Of Arrogant and Humble Learners

This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series exploring the power of mindset in creating positive learning experiences and changing outcomes.

A couple of interesting terms keep cropping up in the mindset presentations I’ve been doing with educators. I typically ask participants to share examples of good and bad learning behaviors, encouraging folks to build a mental model of the characteristics of good learners. Frequently, participants share stories about when some content came easily to them. They experienced success with little effort and even became “arrogant” about their abilities. At the time the easy success felt great, but in retrospect they consider these periods as models of bad learning.

Their arrogance led them to expect easy success, and when it didn’t happen they externalized the reasons for the struggle. They blamed the teacher for poor instruction or for bad questions on the tests. They were good at this topic, so the trouble had to rest somewhere else.

Bad learning, though, turned positive when these self-described arrogant academic performers gained some “humility.” I really enjoy the way educators have described their transitions. Their new-found humility took away their vanity and the expectation that they should automatically understand the content. They became willing to give themselves up to the knowledge and the instruction. They reflected on the organization of the content, had no fear of humiliation for asking questions (something that can terrify an arrogant learner), and got themselves back onto a more rigorous path to academic success.

Essentially these testimonies reflect a shift from being an academic performer to being a learner. The arrogant learners weren’t really learners at all. Their goal was to show off what they knew and could do. Humble learners, on the other hand, have little interest in academic puffery. They focus on growing their capabilities and getting smarter. It’s the difference between having a fixed vs a growth mindset.

So what can we do to help arrogant performers become humble learners? One step would be to make school more about learning and less about performance. An evaluative environment filled with high-stakes assessments and test prep shines a spotlight on showing off what you know and can do. Performance, though, should be the end result of a process riddled with unknowns, missteps, and learning from mistakes. Learning should be messy, iterative, and a productive struggle. Let’s heap praise and give status to the students who don’t get it on the first try, reflect on their errors and humbly seek guidance when they’re stuck. Yes, performance is ultimately important, but schools are supposed to be about learning.

Let’s shine the spotlight on learners; the performance will follow.