Meaning Guide

How to inspire learning

We were talking in the office last week about Growth Mindset – the idea popularised by Carol Dweck that attainment in classrooms is partly determined by whether pupils believe their ability is fixed or expandable.  If you’ve been in a school recently, the chances are you’ll have seen posters like these around the building:

I haven’t seen this applied in business yet, but surely it’s only a matter of time.  On one hand it seems like common sense – why bother trying to do difficult things if you don’t think they’re possible for you?  On the other hand, handing over classroom time to “growth mindset classes” is questionable, as the results from follow-up studies to Dweck’s original research are at best ambiguous.

I don’t think this should be surprising, as there are good cybernetic grounds to argue that experience of learning is more likely to instill a growth mindset than instilling a growth mindset is likely to instill an experience of learning.  In other words, the feeling of “Wow I never knew I could do that – what else could I try?” is more motivating than “I haven’t tried to do anything yet, but I will be able to if I find the right strategy”.  None of this is to question whether or not having a growth mindset is a good idea.  What it is to question though, is how one acquires it.  Why do some people seem to love learning, growing and challenging themselves, while others are happy with the status quo?  Is it down to the quality of their growth mindset training?  Is it just personality?  Or is it something else?

I can speak from some experience about this, because in my lifetime I have been both of these people.  As a student at school and university I did the bare minimum to get by, spending my spare time socialising, messing around and playing video games.  As an adult on the other hand, I read voraciously, embrace new opportunities and love learning new skills.  How did that happen?  For me the drivers have always seemed to be much less to do with my beliefs and much more to do with my experience.  For example, one of the things that I counted as “messing around” as a teenager was teaching myself to play the piano.  I heard my mum playing a simple tune one day from some music and asked her to show me how it worked.  She showed me where middle C was on the piano and where it was on the music, and I started counting up and down to find the other notes.  The motivation was nothing to do with self-reflection, I just liked the tune and decided I wanted to play it.  After a few weeks of trying I could play the right hand by ear, and after a few weeks more I could play the left hand as well.  That was the start of a lifelong journey into music that had nothing to do with growth strategies or any sort of intrinsic motivation.  It was more like someone had pulled the wizard of Oz’s curtain aside, and I could see that even impossible-sounding piano music was all written to fit the shape of two hands, even if they were moving quickly.  With enough practice you could play anything you wanted.

Learning as a cybernetic loop

In other words, learning is a cycle in which your knowledge and expertise grow iteratively.  The best way to develop a growth mindset is to get on that cycle, because it’s intrinsically rewarding.  The question, is how do you do that?  How do you get the cycle started?

For many people in the business world, mention a learning cycle and they immediately think of David Kolb’s, a favourite model of trainers and coaches the world over.  The terminology of the model is really abstract, but the stages around the perimeter are easy to follow:  Things happen to us (“concrete experience”), which we then mentally review (“reflective observation”), giving rise to new ideas (“abstract conceptualisation”), which change the way we then interact with the world (“active experimentation”).

The same model can be superimposed on the cybernetic cycle of meaning I’ve described in other posts by rotating it 45°.

What I read from this is that learning isn’t just something we choose to do when we go to school or read a book.  It’s rather a fundamental survival mechanism.  Our ability to exist and function in the world is dependent on how good our models of it are, so just as there are reward circuits in our brain for eating, exercising, reproducing and so on, there are reward circuits for making meaning.  If our models are wrong then we can get eaten, or eat something bad for us, or upset someone with power over us.  Even though we no longer have the same levels of imminent threat in the modern world as in more primitive times, the instinct to make meaning remains, driving our insatiable desire to understand.

Cranking up the curiosity

So the key to great learning is not being told how great it would be to learn, it’s to notice how great it is to learn.  Which makes it sound easy, but as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to teach or train anything, the difficult part is getting started!  Once the cycle gets going it can be very difficult to slow down, but how do you rev it up?  Most of us are happy to stick with our existing models of the world and ignore anything from outside that doesn’t fit.  How do you instill curiosity?  How do you mobilise minds?

Once again, I think the cybernetic approach points to the answers.  Here are four suggestions for spinning the cycle up, inspired by the four “entry points” labelled (a) to (d) on the diagram above:

  • (a) Connect with your audience’s model of the world, not yours If you want to inspire someone to learn a skill or engage with a new body of knowledge, you have to start with their mental model, i.e. what they understand and care about, not what you care about.  It’s not rocket science, but telling me something I didn’t know about something I care about is going to get me interested in a way that just directing random information at me is not
  • (b) Get me doing something I didn’t realise I could do:  This is what my mum did when I first learned the piano.  I had a mental model that pianism was an impossible magical superpower that only superhuman people possessed.  Showing me in half an hour that I could do something simple started the cycle going and soon I was yearning for more.
  • (c) Start with a shared experience Understanding your audience’s mental model is hard because you can only interpret it through your own.  It’s easier to directly create an experience in front of everyone (using props, roleplays, experiments etc.) that sparks curiosity and gets people talking.
  • (d) Emphasise the difference between my model of the world and my experience of the world:  Start your talk / book / blogpost / article / lesson / class with a completely counter-intuitive fact or claim that people will find difficult to believe.  In so doing you open up a gap between your audience’s mental model of the world and the claim you are making about the world, a gap that they will immediately want to close.  In so doing you kick-start the cycle.  This is why mystery novels are so addictive – the brain doesn’t like unsolved mysteries the same way it doesn’t like unfinished jigsaw puzzles.

I don’t have space here, but it would be interesting to reverse this exercise and look at ways of “stopping” the cycle.  What are the equivalent means of closing off learning and encouraging people to retreat into their existing mental models?  I suspect rather too many of them would exemplify some of the school classes we sat through as kids.

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