Mindset for Learning Transfer

There are many factors that affect learning transfer and one that is often overlooked is mindset as described by Carol Dweck. She introduced the theory of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, and how this simple distinction has a profound impact on people’s lives.

Whether you’re in learning and development or just looking for a way to improve yourself, understanding these mindsets can provide a powerful tool for growth.

In this article, we will explore the implications of these mindsets on learning and development, and how they can be used as a lens to look at both learning in general and learning transfer in particular.

 “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
Abraham Maslow

Growth mindset v fixed mindset

Carol S. Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the USA. She has been researching the field of achievement and success for decades, and has created a new psychology of success, based on mindset. Dweck’s book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential (2006) is, in my opinion, a must-read for anybody in learning or education.

The first three chapters give you a good grounding of her model without the jargon so often found in academic writing. The following chapters are rich with stories on how her mindset model plays out in the arenas of sport, education, work, and relationships. It explains the significant role mindset played in the collapse of Enron under Jeffrey Skilling and the success of General Electric under Jack Welch. For a shortcut to understand Dweck’s approach, watch the TEDx video on YouTube by Eduardo Briceno, The Power of belief — mindset and success (Nov, 2012).

In the introduction, Dweck describes her book thus: “In this book, you’ll learn how a simple belief about yourself – a belief we discovered in our research – guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part of your life. Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of this ‘mindset’. Much of what may be preventing you from fulfilling your potential grows out of it.”

I think the book does even more than she claims it does – especially for those of us in L&D who can use her model as a lens to look at both learning in general and learning transfer in particular.

A growth mindset example

Quite by chance I watched a short video on the BBC website about the first woman to become a minibus driver in Cairo. She began driving to make a living after her husband died. She told the interviewer (while driving, of course), “I wanted a way to support myself, and to be able to raise my children. I decided on driving. Driving is a good job, and I love it.” She had never driven a minibus before this. “I told them I would learn. Nothing is too hard to do.”

What an amazing attitude towards learning, and what a shame not all of us have it. In Dweck’s model, this is termed a ‘growth mindset’, one that takes the view that your capacities, your abilities, your talents are malleable and that they can be improved through directed, focused and attentive practice. By contrast, at the other end of the continuum, a ‘fixed mindset’ suggests that your talents, your abilities and your capacities are fixed. In other words, they are immutable and do not change.

A fixed mindset example

By contrast, at the other end of the continuum, a ‘fixed mindset’ suggests that your talents, your abilities, and your capacities are fixed. In other words, they are immutable and do not change.

Those of us with a fixed mindset tend to work on the basis that we were dealt a hand of cards by the universe when we were born in terms of our ability and talents. We get to play those cards as best we can, and if we were lucky, we got some good cards. We see our abilities and talents as relatively fixed, and although we believe we can learn things, we ‘know’ that there are limits to how good we could ever become.

Have you ever heard someone say, ‘I’m rubbish at singing! Even if you gave me lessons, I could never be a singer. It’s just not in me.’ Those of us with a growth mindset, in contrast, tend to work on the basis that we can get better at anything, and we can improve our ability and talents if we choose to do so. It just takes some effort.

What is your mindset?

As you read about those two mindsets, how did you react? Did one leave you a bit puzzled, as though it didn’t make sense? Did the other seem such an obvious statement that you are wondering why I am even writing about it? People with each mindset find it virtually impossible to understand the world view of the opposite mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset will automatically seek to avoid failure, or more specifically, being seen to fail. For someone with a fixed mindset, failure is like a permanent condition. It is like a tattoo on their forehead that says ‘FAILURE’. A fixed mindset person regards failure as a measure of the boundaries of their abilities. Failure tells them they have overextended beyond their ability, and since their mindset suggests that ability is fixed, they can never succeed beyond those boundaries. Fixed mindset people seek to stay within their perception of their ability boundaries, so they can avoid failure and maintain a sense of being smart and skilled. They would prefer not to try, rather than try and fail. They therefore deliberately underestimate their abilities to ensure they stay within their comfort zone, where they know they can succeed. They want certainty of success before proceeding.

A corollary to this is that they have a small stretch zone. If you push them slightly outside their comfort zone, to the point where failure becomes a possibility, the potential for ‘loss’ pushes them rapidly onwards into their panic zone. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset will usually relish a new challenge if it is in an area where they wish to improve.

They don’t mind failure because they see it as the gateway to improvement and a springboard for growth. For them, failure is a temporary condition, a puzzle to be solved, and nothing to be ashamed of. Failure to them just means they need to practice more and put in more effort so they can improve and ultimately succeed in doing what needs to be done. Short-term failure is acceptable, and even desirable as a learning experience; long-term failure isn’t really considered because they know that with some more work they will reach success.

Mindset is context dependent

Note that people can have different mindsets towards different aspects of their lives; for example, they may have a fixed mindset concerning their ability to sing, but a growth mindset concerning their ability to do maths. Despite this, according to Dweck, most of us tend to be evenly split as either one or the other across most contexts in our lives, though there is a group of about 20% of us who are a mix of the two.

The consequences of living with either of these mindsets are profound. Out of these two mindsets springs a great deal of our behaviour, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

I find it interesting that people tend to think that they have more of a growth mindset than they display in their actual thinking and behaviour. As an example, I have heard people talk about their growth mindset, yet they become defensive when receiving feedback, or they feel threatened or intimidated by others’ success.

It is easier to say that we believe in the ability to learn and grow than it is to consistently display the thinking and behaviour that truly reflect that belief. I suggest you read Dweck’s book for the bigger picture: whether it is nature or nurture and how to change your own mindset.

How does mindset impact learning transfer

For now, let’s focus on how the two mindsets play out within the context of learning transfer. We have already established that implementing new learning in the workflow, and thereby accomplishing learning transfer, will require people to start behaving differently. These new behaviours need to be prompted by a call to action, and it is the reaction to that prompt in terms of an assessment of personal ability and current motivation that will govern whether the behaviour will happen or not.

> See the blog on Triggers to learn about the ‘call to action’ response.

The key word here is ‘personal’, because each person will be assessing both their motivation and their ability through the lens of their own mindset. Trainees with a fixed mindset, and therefore a strong performance orientation, seek to achieve better scores. They are anxious about their ability to achieve better scores and therefore avoid engagement in situations in which they may fail. They want to be perceived as capable and thus may learn less during training.

In contrast, trainees with a strong learning orientation seek to acquire new skills and master any novel situation. Individuals with a learning mindset exert more effort in learning, engage in more adaptive and flexible thinking strategies, stay on task after receiving feedback, and demonstrate stronger learning outcomes.

How mindset theory can influence training design

There is also some evidence that an individual’s mindset determines the way they will respond to different types of training. Those with a stronger learning mindset may demonstrate poorer performance during training, as they are more prone to take risks and learn from their mistakes. However, they outperform others on retention and transfer tasks because they learn trained principles at a deeper level.

In addition, trainees with a stronger learning/growth mindset tend to learn best from training that allows them more control over the way they explore and organise training material. For instance, they respond positively to difficult goals and opportunities to self-regulate during training.

By contrast, trainees with a fixed mindset may respond negatively to these same training features. Such individuals seem to learn best in a highly structured environment, in which they complete successively more difficult tasks. Clearly, when trying something new, those with a fixed mindset require a lot more support, along with reassurance that not getting things quite right when they are practising is okay and to be expected. You can even suggest that you are bringing out a nascent skill as opposed to asking them to learn something totally new, which would scare them. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, may need some careful managing if the consequences of failure while they are practising are significant to the business, as they may have a cavalier attitude towards risk.

How people interpret challenges, setbacks and criticism is their choice. They can interpret them with a fixed mindset as signs that their inherent talents or abilities are lacking, or they can interpret them with a growth mindset as signs that they need to ramp up their strategies and effort, stretch themselves, and expand their abilities.

How mindset theory can influence feedback

Dweck did some fascinating experiments on the way that linguistic queues within feedback given by teachers to students affected the way the students behaved following the feedback. A paper published in 2007 by Dweck, Blackwell and colleagues described an experiment in which teachers praised a particular trait with a comment such as, ‘That’s a really good score; you must be smart at this’, or praised the effort made to achieve the result with a comment such as, ‘That’s a really good score; you must have tried really hard’, or used neutral praise such as, ‘That’s a really good score’.

Over time the students who were allocated to the effort group showed an enhancement in performance in comparison to both the control group and the trait praise group. The difference suggests that students can learn that with focus on the right things and a determined effort they can indeed improve. This has implications as to how a manager should ideally give feedback to the trainee practising new behaviours. They should focus not on praising some underlying unobservable trait that is responsible for their job performance, but instead focus on the specific behaviours and effort that led to a successful outcome. This requires quite a shift in the way many managers think about how feedback should be provided.

When Homer Simpson spoke to his children, Lisa and Bart, about a scheme of theirs that did not work, he said ‘You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try!’ Of course, you would never say something like that, but it is a wonderful example of a pure fixed mindset response to failure.

Coaching learners for growth mindset

Mindset also has implications on how the trainee might be coached on their self-talk about their abilities as they practice new skills. If they catch themselves denigrating their abilities with their inner dialogue after making a mistake, they should be encouraged to turn that around, so their self-talk is focused on acting differently and putting in the effort needed to overcome the difficulty.

The key to success in learning transfer is triggering new behaviours, and clearly mindset has a big part to play on whether the trigger is successful or not and how trainees react to the results and feedback they get from their efforts.

Mindset and learning workflows

In summary, Carol Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset has significant implications for learning and development. Understanding these mindsets can provide a lens to look at both learning in general, and learning workflows that result in successful learning transfer.

When designing a learning workflow, we need to consider the fact that learners may have either a fixed or growth mindset. For instance, learners with a fixed mindset may need more encouragement and support to step outside their comfort zone and try new things.

When designing the components of a learning workflow, think about how you can influence trainee mindset with activities that, for example, encourage learners to embrace challenges, persist through setbacks, and seek out feedback. We can also provide opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning, set new goals, and track their progress over time.

More on Learning Workflows in my Learning Workflow Design Guide