The Learning Myth: Anyone can Be/Learn Anything

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes
Overloaded - I'm sorry to say I do not know the original source of this image. The copy I have  was downloaded in July 2004.

Overloaded – I’m sorry to say I do not know the original source of this image. The copy I have was downloaded in July 2004.

When you say that all you need to do to succeed is to try, and they fail, the implication is they simply aren’t trying hard enough. That’s not good.

Not everyone is a genius. Really. And there is no evidence that the oft-repeated quote about tree-climbing and fish attributed to Einstein was ever said by Einstein. The first known reference to this quote comes from a self-help book (and we all know how careful self-help books are when it comes to making sure all their information is true and valid).

There is some value in the idea that we should praise effort – but note that this should not be conflated with grades in courses. Unless you are explicitly looking to assess effort rather than achievement, do NOT give marks for effort. But by all means, let them try more than once (one of the many reasons why tests are usually misguided).

I agree with Sal Khan that encouraging a growth mindset is a good idea. It’s a part of what I facilitate with my gamified course design. BUT, while it is true that intelligence is not fixed, I do not believe that there is no ceiling. There really is. We absolutely should be encouraging everyone to develop their thinking skills (as well as all other talents), but to imply that everyone can reach the same level of greatness in anything they set their minds to is just plain mean.

It’s the same kind of mindset that ends up assuming people who are down on their luck must simply not be trying hard enough.

The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart | Khan Academy.

My 5-year-­old son has just started reading. Every night, we lie on his bed and he reads a short book to me. Inevitably, he’ll hit a word that he has trouble with: last night the word was “gratefully.” He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” I smiled: my son was now verbalizing the tell­-tale signs of a “growth­ mindset.” But this wasn’t by accident. Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows. Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach.

Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.


What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.

However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has been studying people’s mindsets towards learning for decades. She has found that most people adhere to one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure. Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset tended to focus their effort on tasks where they had a high likelihood of success and avoided tasks where they may have had to struggle, which limited their learning. People with a growth mindset, however, embraced challenges, and understood that tenacity and effort could change their learning outcomes. As you can imagine, this correlated with the latter group more actively pushing themselves and growing intellectually.

Here’s the rub: Individuals do indeed have limits to their abilities, but we have no way of determining what those limits are. That means that the idea of a growth mindset is a good one and should be embraced, but we also need to acknowledge that we may reach the limits of our growth in any given endeavor, and it’s important to be OK with that. The really hard part is figuring out when that limit has been reached. How can we know that we’re at our limit; that no new approach is going to help us advance our abilities? Well, I don’t think we ever can.

So then the question becomes, how long do we keep encouraging learners to try when they are making no more progress?

That’s a tough one.

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