Mindset, emotion, & learning

There are at least three distinct ways of thinking about mindset. All are bound up with emotion, and each has its own implications for learning and development.

Even the most cursory exploration of the mindset literature quickly reveals that mindset is not a single, unified construct. In this article, I lay out three common ways of thinking about “mindset,” and explore their implications for learning and development.

Mindset & emotion

As recent research on the connectome demonstrates, knowledge, skills, reasoning, and emotion are not independent of one another. In healthy brains, the parts of the brain that support these functions are connected in complex ways. Most of the time, this interconnectedness is beneficial. For example, we’re more likely to remember or be motivated to act on information that is connected to emotion. But sometimes this interconnectedness gets in our way, as when an attitude has been reinforced by emotion in a non-adaptive way.

Mindset as a state of mind

States of mind (cognitive states, attitudes, beliefs, and biases), develop through repeated encounters with the physical or social environment. Encounters between mental states and the environment often evoke emotions, and when the same emotions are repeatedly associated with a particular mental state, that state becomes cathected with those emotions. For instance, a student who is repeatedly punished for getting wrong answers is likely to associate not understanding with shame or fear.

Mindset as a way of understanding something specific

Although the way we understand a specific idea or issue is likely to be cathected to some extent, ways of understanding tend to be more malleable than states of mind. This is because the brain is designed to learn—to take in and integrate new knowledge and experience into existing mental networks, and this inevitably results in altered understandings. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that cathected mental states can get in the way of learning by stalling the process before it begins. Consider, once again, the state of not understanding. When it is cathected with shame, individuals may not be able to acknowledge gaps in their knowledge. If this is the case, they may be unable to open the door to learning opportunities designed to foster new understandings.

  • The way of understanding you are attempting to foster is simplistic relative to a learners’ current way of understanding. (Their way of understanding is too advanced for your program.)
  • The way of understanding you are attempting to foster is maladaptive for the learners’ context. (You’re teaching transparency to leaders who will be viewed as weak if they so much as admit a single mistake.)
  • People learn at different rates—for genetic and contextual reasons.

Mindset as a general way of understanding

Research on the connectome shows that the parts of our brain that process information and emotion are interconnected, so it should be no surprise that even global reorganizations of the way we understand are impacted by cathexis. But here, as in the case of mindset as a way of understanding something specific, the greatest impacts of cathexis—positive or negative—are likely to relate to mental states rather than ways of thinking or understanding.

Summing up

When I set out to write this article, I’d been thinking about the mindset literature for some time. Colleagues will confirm that I’ve been leery of the mindset approach, partly because mindset seemed to mean so many different things, but primarily because Dweck’s work has been so frequently used to teach open mindset by exposing people to Dweck’s ideas. The idea that it’s possible to alter a state of mind simply by providing information about mindsets seems daft, as does the notion that an open mindset is inherently “better” than a closed mindset. States of mind are often strongly cathected and deeply entrenched through years of reinforcement. Moreover, states of mind usually make sense in the contexts in which they develop. They are adaptations. Having an open mindset is not an asset if all you are ever rewarded for is coming up with the right answer or following the rules. In these contexts, a closed mindset is likely to be more adaptive. If we really want to change mindsets we need to create contexts that support and reward the states of mind we value.

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Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.