Learning Disposition

Fall 2017

By Noah Rachlin

Part Classroom Teacher/Part Motivational Speaker

In the fall of 2009, I took on the new challenge of teaching AP U.S History (APUSH) at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, California. In the years before the College Board’s redesign of the AP U.S. History course, a consistent critique was, to put it bluntly, that the class was a slog. Tasked with covering the entire breadth of U.S. History before the AP exam in the first week in May, the class often felt like sprinting a marathon. My students took to calling APUSH “A-Push,” and they were not wrong. The volume of academic work associated with the course was unlike anything most students had experienced before. In addition to the increased workload, the college-level class was characterized by an intellectual rigor that, understandably, exceeded the work they had done up to that point in their academic careers. And, of course, these twin challenges did not exist in a vacuum. My students’ lives outside the four walls of our classroom were full of other courses, extracurricular activities, and the social and emotional challenges of adolescence.
As a result, like many teachers, I found myself assuming a role that was equal parts instructor and motivational speaker. That year, and that course in particular, highlighted for me that the job of classroom teacher is about much more than teaching traditional academic skills and content. To be sure, I worked diligently to help students develop their skills as historical thinkers, writers, and speakers, and their scores on the AP exam demonstrated that they learned (and perhaps still remember?) themes, principles, institutions, and events from the curriculum. Yet, I also found myself hoping that they came away from the course with a deep and unwavering belief in their ability to persist in the face of adversity and undertake the work required to overcome the obstacles and challenges that are a natural part of any learning process.
As time passed, I began to think more critically about the challenge of cultivating student persistence in an academic setting, and it was very much on my mind when I left Pacific Ridge three years later to attend graduate school. During my own adolescence, I had associated lessons of persistence and practice with athletics rather than with academic coursework, and I know that many of my friends who played sports or participated in the arts had similar experiences. I found myself wondering why school had not been a place where we were explicitly taught the lessons and science of persistence that we picked up on the playing fields and courts, in the art studio, or on the theater stage. And, furthermore, why were my own students not being taught these lessons as part of their traditional academic instruction and coursework?
Like so many others in recent years, these questions led me to Carol Dweck’s research on mindset1 and Angela Duckworth’s work on grit.2 I believed that a focus on mindset in schools could be incredibly powerful, but I also saw its limits. It opens the door to potential growth, but it does not necessarily help young people identify the behaviors and practices that will make that growth a reality. Grit struck me as a concept at the other end of the spectrum. It provided a way to identify a certain set of behaviors regarding persistence, but I was looking for something that would help cultivate the characteristics described by the concept of grit, not just identify whether or not they were present. It seemed to me that mindset was the foundation, and grit was where I wanted students to end up, but what about the intermediate steps?
After completing my graduate degree program, I was fortunate enough to join the faculty as an instructor in history at Phillips Academy (PA) in Andover, Massachusetts, and, in turn, become a Fellow at the Tang Institute, which is housed on the PA campus. As part of a larger constellation of work, the Tang Institute acts as an ideas lab to provide support for new ideas in teaching and learning. The fellowship afforded me the opportunity to devote time, energy, and resources to answering my questions, and the “learning disposition” concept is an attempt to fill that space between mindset and grit.

What Is a Learning Disposition?

Informed by research on mindset, motivation, deliberate practice, and focus, I use the term “learning disposition” to describe the key characteristics that are essential to helping any individual join a belief in his or her own potential with the tangible practices and behaviors that are proven to foster growth and development. In a bit more detail, I believe that any time we are trying to grow our talent, intelligence, or ability, it is important for four things to be true.
First, we have to believe that it is possible to improve. In short, we have to have what Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset,” which is the belief that things like talent, ability, and intelligence are not fixed, innate traits but are instead things that can grow and change over time as the result of effort and practice.3 If we don’t think something is possible, we are unlikely to embark on the journey in the first place. This is particularly important to consider in the context of classroom teaching where fixed mindset phrases like “I can’t do that,” “I’m not a good writer,” and “I’m just not a math person” are a common refrain.
Second, we have to be motivated to put forth the effort required to get better, especially if the task requires energy and effort over an extended period of time, as was true in my AP U.S. History class and is the case in so many academic endeavors. Here, it is important to recognize that intrinsic motivation is a much longer burning fuel than extrinsic motivation, and it is also less susceptible to dishonesty and abuse, such as cheating.4 Of course, there are certain things that we have to do even if we do not want to, especially in an academic context. This is an important lesson for young people to learn as part of their maturation, but I also think we need to be much more cognizant of the ways in which we, as teachers, may too often rely on extrinsic motivators such as grades to motivate kids in an academic context. Instead, we could make a concerted effort to tap into their intrinsic motivation by providing opportunities for student choice and taking care to ensure that young people see meaning and relevance in the work we are asking them to do.
Third, we should engage in forms of “deliberate practice” that will best serve our efforts to improve.5 A great deal of effort devoted to practice that is mindless or does not have us working at the upper limits of our present ability is not the way to improve. But that may very well describe the homework and classwork we assign, as well as a young person’s approach to studying. Research tells us that struggling in certain targeted ways helps promote the greatest growth possible, whether inside or outside of the classroom, and so the research on deliberate practice should inform both the work we assign and the ways in which students work to grow their talent, intelligence, and ability.
Finally, we have to be able to commit to this work at any given moment and ensure that our efforts to improve receive the undivided attention they deserve. Quite simply, multitasking is a myth.6 The brain cannot focus on more than one task at a time. Yet we live in a time when both young people and adults are constantly switching back and forth between work and conversation, work and text messaging, work and email, work and social media, or any combination of tasks. When we work in this way, we increase the likelihood of making mistakes and ensure that our work will take longer and be more exhausting than if we were “mono-tasking” instead of multitasking.

Helping Students Cultivate a Learning Disposition

The creation of the learning disposition concept provided a concrete way to frame the work of learning, but it did not address a need that was even more important: How would I effectively communicate this information to students? Like so many classroom teachers, I do not have abundant free time in my history curriculum to add lessons on mindset, motivation, deliberate practice, and focus. Yet, through the Tang Institute, I was able to find both the time and a group of captive students. So, I set out to create a learning disposition curriculum.
With the exception of the introductory and concluding sessions, each one-hour meeting followed a similar structure. Students engaged with the relevant research, often through a few pages of reading. I then explained the research in greater detail and provided real-world examples from a range of domains to facilitate student comprehension. Then we brainstormed personalized strategies based on the research conclusions.

The student response was positive. In the anonymous feedback at the conclusion of the curriculum, one student wrote:

I particularly enjoyed the segment regarding growth mindset. Before, I was an extremely fixed-mindset person, and I frequently blamed fate for my problems. Now I try to take everything as something I can learn from.
Another student commented:

I liked the focus strategies and feel like they not only gave me great methods for improving my efficiency but also made me fully realize just how many people struggle with the exact same issues of distraction and procrastination. It made me feel less alone and more supported in my pursuit to improve my learning methods/behavior.

The curriculum was refined over the course of six pilots until parts of it were ultimately adopted as part of Phillips Academy’s new Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion curriculum.

While the curriculum received positive reviews from its participants, it was clear to me that I was missing a tremendous opportunity. First, because these sessions fell outside the scope of the traditional academic program — both as I was running them and as they were ultimately implemented by the school — there was the possibility that students saw it as not completely related to their academic coursework and, therefore, less important. Additionally, by divorcing student understanding of learning disposition and the creation of personalized strategies from the actual experience of being in the classroom, I was missing an opportunity for students to engage with and practice the learning disposition components on a regular basis.
For these reasons, I then began an effort to create classroom-based strategies that maintained, and even enriched, discipline-specific learning while also cultivating learning disposition characteristics. I didn’t have a great deal of free space in my curriculum, but I could think of ways to explicitly marry the learning disposition concept and the work that I was doing in my history classes.
I began to briefly share the research on mindset with my students. I covered the walls of my classroom with posters that promoted a growth mindset, and I became more conscious of the feedback I provided to students and the way in which it was delivered. In an effort to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation, I began to assign weekly prompts from which students could choose, rather than selecting specific dates and topics for essay assignments. And, in an effort to help students engage in deliberate practice rather than the vague goal of “becoming a better writer,” I used material from an organization called Mindset Works (www.mindsetworks.com) to help students understand and categorize the types of mistakes they were making. I then asked them to answer a series of questions before each writing assignment in which they had to identity a specific goal for the assignment and explain how they had worked toward achieving that specific goal. Students began to respond positively to these efforts and to go out of their way to comment on these practices in their end-of-term feedback forms. They commented that they enjoyed the class because, in addition to learning history, they “also learned skills that we can use in other classes and the rest of our lives.”

Moving Forward

A compelling body of research has shown that helping young people respond positively to challenge and struggle is critical to how they learn and what they learn — in school and throughout their lives.7 Whether in the classroom or outside of it, young people must have the capacity to understand failure and adversity as natural parts of the learning process. The learning disposition work aims to be part of this ongoing conversation locally, regionally, and nationally. What began as work in the Tang Institute grew to other areas of the Phillips Academy campus, and teachers across campus are now constructing their own creative and insightful classroom strategies. For example, by using “learning journals” where students reflect regularly on their academic growth and the relationship between process and product, a math teacher is homing in on mindset and deliberate practice. An English teacher has begun to have students craft their own rubrics for essay assignments and other projects as a way to cultivate intrinsic motivation. A group of faculty members also gathered recently to discuss ways we can ensure that our feedback to students in end-of-term written comments promotes a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.
This is challenging work, but it is also tremendously rewarding. As I have begun traveling to conferences and schools across the country to share the learning disposition concept and the work we are doing, it has been energizing to speak with others who share similar goals and who are thinking creatively about how to best advance these sorts of efforts. All of us who work in schools have a hand in this work, and, as adults, we must model these characteristics and disposition as we undertake the challenging but essential work of striving to improve our practice. Let’s do it together. If this sparked a question or an idea, or if you are doing related work that you would like to share, please be in touch. I would love to hear from you and consider how we can partner in an effort to further this essential work in ways that enrich the learning experience for students and teachers alike.


1. Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006).
2. Angela Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 6 (2007): 1087-1101.
3. Dweck, Mindset.
4. Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
5. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2016).
6. John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2009).
7. Camille A. Farrington, Melissa Roderick, Elaine Allensworth, Jenny Nagaoka, Tasha Seneca Keyes, David W. Johnson, and Nicole O. Beechum, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review (Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, 2012).
Noah Rachlin

Noah Rachlin (nrachlin@andover.edu) is an instructor in History and Social Science and a  Fellow at the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy (Massachusetts).