A Growth Mindset gives you courage, not capacity

Introducing the Learning Pit 2.0

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a Growth Mindset is not growth.

A Growth Mindset is important because it is the foundation upon which growth is achieved. It is the invitation to grow. It encourages you to engage your Habits of Mind in the process of Virtuous Practice and achieve growth.

But a Growth Mindset is more than just an invitation. It’s an understanding that you’re capable of growth. An understanding that while you may not currently have the abilities to meet a challenge successfully, you can develop those abilities.

What we see in someone with a Growth Mindset is a willingness to take on challenges, to put in the effort and accept and learn from mistakes. They approach problems they don’t know the answers to with confidence because they expect to eventually succeed. Their confidence is born of the knowledge that they’ve developed abilities before and succeeded at other challenges.

In The Agile Learner, I explain how this experience of growth leads to a positive emotional cascade and the development of a Growth Mindset. As we begin to experience growth, we first feel a sense of progress, then satisfaction. As we continue to grow and begin to understand how this growth occurs, we feel a sense of achievement, then confidence. Finally, as we experience more and more growth, we develop a sense of courage.

I often think of the Growth Mindset as the Courage Mindset. It gives us the courage to take on challenges – but that’s all it does. A Growth Mindset gives us the courage but not the capacity to take on challenges. This is illustrated by the analogy of the Learning Pit.

The Learning Pit: Why courage is not enough

The Learning Pit was originally adapted from the work of Butler and Edwards. It has more recently been popularised by James Nottingham’s Challenging Learning. The Learning Pit likens a challenge to jumping into a pit: it can be a scary and you need to work hard to get out.

A Growth Mindset gives you the courage to jump into the Learning Pit – to take on the challenge. But what it does not give you is the capacity to get out.

To get out of the Learning Pit, you must develop the necessary skills, behaviours and Habits of Mind. To become a better climber (learner), you must engage those behaviours in the process of Virtuous Practice.

In fact, I’d argue that equipping students with the skills and behaviours needed to climb out of the Learning Pit is the most important role of the teacher. Because, contrary to many depictions of the Learning Pit, it is not enough to simply take on a challenge and struggle. Some students, who lack the skills and Habits of Mind to climb out, remain stuck and frustrated at the bottom.

This inability to succeed at a challenge can lead to a highly negative emotional cascade. First it creates a sense of frustration and struggle. A feeling of failure follows. If this continues, students develop a sense of resignation. Then they fear taking on other challenges. This creates a Fixed Mindset.

In many ways, the Fixed Mindset is the Fear Mindset. Rather than instilling a sense of courage in the face of challenge, it creates a sense of fear and an avoidance of challenges. The Fear Mindset stops you getting into the Learning Pit in the first place.

How we can teach students to be better climbers

While the Growth Mindset can give you the courage to jump into the Learning Pit, it does not give you the capacity to climb out. It’s the role of the teacher to prepare students for that climb, to develop their skills and help them become better climbers.

It is the Agile Learner, not simply the learner with a Growth Mindset, who is able to climb out of the Learning Pit and succeed at a challenge.

For some of you, the concept of the Learning Pit is new. For others, it will be very familiar. It is a powerful analogy that is made even more powerful when updated to illustrate the Agile Learner.

In my new workshop, The Agile Learner, I completely update the Learning Pit to the Learning Pit 2.0. It is a powerful tool for teachers and learners alike. I’ll show you how the Learning Pit 2.0 can be used to illustrate the work of Carol Dweck, Art Costa and Bena Kallick, and Anders Ericsson.

Importantly, The Agile Learner workshop clearly illustrates how we develop new abilities, talents and intelligence over time – by unpacking the process of how to succeed at increasingly difficult challenges one Learning Pit at a time.



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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  • Mary Grosser July 10, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    I like the analogy of the Learning Pit. I find getting my students out of the pit the most difficult part. How can I obtain more information on getting learners out of the Learning Pit?

    • James July 10, 2018 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Mary,

      keep an eye out for my next book – it’s all about the Learning Pit and how to help students get out of it 🙂

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