Learner Mindset: A Must-Have Tool for Educators

If you were to draw a mind map depicting your feelings about mathematics, what would it look like?

The mind map above was created by a pre-service teacher on the first night of my Math Methods course. I’d asked students to draw mind maps representing their thoughts about teaching and learning mathematics so I could learn a bit about their prior experiences. The students in my course are typically just a year away from teacher certification and from having their first class of students. My role as Math Methods instructor is to help these soon-to-be teachers learn the teaching methods and pedagogical-content knowledge they need to be effective teachers of mathematics.

Like the map shown, many of my students’ mind maps revealed that they had serious doubts about their own capacity to understand mathematics. I realized that this lack of self-efficacy would translate into limited expectations for the math learning of the countless students these teachers would serve across their teaching careers. These mindsets would impede the teachers’ abilities to implement important instructional practices: designing rigorous tasks, orchestrating thinking-rich classroom discussions, responding appropriately to mistakes, and conducting meaningful formative assessment. My first priority, even beyond the Math Methods course content, became helping these future teachers see themselves as capable of learning, helping them choose to view teaching and learning from a learner mindset.

Renowned educational researcher John Hattie is a “Kiwi,” a New Zealander by birth (see endnotes). Hattie spent the last two decades synthesizing research findings about teaching and learning from hundreds of meta-studies involving more than 80,000,000 students. His ideas about Visible Learning have been called “the holy grail of teaching” and are shaping the education world’s very definition of what it means to teach, as well as important beliefs about learners and learning.

I wish that John Hattie’s research had been around 42 years ago when I began teaching. As I stepped into my kindergarten classroom for the first time, I carried visions of my students constructing new understandings á la Piaget through their exploration of the math learning stations I spent my weekends creating. I pictured my children blossoming into readers and writers as we enjoyed books and created language-experience stories together. The reality of my first year of teaching was far different than this ideal, causing me to have serious doubts about whether I was capable of being a good teacher. When my imagined outcomes failed to occur spontaneously, I had no idea what my next steps should be. I didn’t yet understand that I needed to study my students and their learning, and then use what I learned through this teacher-research process to improve my teaching. I didn’t yet have a learner mindset towards my work as a teacher.

John Hattie is an exemplar of a learner mindset. His work is helping us all to become “students of student learning”, to adopt a learner mindset towards the craft of teaching.

In describing his Visible Learning work, Hattie says:

A key premise [of Visible Learning]is that the teacher’s view of his or her role is critical. It is the specific mind frames that teachers have about their role - and most critically a mind frame within which they ask themselves about the effect that they are having on student learning. Fundamentally, the most powerful way of thinking about a teacher’s role is for teachers to see themselves as evaluators of their effects on students. Teachers need to use evidence-based methods to inform, change, and sustain these evaluation beliefs about their effect. These beliefs relate to claims about what each student can do as a consequence of the teacher’s actions, and how every resource (especially peers) can be used to play a part in moving students from what they can do now to where the teacher considers they should be - and to do so in the most efficient, as well as effective, manner. It matters what teachers do - but what matters most is having an appropriate mind frame relating to the impact of what they do. An appropriate mind frame combined with appropriate actions work together to achieve a positive learning effect. (2012, p. 18)

Hattie suggests ten specific teacher mind frames to guide moment-to-moment instructional decisions. Collectively, these mind frames summarize much of what is known about teacher effectiveness:

  1. I cooperate with other teachers.

  2. I use dialogue, not monologue.

  3. I set the challenge.

  4. I talk about learning, not teaching.

  5. I inform all about the language of learning.

  6. I see learning as hard work.

  7. Assessment is feedback to me about me.

  8. I am a change agent.

  9. I am an evaluator of my impact on student learning.

  10. I develop positive relationships. (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2017, p. 233)

These mind frames operationalize what it means for all educators, not just teachers, to have a learner mindset.

Here are some questions we might explore together as we think about growing learner mindsets in our schools and organizations:

  • How do you currently see learner mindsets displayed in your school or organization?

  • How do you personally model a learner mindset in your work?

  • What actions might you take to make your learner mindset visible to others?

  • What possibilities might this open up for you and those you serve?

  • How could we help teachers and students strengthen their learner mindsets?

  • What might our interactions look like and sound like if this was our intention?

  • What structures might we put in place to build a school culture that supports learner mindsets?

We’d love to hear your thoughts, to learn from your experiences and ideas. Please help us all learn together by tweeting out to #LFTX2018.

Thanks so much,

Sue Chapman @slcbte

Elita Driskill @DriskillElita

Endnotes (just for fun):

69 Facts About New Zealand That’ll Blow Your Mind

Hattie is passionate about the sport of cricket, which he both coaches and umpires.


Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2017). Visible learning for mathematics: What works best to optimize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.