Learning How to Learn

November 29th, 2007  |  Published in Habits, Mormonism  |  3 Comments

A recent article in Scientific American says that “more than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort- not on intelligence or ability- is key to success in school and in life.” Although talent is certainly part of the equation, it doesn’t get us anywhere by itself. A few key concepts mentioned in the article are as follows:

“Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”

“Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners— helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so… such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.”

“Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance, many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and to become responsible employees and citizens.”

Carol S. Dweck, Scientific American Mind

Line Upon Line

Learning is more about persistence than it is about natural ability. Ability certainly helps, but it doesn’t win us a marathon. Running a marathon takes persistence and applied effort. As children we certainly didn’t know all that we do now. In the same way, our current level of learning and understanding isn’t a cap on our maximum learning. Although we may have completed high school or college or graduate school, this doesn’t mean we’re done. Our efforts can take us up another level, and we can continually expand on that knowledge.

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. 2 Nephi 28:30

As a missionary, I was asked to learn Spanish to be able to teach the people of Argentina. I had studied Spanish on and off since elementary school and had always received good grades, so I thought this would be pretty easy. In the Missionary Training Center, we received lots of lessons on Spanish grammar and pronunciation. I did well in those lessons and thought I knew Spanish. Actually speaking it, however, was very frustrating. My mouth wasn’t used to forming Spanish words, and I became a little disheartened. Apparently I had no natural talent for actually speaking Spanish, I thought.

When I really learned Spanish, it came from actually speaking it. One of my instructors told us that learning a language means making mistakes and then correcting those mistakes. When I arrived in Argentina I was pretty intimidated because I still made plenty of mistakes. Luckily, many of the people I came in contact with were very willing to correct me. At first this was frustrating again, because I wasn’t used to being wrong so often, but after a while I realized that these comments were a real help.

That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learning Never Ends

In a devotional speech given at Brigham Young University, Dilworth B. Parkinson, a professor of Arabic at BYU, said that “One of the clearest results of language teaching research is that when a student becomes satisfied with what he knows, when he feels he “knows the language,” he almost immediately ceases to make progress.”

This quote really hit home for me, because I fell in the trap of thinking I was done learning more than once. It has been a recent challenge of mine to know that learning is never really finished. I had the opportunity to translate our church meetings into Spanish, which led me to realize there were many more mistakes to be made and many more lessons to learn. It’s a challenge to maintain the proper learning mindset, but if we do, our progression has no limits.


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