The Pioneer Mindset for Students, Educators, and Innovators

Last week the Hekademia team attended the iNACOL symposium in Palm Springs, California. A theme that surfaced across keynote speeches, session presentations, and conversations at networking dinners was the pioneer mindset. It got me thinking: what exactly is a pioneer and what attributes can the pioneer mindset offer students, teachers, and innovators?

Historically or in popular culture, a pioneer was the first person to explore or settle a new territory. Daniel Boone or Samuel de Champlain, famous for exploring and settling parts of America and Canada, come to mind. More recently, the term pioneer has also been used to describe business leaders or technological gurus such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

What separates the rest of us from the historical and modern icons I mention above? I believe the pioneer mindset holds some explanatory potential. Mindsets are the attitudes and beliefs that we hold about the world around us and our place in it. This means that it is not our cognitive or innate abilities in life but our psychological characteristics, which are entirely malleable, that matter most.

So what makes a pioneer a pioneer? What dispositions and habits can we apply from the pioneer mindset to our roles as students, teachers, and innovators? I’ve got a few ideas.

First, it seems to me that, in general terms, problem-solving is the pioneer’s great asset. Our historical and modern pioneers were each faced with a litany of barriers, roadblocks, and problems to overcome on their journeys. Whether it was surviving in the wilderness or generating the $1350 start-up capital Jobs and Wozniak needed to build their first personal computer, pioneers are, by their very nature, problem-solvers.

Second, is tenacity, drive, or what the popular psychology literature has termed grit — the passion and perseverance to tirelessly confront challenges and failures in order to achieve our goals. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s research has shown that, grit more than IQ, is useful for explaining academic success.

Finally, pioneers, arguably by their very nature, are risk-takers. I don’t necessarily mean bungee jumping or skydiving, but successful pioneers are ready to take a risk, are open to change, or are willing to try something new. For example, consider Satoshi Nakamoto, the unknown creator(s) of the digital currency known as bitcoin. Bitcoins are digital coins you can send through the internet. Instead of visiting a bank or withdrawing dollars from an ATM, bitcoins are transferred directly from person to person through the internet and can be used to buy just about anything. Advocates of bitcoin argue that bitcoins will change the world of finance in much the same way that the internet has changed the world of publishing since everyone has equal access. While the jury is still out on whether those predictions will come to fruition, it was certainly a risky adventure given that bitcoin creators are still not willing to go public with their identities.

Here are a few closing lessons:

For students: As a student myself (completing my PhD in Education) I empathize with feelings of inadequacy, the imposter syndrome, or questions such as ‘am I smart enough?’ The pioneer mindset and Duckworth’s research provides us with the reassurance that it’s a commitment to our studies that predicts our success, not our grey matter.

For teachers: The most memorable teachers I’ve had were the ones who took risks. My greatest achievements as a teacher came when I was completely outside of my comfort zone and gave greater power and control to my students. My first teaching experience was at an inner-city school in Ottawa. I organized my grade 9 Canadian Geography class as a tour across Canada introducing students to the physical, economic and human geography of each province and territory. At the end of each ‘stop’, the students took on the role of tour guide and blogged about their favourite tourist attractions in each province or territory. By seeing myself as a facilitator rather than a sage on the stage, the students ran with this project in ways I had never imagined.

For innovators: Not everything that you try the first time works. There are many wrong turns and botched experiments. Wandering is part of our genetic anthropology and doesn’t necessarily mean we are lost, as long as we learn from our dead ends.


One thought on “The Pioneer Mindset for Students, Educators, and Innovators”

  1. Alison, I would like to add to your thoughts. A belief that better lies beyond the horizon, motivates the desire to change. Risk-taking occurs, most often based on unfounded faith. Once the mindset to change has been set in motion, and the new direction has been formulated, then problem solving skills, creativity and good ol’ grit are certainly the key enablers.

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