Creating a Learning Atmosphere

At the 2012 ASTD (American Society for Training and
Development) Conference, I had the pleasure of listening to leading social psychologist, educational consultant and academic author, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson speak about the importance of creating a learning atomsphere. She posed many great and relevant questions that impact what we do at Be Learning.

Are you creating an atmosphere of learning or of testing?

By comparing performance results from both testing and learning environments, Halvorson found that if you set people up in a situation where they feel they are being tested or judged then their performance is very good initially (while everything is going smoothly) but then when the road gets bumpy their performance and confidence plummets creating stress and anxiety.  Dr Halvorson compared this to students who were working in a learning atmosphere, where the expectation was that the participants were not experts and would make mistakes. This group of people actually excelled when the road got bumpy. As Halvorson said: “When you think about what you are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that you may make some mistakes along the way, you experience far less stress, and you stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.”


How do Be Learning create a ‘learning atmosphere’ in their training workshops?

The way we frame up our workshops and exercises is imperative in the creation of a ‘learning atmosphere’. ‘Rehearse for Reality’, our role playing activity, is a prime example of the necessity to create the right atmosphere to learn.  Many, many times I have heard people say “I hate role play”. It is the exercise that they get most nervous about as they sometimes feel judged or tested in front of their peers. It is important that we encourage trial and error and experimentation. We need to let them know that we expect them to make mistakes as they try new and different ways of communicating. We need to actively discourage comparisons with others and any expectation of ‘getting everything right’.  Rather we help them to compare themselves with themselves and take note of when they are making progress.  As Halvorson suggests,”If we feel like we are making progress then we remain motivated”.

How does cultural bias affect the way that people learn?

Halvorson spoke about the differences in mindset between Eastern and Western cultures and their attitudes towards achieving success. She said that in Western cultures people often attribute failure to a lack of ability, whereas in Eastern cultures, people are more likely to attribute failure to a lack of effort. The Eastern view is more helpful in our work because effort is something we can do something about. Natural ability on the other hand is something we believe we are born with and that you either have or don’t.

Do you have a ‘get better’ mindset or a ‘be good’ mindset?

“Success and failure are about what you do and don’t do,” said Halvorson when comparing a ‘get better’ mindset with a ‘be good’ mindset.  ‘Get better’ means we enjoy and seek out challenges because we realise that through them we are growing and moving towards our goals and success rather than seeing challenge as a threat where we might fail, embarrass ourselves or achieve less than the person next to us.  My success therefore becomes about the choices I make. This thought is both scary and exciting because it means my life is very much within my control.  Hmmm… I shall ponder on that.

So what does this mean for Be Learning’s approach to training? 

We need to set challenging tasks. Staying within one’s comfort zone means people may not be trying something new or difficult but we need to set up these challenges to influence people’s mindsets as they approach challenging tasks by working towards the ‘get better’ mindset despite perhaps using the ‘be good’ mindset their whole lives. Here’s how…

1.     Awareness

The first step is to make people aware of these two contrasting mindsets so they can examine their own and notice how they habitually view challenges. Then we set up a testing but safe environment so they feel secure as they venture out into unchartered waters and know that if they ‘fail’ it is fine and actually expected because we are practicing new things.  And we won’t just let them try once but repeatedly. Leaving time for exercises to be done multiple times is important so people can measure their progress and try different things.

Action Planning

Another one of Halvorson’s discoveries is that both the motivation and achievement of goals is significantly increased when given a specific time and place. Most organisations these days teach and encourage S.M.A.R.T. goals, but even a goal that is ‘specific’, ‘measurable’,’ attainable’, ‘realistic’ and ‘timely’ doesn’t specifically encourage ‘where’ unless the person teaching the model explains that ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ is part of being ‘specific’.  And ‘timely’ is often described as ‘by when do I need to do the action’. Action planning is always included in every workshop we design and it is essential for us to frame its importance and that shows how many more people will achieve their goals when they specify a time and place.  It impressed the point on me so it might impress it on others also.

I hope to bring you more blogs on what I learnt from the great array of speakers at ASTD including insights on ‘motivation’ and ‘innovation’, so keep a lookout for those posts in the coming months. In the meantime, you can watch Heidi Grant Halvorson on Vimeo or check out her blogs and learn more about the ‘Get Better’ versus ‘Be Good’ mindset and SMART goals.

This blog is written by Claire Jones, Principal Creative Consultant at Be Learning.