Curiosity Based vs. “Will this Be on A Test”?

Elizabeth Lembke
4 min readFeb 25, 2021

“You don’t need to understand it, you just need to show it.”

Marilee Goldberg’s The Art of the Question summary… Open up!

Ah, the sentence that summed up my bane with sine and cosine back when I was taking Trig as a 8th grader. (Oddly, I never had the same problem with tangent but lest I digress). In later years, this sentence changed to “it doesn’t need to make sense, it’s the process and you need to follow it.”

Messages that are being conveyed with such statements:

Head-down, don’t embarrass yourself by asking questions and holding the rest of the class back, just do — do not think, do not make waves by ruffling feathers, just do what you need to to get a good grade.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera

Sound at all familiar? Ok, now a hand-to-heart question of what you do now, with your more mature age, to handle the situation, when struggling with a problem or being faced with a task, technology, or challenge that you have never dealt with before? In other words,

Do you find yourself studying for a grade, completing a task, defending a budget to reach a target in order to tick-it off and move on — even if while doing so, there are things that you question or feel would be imperative to change before moving on but you “get it done anyway”, OR

Are you taking the time to uncover why you are doing something, identify what you are struggling with, and invest the energy and bravery to uncover what good may even look like, before you “rinse-wash-repeat”?

Not as often as you wish you did? Why not?

Did you not take the Growth Mindset quiz and use the coin-phrase “I do not know it… yet!” Darn it, why not?

Well, my friends, because intention and actual behavior, is unfortunately not the same thing.

Prof. Carol Dweck, says one of the key challenges behind the Growth Mindset in teaching is the disconnect of actually walking the talk. In a study by her colleagues Prof. Jo Boaler and Dr. Jen Munson, push came to shove, that many parents and teachers who had touted having a Growth Mindset, did not pass this belief along to their children or pupils. The behaviors they actually exhibited, conveyed the messages that failures were harmful rather than helpful, as they did not take the time to check for conceptual understanding, give feedback, reinforce that learning wobbles are important etc., and instead, reacted with anxiety or concerns, which in turn, fostered a fixed mindset belief in the students.

This phenomena and the socialization we experience in school and work, is why often times, employees scoff at the idea of a “failure culture” being introduced in companies: because their actual experience of making a mistake did not go well for them, or they anticipate that there will be a reprimand if they make a mistake, or lose control of something at work — and therefore, mitigate the risks of making a mistake or being caught in the wrong.

This is why, because we may say folks are empowered — it does not mean that they actually are in terms of reward, recognition, punishment, their own understanding of how to conduct oneself at work, and their own personal belief in their permission to “raise their hands”. This is a big challenge when it comes to actually experiencing a learning culture of innovation, adaptive solution-finding, and evolving ideas. Prof. Adam Grant sent a great tweet out that sums up the dichotomy well:

“Performance culture:

Will this be on the test?

Will I get a bonus?

Can I put this on my resume?

Learning culture:

How does that work?

Will this teach me something new?

I wonder what would happen if…”

While we may know that, like Adam Grant says, “we learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions” , we also need to be able to expose our underbelly to folks challenging or even building on our ideas. Working in a “challenge network” as part of a learning culture is one of the most enjoyable work environments, one can experience. In other words, being part of an environment, where we feel comfortable enough “to be humble about our expertise, doubt our knowledge, and be curious about what knowledge we don’t have” and where doubting the HIPPO (e.g. the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) is truly okay.

Which is why when we talk about a Learning Culture vs. a Performance Culture,we need to take the time to examine behaviors of leaders, individuals, and teams, that lend themselves towards choosing our response based on principles, OR if the rewards, demands, etc. elicit fear-based, or defensive responses, that encourage folks to play only in the safety-zone.

“There is a quarter century of research that shows how people feel at work has a direct and powerful influence on how they perform.” — Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade.

Only when we address these encouraging or limiting responses, actively build-up up brave spaces to learn and experiment, and pipe up with our own voices, can a Learning Culture thrive and, thereby, a Growth Mindset flourish.



Elizabeth Lembke

Chief Talent Navigator: Passionately transforming work, culture, talents and HR. @hrimprov #learningmavens #AMaze2022 EN/DE/Gif