Learning to Learn

[Versión en español aquí.]


Today, while I was checking the newspapers, I stumbled upon this article [spanish]: Aprender a Pensar.

A small summary could be this: the article is about an educational method based on ‘learning to think’, instead of ‘learning to study’ (ie. learning to memorize or guessing -right- what will be on the test). And the idea is simple enough: instead of spoon-feeding the contents to the students as we usually do now, we would ‘challenge’ them to pick up all/part of the contents by themselves, through some project or premise that would allow them to be commited to it (and thus, to their own learning process).

The main barrier to learning a new skill is feeling stupid.

I was specially cheered up by this article, because it is one of those things that I have said out loud several times before (sorry for those of you who know me and have suffered my ranting about it!), and I believe it is one of the keys to getting students who are more commited to their own learning, and maybe even more importantly, to start losing the widespread notion -at least here in Spain- that the one who works the most is a sucker. Nobody benefits from your own study except for you, and the people you have or will have under your care. Maybe that’s also a worthy lesson to learn.

But let’s get back to our topic. The secret of this method is that it is taking into account something essential: the main barrier to learning a new skill is not intellectual, but emotional.

Let me repeat that, with a different wording: the main barrier to learning a new skill is not an absence of aptitude, but a fear of feeling stupid.

I know that quite a few of those who read me consider that you are “not fit for doing math”. That you simply “don’t get it”. And while it is true that there is a very small number of people who actually have an aptitude problem with math, or some mental particularity that really makes math exceedingly complicated to learn, I have bad news for you: no, you are not one of them.

There is a trick here, and it is that the reason why you are anchored in this belief is actually double. On the one hand, the difference between a growth mindset, and a fixed mindset. And on the other hand, the ‘why’ of this post: the fear of feeling stupid.

The first reason warrants its own post (and it will have it!), but in short: if you believe that you were born with some aptidudes and skills, and “that’s all there is”, then you have a fixed mindset. If you believe that your skills and aptitudes are plastic, and can be improved, trained, and expanded, and even add new pieces to the mix… then you have a growth mindset.

The problem with the fixed mindset is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: since you believe you can’t do some things, you will not do the necessary things to learn them, and you will practice (if you do, at all) inefficiently and not really caring about it, which will of course result in a failed attempt at learning said skill, confirming your belief that you can’t do it.

The second problem comes from avoiding at all costs feeling like an idiot. When we face math, we have two options: either we learn the skills required to perform well (eg. abstract reasoning and thinking), or we try to use our usual tool to overcome the problem (memory). However, learning those skills requires accepting that we will spend some hours just hitting a wall, every single time something fundamentally new appears, and that requires a new way of thinking or acting. In other words, accepting that in the process to do it right, there will be many “hours of stupidity”.

This applies to essentially anything we want to learn, but I’ve chosen the example of math because it is one that most of us can relate to.

Let me go back to the beginning now: that is exactly the main advantage of these kind of teaching methods. They teach us not “how to think” but rather to feel okay with those little whiles of facing our own stupidity. To embrace the fact that after some hours of that uncomfortable feeling, we will be on the other side: we will be “competent” on our new skill. Or to feel okay with the process of exploration, search, and trial-and-error that always precede true learning.

That’s why having a project to complete, one to which we feel commited, and that is new to us, somehow compels us to learn whatever we need to learn, to search for the necessary information, to practice the new skill we need to perform… and won’t allow us to turn to our memory to circle the problem around. To me, that is the greatest strength of this method.

However, if you would let me be a little bit more direct…

It’s all about learning to accept that sometimes we will be caught without pants, and that’s okay. It’s about learning to learn. 

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