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What makes us good at learning some things and not others?

One of the questions that students ask me is why it is that they find some subjects easy and others hard to learn. Students often tell me that they “are good� at one subject (say writing) and “are not good� at another (say physics), with the clear implication that they feel that there is something intrinsic and immutable about them that determines what they are good at. It is as if they see their learning abilities as being mapped onto a multi-dimensional grid in which each axis represents a subject, with their own abilities lying along a continuous scale ranging from ‘awful’ at one extreme to ‘excellent’ at the other. Is this how it is?

This is a really tough question and I don’t think there is a definitive answer at this time. Those interested in this topic should register for the free public lecture by Steven Pinker on March 14.

Why are some people drawn to some areas of study and not to others? Why do they find some things difficult and others easy? Is it due to the kind of teaching that one receives or parental influence or some innate quality like genes?

The easiest answer is to blame it on genes or at least on the hard-wiring of the brain. In other words, we are born the way we are, with gifts in some areas and deficiencies in others. It seems almost impossible to open the newspapers these days without reading that scientists have found the genes that ‘cause’ this or that human characteristic so it is excusable to jump to genes as the cause of most inexplicable things.

But that is too simple. After all, although the brain comes at birth with some hard-wired structures, it is also quite plastic and the direction in which it grows is also strongly influenced by the experiences it encounters. But it seems that most of the rapid growth and development occurs fairly early in life and so early childhood and adolescent experiences are important in determining future directions.

But what kinds of experiences are the crucial ones for determining future academic success? Now things get more murky and it is hard to say which ones are dominant. We cannot even say that the same factors play the same role for everyone. So for one person, a single teacher’s influence could be pivotal. For another, it could be the parent’s influence. The influences could also be positive or negative.

So there is no simple answer. But I think that although this is an interesting question, the answer has little practical significance for a particular individual at this stage of their lives in college. You are now what you are. The best strategy is to not dwell on why you are not something else, but to identify your strengths and use them to your advantage.

It is only when you get really deep into a subject (any subject) and start to explore its foundations and learn about its underlying knowledge structure that you start to develop higher-level cognitive skills that will last you all your life. But this only happens if you like the subject because only then will you willingly expend the intellectual effort to study it in depth. With things that we do not care much about, we tend to skim on the surface, doing just the bare minimum to get by. This is why it is important to identify what you really like to do and go for it.

You should also identify your weaknesses and dislikes and contain them. By “containâ€? I mean that there is really no reason why at this stage you should force yourself to try and like (say) mathematics or physics or Latin or Shakespeare or whatever and try to excel in them, if you do not absolutely need to. What’s the point? What are you trying to prove and to whom? If there was a really good reason that you needed to know something about those areas now or later in life, the higher-level learning skills you develop by charging ahead in the things you like now could be used to learn something that you really need to know later.

I don’t think that people have an innate “limitâ€?, in the sense that there is some insurmountable barrier that prevents them from achieving more in any area. I am perfectly confident that some day if you needed or wanted to know something in those areas, you would be able to learn it. The plateau or barrier that students think they have reached is largely determined by their inner sense of “what’s the point?â€?

I think that by the time they reach college, most students have reached the “need to know� stage in life, where they need a good reason to learn something. In earlier K-12 grades, they were in the “just in case� stage where they did not know where they would be going and needed to prepare themselves for any eventuality.

This has important implications for teaching practice. As teachers, we should make it our goal to teach in such a way that students see the deep beauty that lies in our discipline, so that they will like it for its own sake and thus be willing to make the effort. It is not enough to tell them that it is “useful� or “good for them.�

In my own life, I now happily learn about things that I would never have conceived that I would be interested in when I was younger. The time and circumstances have to be right for learning to have its fullest effect. As Edgar says in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.�

(The quote from Shakespeare is a good example of what I mean. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would some day be familiar enough with Shakespeare to quote him comfortably, I would have said you were crazy because I hated his plays at that time. But much later in life, I discovered the pleasures of reading his works.)

So to combine the words from the song by Bobby McFerrin, and the prison camp commander in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my own advice is “Don’t worry. Be happy in your work.â€?

Sources:

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.,1999.

James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2002.

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