3 Learning Theories to Think Better and Accelerate Your Growth

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If you’re here, it’s probably because you’re interested in learning theories and mental models, and by extension, how to be smarter. But in order to fully benefit from these learning theories and mental models, you have to set your mind up for success. Similar to preparing the ground before you garden, doing this work and preparing your mind can help you accelerate your learning.

In this article, we’ll dive into: 

1. Growth Mindset

  • The difference between a growth and fixed mindset
  • Where your fixed mindset came from
  • How to develop a growth mindset

2. Inquiry-Based Learning

  • The steps to inquiry-based learning
  • An example of inquiry-based learning in action

3. Latticework of Mental Models

  • How having multiple mental models helps you think better

And as a bonus, you’ll also learn about Liquid Knowledge.

Let's dive in!

The Growth Mindset

In our introduction, we just threw a couple of (maybe) unfamiliar phrases at you, such as Latticework of Mental Models and Inquiry-based Learning. Instead of giving up, you scrolled to the next section. Congrats! This means that you already have the beginnings of a growth mindset, or what Carol Dweck describes as: 

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well.” 

Dweck was the first to write about growth vs. fixed mindsets in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Along your learning journey, you’re going to encounter many unfamiliar concepts, and how you react determines whether or not you will grow from the experience. 

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

Let’s take a look at fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets to understand how we can grow from ideas instead of running from them. 

A fixed mindset is characterized as…

Believing you have fixed abilities and intelligence, which leads to:

  • Avoiding challenges
  • Giving up easily
  • Wanting to look smart
  • Perceiving effort as a result of failure
  • Ignoring productive feedback
  • Feeling threatened by the success of others

Most of us understand on an intellectual level that hard work leads to success far more often than having natural but unworked talent. For example, can you name an Olympic athlete who never trained? 

But it’s still difficult for many of us to shake that idea of being effortlessly good at something. The truth is, the people who do seem effortlessly talented derive their skill from endless practice, which takes effort, which takes failure. And the reason this failure doesn’t break them is because they face it with a growth mindset. 

A growth mindset is characterized as…

Recognizing you have abilities and intelligence which can be developed, which leads to:

  • Wanting to learn
  • Embracing challenges
  • Persisting in the face of setbacks
  • Seeing hard work as proof that they’re growing
  • Learning from productive feedback
  • Finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others

This means that your success, instead of being determined at birth, increases exponentially each time they learn from a failure. With this mindset, you’re encouraged to constantly try new things and get better instead of doing the same task that you’re already great at over and over again. 

So where do Fixed Mindsets come from?

Surprisingly enough, we often pressure children into developing a fixed mindset. Simple things like praising children’s intelligence instead of their work ethic promotes the idea that they shouldn’t work hard and that effort is a result of not being smart enough. Praising their courage and follow-through, however, incentivizes them to continue trying new things. 

As Dweck puts it in her TedTalk:

“… We can praise wisely. Do not praise intelligence or talent. That has failed. But praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process of praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”

Another way we inadvertently foster a fixed mindset is by saying that children “failed” at things. 

In her TED talk, Dweck described a school that was working to change how children perceive failure. 

“I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade “Not Yet.” 

And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.

But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future."

The good news is, you can develop a growth mindset by building better learning habits!

As we’ve read, mindsets are built with subtle affirmations. Luckily, that goes both ways! If fixed mindsets are molded by “You’re so smart!” and “You didn’t pass,” then growth mindsets can be inculcated by “You’re working so hard,” and “You haven’t figured it out yet.”

By reading this article, you’re already on the path to a productive growth mindset. In fact, you can even use the next mindset we’re about to discover to further boost your journey towards a growth mindset. ​​Continue reading about the learning theories and strategies below to upgrade how your brain learns.

Inquiry Based Learning: Understanding How to Ask And Research Effective Questions

Put simply, Inquiry-Based Learning is a learning method that combines your innate curiosity and the scientific method to enhance the development of critical thinking skills. It’s currently being used in some classrooms to enhance the learning of children, but all of the skills involved are applicable to your personal learning journey as well. 

The steps are as follows:

1. Question! What are you curious to understand? What do you want to be able to answer about a topic?

2. Investigate: Find relevant resources and information to dig into and think critically about.

3. Use Evidence: Bring all the findings from your "investigation" together.

4. Connect: Use what you learned and connect to any existing knowledge to describe, explain, and form a perspective.

5. Share: Communicate investigation procedures, data, and explanations to others. 

Each step of the process is critical. 

Questioning, or developing a hypothesis, guides our learning. 

Investigation helps you create a way to answer your question. 

Evidence, of course, is what you use to actually answer your question.

Connection allows you to support or contradict your findings based on what you already know. 

And sharing is incredibly important for the same reason peer review is- it helps you eliminate blind spots by asking others if you’ve missed something. This step also, if done right, minimizes the chance of accidentally creating an echo chamber. By asking others who have different background knowledge if they concur or dissent, you’re encountering new points of view. Sharing is also great if the person you’re discussing your findings with has also collected evidence. Their hypothesis and process is just as important as their ultimate conclusion, because with different parameters comes different evidence. 

Here's an example.

Imagine you’ve discovered that you have a fixed mindset. You’ve noticed this because one of your peers reached a milestone that you’ve also wanted to achieve, and you first felt jealous, and later, undeserving. 

First, ask yourself why these emotions surfaced. Was the jealousy because you wanted that external validation? Does the feeling of being undeserving come from not thinking you’re worthy of that validation? Why? 

Investigating in this instance is a little bit harder, because you’re working with an unreliable narrator- yourself. It’s also difficult to parse out why we feel complex emotions like jealousy. But feeling unworthy is slightly easier to remedy. Reflect back on the amount of effort you put in to achieve that milestone. Did you learn anything from the experience? Do those lessons go away? Are you closer to meeting the milestone than you began?

Usually the evidence in cases like these suggests that even if you didn’t achieve a goal, you still gained a lot in the process. And when you connect it back to your feelings, you realize that you are worthy. You gave it our best shot, and that’s all you can do. The next try will be better, and you will eventually get what you want. Further, by connecting your evidence to your gut reactions, you’ve formed a pathway that you can reference the next time you fail at something. Eventually, you will have trained our mind to develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. 

Sharing is also useful in a situation like this one. We often perceive ourselves to have done much worse than we did, or minimize our achievements. By sharing with a peer or colleague who wants to grow with us, they can remind us of our past victories and give critiques so that we’ll be better next time. 

This is a highly emotional example, but inquiry-based learning can be used for any topic. As long as you’re learning in a discipline that requires you to ask questions, investigate the problem, analyze your evidence, make connections, and share your learning, you can benefit from inquiry based learning. 

Latticework of Mental Models: Developing Frameworks to Understand the World

Just as we connected growth mindset and inquiry based learning in the example above, being able to access a connected latticework of mental models is key to using them. There is no one-size-fits all model, and that’s a good thing! When you subscribe to one model only, you also implicitly always agree to the assumptions underlying that model. This is a bad thing, because it leaves you with blindspots in situations where those assumptions don’t fit. Using mental models is all about finding the right model for the situation. 

Consider the following example. You’re in the drive through at your favorite fast food restaurant, and because you’re in a hurry, you don’t realize that they forgot your fries until you get home. If you use the incentives model, you may think, “They didn’t put the fries in my order because it would save them a few cents.” But if you’re familiar with Occam's razor, you might realize that the far more likely situation is that they didn’t notice you ordered fries. A latticework of mental models helps you avoid, as the popular anecdote goes, being the hammer and thinking every problem is a nail. Or in this situation,  it reminds you that not everyone is constantly thinking in terms of incentives. Sometimes we’re just forgetful.

The best way to avoid pigeonholing yourself into a few models is to learn about and use more of them. We’ve detailed a few models, but there are hundreds to find in every field. Whether you discover them through reading or working with people who have different perspectives than you, developing a latticework of mental models is key to using models effectively. 

Liquid Knowledge: Developing the Ability to Think Between the Lines

If you’ve mastered all of these mindsets, you gain another, secret mindset. It’s called Liquid Knowledge, and it means that you’re not confined to using information from one topic solely in that topic. Mental models used in physics can be used to describe human behavior (e.g. inertia: the idea that things in motion will remain in motion and things at rest will remain at rest), biology can trail into economics (e.g. niches: the idea that organisms and organizations compete for a space that they’re adapted for with limited resources), and chemistry can bleed into systems thinking (e.g. equilibrium: the idea that systems self-regulate to remain functioning). This is once again where your latticework comes in handy. It’s not just about knowing the names of each model, it’s about intimately understanding how they work. Think about how they apply to your own life. Think about where they intersect, and perhaps which ones are mutually exclusive. Forming these neural networks for yourself is how you strengthen your learning and make better decisions. 

In conclusion: 

You’ve been introduced to growth mindset, or how to face challenges head-on instead of running from them. 

You’ve discovered how to pursue new topics effectively through inquiry based learning or the process of questioning, investigating, using evidence, making connections, and sharing. 

You’ve learned why building a latticework of mental models is preferable to relying on a few to explain everything about how the world works.

And you’ve encountered liquid knowledge, or the idea that learned information is applicable in far more branches than just the one it’s directly connected to!

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