Why Do Some People Learn Faster? (Jonah Lehrer In Wired)

Following up on yesterday’s post on using failure helpfully, and why grading inhibits learning, here is a link to an interesting article by Jonah Lehrer in Wired.

The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Bohr’s quip summarizes one of the essential lessons of learning, which is that people learn how to get it right by getting it wrong again and again. Education isn’t magic. Education is the wisdom wrung from failure.

The key point that Lehrer emphasizes is one’s psychological response to mistakes. Some students turn away from their errors, because they don’t wish to be reminded that they might not be smart. The most effective learners turn towards their errors, digging deeply into them to understand why they made a mistake, thereby developing a deeper understanding.

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The bottom line is that intelligence is not fixed, and can be nurtured. Rather it’s what we do that can make us intelligent, or not. So the onus is on teachers (and parents) to choose excellent activities for students and then to nurture them through the activities with excellent feedback and praising effort a la Dweck.

And the article reinforces my comments about grading and the structure of our education system in yesterday’s post. Typical school environments (with their fixed class lengths, rigid curricula, lack of opportunities for playful exploration, high-stakes testing, and monomania about grades) promote anxiety and fear of errors, so how can we expect students to develop healthy responses to mistakes in such environments?

The entire article is highly recommended.


About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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10 Responses to Why Do Some People Learn Faster? (Jonah Lehrer In Wired)

  1. Pingback: Niels Henrik David Bohr | Seit über 10.000 Jahren Erfahrung in Versklavung

  2. Pingback: mistakes abound, career found « en deshabille

  3. hakea says:

    I know this isn’t very intellectual, but my Dad used to say that an ‘expert’ stood for ‘ex’ is a has-been, and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure.

  4. hakea says:

    In my field, I encourage parents to give children descriptive praise, which involves describing the effort the child puts into the task. We avoid labels such as ‘good/smart/clever/fast” etc.

    Parents are amazed at the difference descriptive praise makes. One parent said to me recently “When I say ‘good boy’ my child just stops, but when I describe the process and the effort involved he is happy to keep going and trying”.

    Not all of our kids can be brilliant at something, but as parents (and teachers) we want them to persist and do their best.

    Great post Santo.

    • Thanks, hakea!

      It’s nice to hear that your experience corroborates the work described in the linked articles. My experiences are similar …

      Now if only we can help parents to become less anxious about their children’s progress, and just let them play! But this is where your work is so vital.

      All the best,

      • hakea says:

        The body of research about supporting children’s learning through recognition of effort and descriptive praise dates back to forty years ago. It takes a long while for some ideas to take hold!

  5. Lawson says:

    Very interesting post Santo. It gives me some motivation to look harder at my mistakes.

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