MARILEEADAMSPHDAn Interview with Dr. Marilee Adams, professor at American University and best-selling author of a new book, Teaching That Changes Lives

In this Mindset Works® Interview, Emily Diehl interviews Dr. Adams about her work with the Inquiring, Learner, and Judger Mindsets.

EMILY DIEHL: Welcome to the Mindset Works Newsletter Podcast.  I am Emily Diehl.  Today we will be talking with Dr. Marilee Adams. Dr. Adams is the author of three books that focus on questions and mindsets. The first was a cognitive-behavioral psychology textbook entitled The Art of the Question. Next she wrote Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, which is an international bestseller. Her latest book, Teaching That Changes Lives, came out just last week. Dr. Adams is the president of the Inquiry Institute.  She is also an advisor to Learning Forward New Jersey and an adjunct professor of leadership, American University. Dr. Adams, thank you for joining us!

MARILEE ADAMS: I am so pleased to be here, Emily, and I'm honored too, because I consider Dr. Dweck's work on mindsets a major advance in psychology in general.  She has alerted the world to the importance of the growth mindset and I love that she has taken her academic work way beyond academia into making a practical difference. It's so important.

EMILY DIEHL: I agree, thank you.  You founded the Inquiry Institute based on your conviction about the importance of questions in both thinking and communicating. Could you tell us about that?

MARILEE ADAMS: Oh sure.  The importance of questions in communicating is pretty obvious.  For example, how could anybody gather information, or build and maintain relationships without asking questions?  However, the importance of questions in thinking is not as obvious.  I think of thinking as an internal question and answer process, and what we consider thoughts are actually answers to preceding questions.  In fact, I have a term for this.  I call it "Question Thinking" and it just means that we think with questions.


MARILEE ADAMS: But what this does, is it takes the spotlight off of answers and puts the spotlight on questions as being primary.  The tricky part is that people are usually not aware of the questions that they are asking themselves not even that they are asking themselves questions.  And certainly, not so aware of what mindset they are in when they are asking questions.  And of course, we ask those questions to ourselves and to others both in communicating, as we are talking about, or in thinking.  So this emphasis is a big part of the work that we do, whether it's in business or education or, life in general.  Yet as fundamentally influential as questions are, I also think that mindset trumps questions. And this is what I mean by that, I could ask you the same question from two mindsets and it would be a different question, even if the words were exactly the same.

EMILY DIEHL: Interesting.

MARILEE ADAMS: I can illustrate that if you would like me to.

EMILY DIEHL: Yes, Please.

MARILEE ADAMS: OK – it's a very simple question.  I am going to do it two ways.


MARILEE ADAMS:  And just get ready. So the first time, I'm gonna say, "Why did you do that?"  And then I am going to clear myself out and I'm going to say [spoken in a different tone and inflection] "Why did you do that?"  Did those two questions feel different?

EMILY DIEHL: They felt very different.  The first one, felt like I wouldn't want someone to speak to me that way, but the second one felt like I was invited into a conversation.

MARILEE ADAMS: That's exactly the point.  Those questions came from different mindsets even though the words were exactly the same.  So the point is that where the speaker is coming from, that's what has the biggest impact, bigger than the actual words.

EMILY DIEHL: I see.  The title of your second book is intriguing to me.  What do you mean that if you change your questions, you can change your life?

MARILEE ADAMS: I love it when people ask me that because I like to say, "It's literally true."  And the reason is, that if our questions shape the direction of our answers and thinking and decisions and behaviors, then new questions can literally change those directions, both in terms of how we think and how we communicate.  And of course that means, also, in terms of how we behave and how we relate to others.  Again it puts the spotlight on the importance of questions.

EMILY DIEHL: I see.  Your books have a mindset model that seems very similar to Dr. Dweck's mindset model.  Would you describe the connections between the Learner mindset and the growth mindset and also between the Judger mindset and the fixed mindset as you describe in your work?

MARILEE ADAMS: Oh yes.  The parallels are very striking and they're also very aligned.  That's why I was so excited to discover Dr. Dweck's work.  There are a few differences, but there are no contradictions, I think that actually my work is enriched by what she has contributed and accomplished.  I think in talking about mindsets, it is important to emphasize that mindsets are very dynamic and that they can change and we can change them moment by moment by moment.  But that's a lot easier when you can observe what mindset you are in at any moment.  And something else about mindsets, and then I'll describe the learner and judger mindsets.   I think it's important to emphasize that both mindsets are normal.  So, what I call Learner and Judger, they are both normal.  And what she calls fixed and growth mindsets, they're normal, everybody has them. And, um, we always will.   And that is not the issue. The issue is getting better and better at being able to manage our own mindsets so that we can be operating from the mindset that's going to be most productive and satisfying at any point.  That's what I focus on in my books is really a methodology for managing mindsets.  In the latest book, Teaching That Changes Lives, I am hoping to empower teachers to manage their own mindsets, so they can help create learner climates in their classrooms and inspire their students with a lifetime love of learning.  And that's very similar to helping students and teachers develop strong growth mindsets.  And I couldn't agree more with Dr. Dweck that helping students develop a growth mindset is really maybe the most important thing we can do and it's the basis of lasting and satisfying achievement.

EMILY DIEHL: That's exciting, and it's exciting to think that there are strategies that can be taught for people to learn to embrace their growth mindset and their learner mindsets.

MARILEE ADAMS: Well there are! And in fact we will get to those in a minute.  So about the learner and judger mindsets.  The learner mindset is more open-minded, accepting, discerning and optimistic.  It lives in reality and possibility and it presumes that we can always learn and change and grow.  And side-by-side with that is the judger mindset, remember we all have both. So the judger mindset means judgmental, which of course is not the same thing as having good judgment.   So when we are in our judger mindsets, we're more close-minded, critical, blaming, and pessimistic. Also, judger has two faces, we can be facing ourselves or facing others so we can be very critical of ourselves and we can be very critical of others. And when we are in judger mindset it is easy to feel stuck and hopeless and that nothing will ever change.  And I found a wonderful quote about this in Carol's book on mindsets and I would like to share it.

EMILY DIEHL: Please do!

MARILEE ADAMS:  I just think it is beautiful, it's, what I am about to say is slightly paraphrased, but she wrote that mindset change is about seeing things in a new way.  She says that when people change to a growth mindset they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework.  And I think that is eloquent.  It just sums it up you know!

EMILY DIEHL: Thank you for sharing that.  At Mindset Works we have a very useful visual of a growth and fixed mindset, the Nigel Holmes graphic. You also have a graphic about mindsets called the Choice Map. It illustrates the mindset distinctions that you work with, what you call the Learner and Judger mindsets. For our listeners, YOU can view the Choice Map by going to and click on the "Resources" tab.  Marilee, can you describe this graphic?

MARILEE ADAMS: Let me give you a brief description of the visual.  First of all, it looks somewhat like a cartoon, and at the top, it says, Choice Map, we Choose moment by moment.  Then there are two roads and they start out together on the left side, and the road that goes up towards a mountain and the sun and the Learner billboard is the learner path or the learner mindset path.  And the road that goes down and curves around and ends up in a mud pit, called the judger pit.  Which it's funny how people latch on to that term, they really identify with that the judger pit.  I think we've all been there.

EMILY DIEHL: Yes, because you feel low.

MARILEE ADAMS: Because you feel low, and stuck in the mud.  So they describe the two mindsets, the paths and then the different kinds of questions that we ask on each path.  So when we are in learner mindset, we ask questions like, "What happened?"  "What do I want for myself and others?"  "What can I learn?"  "What assumptions am I making?" "What's possible?" I am not reading all of them, but a lot of questions like that.  And on the judger path, the most frequent first judger question is, "Whose fault is it?" [laughs]  And then the Choice Map illustrates in the thought bubbles of the figures that we ask questions to ourselves and others so we start out with, "Whose fault is it?" Then we are off to the races: "What's wrong with me?" "What's wrong with them?"  "Why am I such a failure?"  "Why are they so stupid?"  "Why bother?"

And that definitely lands us in the judger pit.  So it's a very good graphic that allows us to observe what mindset we're in at any particular moment; however, that's not enough because just being able to see the mindsets, doesn't necessarily give you a method for managing them which is what we were talking about before.

So, also drawn on the Choice Map is something called the Switching Lane.  The Switching Lane is what we take when we notice that we are in Judger.  And ask ourselves questions like, "Am I in Judger?" And, "Is this what I want to feel or do?" And, "Where would I rather be?"  "How else can I think about this?"  And those kinds of questions literally lift us from being stuck in Judger into being able to see different possibilities and sometimes you can actually see people and feel yourself a physiological shift when we switch from Judger to Learner.  And it all begins with being able to observe our own Judger -  here's the trick -  non-judgmentally.  So, "Am I a Judger? Yes.  Do I have brown hair? Yes." I mean it's just factual.  And that really frees people up to be able to make that switch, so the switching questions represent the mechanism.

And people can learn this and do it; I have done this with thousands of people in workshops and classes and this is in all of the books.  It's just remarkable, and I have to say very gratifying how quickly people learn the method and start using it.

EMILY DIEHL It must be gratifying, it sounds exciting.  That trigger, "How else can I think about this?" That's just wonderful.  Thank you for sharing that.

MARILEE ADAMS: It's actually my favorite one.

EMILY DIEHL: Mine too now!  So you also use the term the "Inquiring Mindset."  What do you mean by that?

MARILEE ADAMS: Well, the Inquiring Mindset is sort of like the Learner Mindset with an advanced degree.  So it's in, you're being in learner mindset, and the way that you're approaching the world on the moment-by-moment basis is through curiosity and inquiry.  So my definition of inquiring mindset is that it's the habit, curiosity, and courage of asking open-minded questions of ourselves and others.

I'd like to emphasize, because so many of your listeners are in education, that what I have just described as the Inquiring Mindset is really the basis of critical and creative and strategic and collaborative thinking and problem solving, so that the more that we can help our students be inquirers and develop their inquiring mindset, the more simultaneously they will naturally become better critical thinkers.  And I just think that is so, so important.

EMILY DIEHL: Yes it is, especially with the Common Core State Standards.


EMILY DIEHL: So, Dr. Adams, where do you see your work having a great impact?

MARILEE ADAMS: This question makes me smile!  It's because the work is about thinking and listening and speaking... and mindsets, of course.  And we think, listen and speak everywhere in our lives, both in our professional lives and our personal lives.  So, I like the idea of doing one thing that has a very large, leveraged impact.  And I think the questioning and mindset work does that because you can literally use this anywhere because we have our mindsets with us everywhere.  We think and listen and speak everywhere.  However, I know that is sort of a 50,000 foot high answer.  So let me give you a just little more...

I have been doing this work in businesses and organizations in leadership and in coaching, with teams and innovation, and also in communication and relationships.  And the new book, Teaching That Changes Lives, is all focused on education.  And I love being in the world of education.  So just think how much better off we all would be if students learned these thinking and mindset skills when they were young.

EMILY DIEHL: Yes, I wish I had!

MARILEE ADAMS: That's exactly what I was going to say!

I wish somebody had taught me this when I was young because it would have made a really big difference in my life.  I think that is what this is allabout, making the biggest difference we can, in TeachingThatChangesLivesthe smartest and most compassionate ways that we can.

EMILY DIEHL: Yes... Thank you Dr. Adams, for your time today and thank you for sharing these valuable resources for families and for educators.  You can read more about Dr. Adams work at and order her books, including the most recent one -Teaching That Changes Lives - on  Thank you.

Join Inquiry Institute for a free a one hour webinar on Cultivating the Learner Mindset and the Growth Mindset,  December 10, 2013 at 8pm ET.  Led by Dr. Marilee Adams, Ph.D. best selling author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life and Teaching That Changes Lives.

Sign up at

About Mindset Works
Mindset Works was co-founded by one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and K-12 mindset expert Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D. The Company translates psychological research into practical products and services to help students and educators increase their motivation and achievement. For more information, visit