Posted by: Matthew Molinari | January 31, 2011

Should You Rethink How You View Learning? (Blog #2)

The effect of how you view the learning process, some would argue, is actually as important as how you go about learning. For years, I thought that smart people had it easy because they were genetically programmed better for learning and retaining that knowledge. Now, I am actually starting to see that for all their advantages, “smart” people seem to have quite a few disadvantages as well.

Carol Dweck, in her article “Can Personality Be Changed?”, argues that there a two ways people view learning – as either mailable or fixed. In other words, do you know what you are good at and expect that is all you can ever be good at or do you feel as though you could learn anything if you were given the opportunity?

In thinking about Dweck’s argument, I was reminded about the article I discussed last week from Argyris. It seems that “smart” people are really painted into a corner. These type of people are unable to cope with failure so they only pursue things that they are good at to ensure success. Unfortunately, this prevents people with a fixed view from actually learning anything new, or even addressing short comings in things they are good at, which in turns sets them up for future failure because they are limited in their areas of knowledge.

What I thought was really interesting was that you can influence how a group learns by altering how they view the task at hand. Dweck discussed a case where a group of minority students were shown, contrary to their beliefs, that struggling in college was something ALL first year students experienced rather than just minority students.

The process is more about teaching people to expect to succeed so that when they face adversity, they don’t immediately give up. If you believe you are going to fail from the beginning then, at the first sign of tough times, you are going to pack it in. However, if you think (and expect) you can succeed, then when you are challenged you will look for possible solutions and, even if you come up short, you come away with two lessons.

First, on the way to failing you probably learned something valuable. If a genuine effort is put in it would be pretty hard to learn absolutely nothing. Second, you’ll start to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world (which Argyris would argue is pretty important).

I thought Bob Sutton’s response to Dweyer’s article showed an interesting connection between the idea of fixed learning and how it can affect Managers. How a Manager interacts with their employees really relates back to how they themselves view learning. If the Manager tends to view learning as fixed, they will relate to the employees in that way. Showing an employee that management views everyone as unchangeable creates an atmosphere where people are afraid to fail. If you make one mistake in this type of environment, the feeling is that since the employee must not understand how to perform the task now they will never be able to in the future.

If employee X makes a mistake counting inventory in May does that mean that after a month or two of teaching they can’t do a great job on the August inventory? I guess your answer to that depends on how you view learning.

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