstacles to overcome?
How you answer that question is partly an innate response due to your personality, but much of it also depends on conditioning and past experiences. And your answer reveals whether you have what American psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are set and unchangeable, while people with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can expand and improve. It’s not hard to imagine which mindset is more beneficial to learners, whether they’re in grade-school math class or well into their careers taking a professional development course.
At Extension Engine, we’re aware of how mindset can affect both learners and learning experience designs. That’s why Senior Learning Experience Designer Katie Novick Nolan and Learning Experience Designer Mac Crawford have pondered this topic a lot. “I think of it as being really closely related to strength-based practice,” Katie says. “If I try to do a math problem and I go, ‘I don’t know how to do this, but if I really dig into this, I’m going to know something new at the end,’ or ‘I’m going to build some new neural connections and get smarter,’ [that’s different than] ‘I don’t know how to do this math problem, I must not be good at math, I will never be able to do this, I wish I didn’t have to do this.’ To paraphrase Carol Dweck, it’s not that I can’t do it, it’s that I can’t do it yet.” Mac agrees. “Mindset is really the silent killer when it comes to education,” she says. “It undermines everything that you can do, if you don’t believe you can do it. We can create this great learning experience, and if the person who’s receiving it doesn’t believe in their capacity to learn from it, it’s not going to do any good.”
Luckily, a learner’s mindset isn’t a set state. It can change, and learning experience designers can incorporate strategies to encourage and support that change.
Growth Mindset as It Relates to Learning Experience Design
With a background in social work and a commitment to critical consciousness, Katie sees the mind’s flexibility as a key component of design, along with empathy for and understanding of the learner. “We can never fully understand someone’s experience [going into a learning experience], but we can try our best, and we can do that through asking really good questions,” she says. “When you think about tone [when designing], what we’re getting at is even that sort of language that’s the difference between writing, ‘You will be given this assignment,’ and ‘We’re going to give you an assignment that’s going to help you practice thing X so that you can strengthen it and apply it to thing Y.’ When you explain purpose and you use language that makes it feel like we’re in this together, that sets that growth mindset.”
Mac’s knowledge of competency-based learning has informed her perspective that transparency is also one of the most important elements in creating a learning experience platform that fosters a growth mindset. “Education in general, and training as well, can look like a black box where we’re taught that you go into a classroom and the teacher does the magic teacher stuff, and then you come out and basically whatever you come out as is your capacity,” she says. “What we can do as learning experience designers is try to help people learn more about how they’re learning. Rather than saying, ‘You’re going to come in this workshop, and then two hours later you’re going to walk out, and this is what you should be able to do,’ we can break it down and say, ‘We’re going to talk about the foundations of this concept, then we’re going to do this practice,’ [and so on] to talk about the actual steps that you’re going to go through to acquire a skill.”
It may seem like quite a challenge to build transparency into a learning experience platform, but it’s not impossible. It’s all about structure. “That’s one of the main ways I look at design,” Mac explains. When creating a learning experience, learning experience designers must decide where and how to place content, in terms of both the optimal order for learning and how much information to give when. In other words, they’re thinking through structural issues all the time anyway. Why not be open about it? “If you say to people, ‘This is how you learn, and these are the chunks of that experience, and we’re going to walk you through these chunks,’ then that gives them confidence in their own ability and an understanding of, for example, how the car works — not just driving it, but how it actually works,” Mac says. Katie also makes the point that this is a necessary skill to be able to replicate in other areas of life and can help learners in general in their approach to new learning situations.
Unfortunately, for many of us this sort of approach is in opposition to the traditional way we learned, in classrooms that were heavily grade focused. “There’s this inherent tension between grades and a growth mindset,” Katie says, “because grades are about the final product, and it’s hard to be as creative or take risks or be willing to fail if you’re part of a system that has this high value placed on what grade you get.” It’s not that grades are bad, but receiving a low grade in a subject you’re struggling with can feel very final. Mac cites a client she’s worked with on a test-prep learning experience platform as one who does it right. “One of the things that they’ve done is they’ve broken their entire curriculum up by competency. So it’s saying [to learners] ‘There’s this big test at some point, and you need to know everything you need to know to get this certification,’ but they literally break it down into smaller and smaller pieces until you can see how the acquisition of each piece brings you a little closer to achieving that larger goal. That competency-based approach is a way in which we can talk about educating without pushing our learners implicitly toward that fixed mindset, because it lends itself more toward a ‘not-yet’ approach with grading.”
Such an approach is more likely to work for a larger number of learners, because the work of changing mindset isn’t all on one side, either at the personal or the institutional level. “You want to design for progress, but we’re all caught up in the world we grew up in,” Mac says. “It can be a struggle to transcend our backgrounds and overcome the very fixed-mindset academic environments many of us experienced throughout our lives.” Katie notes that it goes back to critical consciousness, saying that in design we need to consider previous learning experiences people have had as well as messages they may have received about themselves as learners, and consider how that might shape their expectations for this experience.
The Challenges of Using a Growth Mindset in Learning Experience Platforms
Certain specific issues often arise when creating an online learning experience that fosters a growth mindset. For Katie, empathy for the learner can go a long way toward avoiding problematic structures and language within a platform. “[We need to take] some ownership over the fact that if we’re creating the learning experience, we’re now becoming part of the learner’s narrative, and how they interact with our learning experience will contribute to that in good or bad ways in terms of how they think of themselves as a learner.” Listening to feedback from learners in order to build an experience that will help them and encourage them, even if they have a difficult time with some of the material, is a key step in the success of your learning experience.
Also, remember that the idea of a growth mindset can be taken to an extreme. Because it focuses on individuals’ thoughts, it can be applied in such a way that it takes all accountability off of inequitable systems. Mac says, “I’ve seen examples of this applied to school districts that don’t have [the] budget, don’t have resources, and then [they] blame the kids for not having the right mindset to succeed. In trying to make a single panacea to fix all education’s problems, you essentially break it in the opposite direction, you undermine what it was trying to do in the first place. [You have to be] honest about the fact that sometimes not getting the outcomes you want has to do with not incorporating enough practice, enough scaffolding, or enough feedback.”
Katie offers this analogy as a helpful frame: “I think of growth mindset as all these little pebbles. They add up, but they can go in one bucket or the other, and each little pebble is a life experience or a moment that you’ve had with someone, how something’s been explained to you, or how you were set up for success or not. That’s what leads to a growth mindset. It’s not just somebody’s will.” This is why positive experiences when learning something are so important in sustaining a growth mindset. “Every time you can be successful at something you didn’t think you’d be successful at, [it helps],” Mac says. “That’s the goal of a lot of what we design: to build it in such a way that even people who maybe go into it without the highest hopes can have more confidence in themselves through the process and can see how they learn. The more self-knowledge that you build during those learning experiences, the more successful you’re going to be reflecting on your own mindset and noticing the boundaries and barriers you put in your own way. You can’t do anything about external barriers a lot of the time, at least not without a lot of other people and time and money and laws and stuff like that. But the things that you can act on immediately are the barriers that you put up for yourself.”
The ultimate goal, for Katie, Mac, and all of us at Extension Engine, is to create learning experiences that work along with the learner rather than in opposition to them. “In our ideal world, the teacher or the educational experience is always the coach, the one who’s giving you advice, getting you where you need to go,” says Mac. Katie adds, “It’s just setting the mindset of, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t already know this. Let’s figure it out! Let’s make some mistakes, let’s dig in.’ [It’s providing] opportunities to share power for learners to feel like they’re contributing as well.”