Focus on Learning: Jonah Lehrer (1)

July 2, 2010

We begin every academic year at Earlham with a faculty retreat.  For two days the whole faculty gathers to focus on something, learning together.  Sometimes we bring an outside speaker or two, sometimes we don’t.  The range of topics for faculty retreat varies from “globalization” to “learning disabilities.”  The fruits of faculty retreat can be seen in altered course syllabi, and can also be seen in the unusual colleagiality that characterizes Earlham.

This year faculty retreat will be held August 17-19.  We are focusing — and not for the first time — on how students learn.  As preparation we are reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), a  book that provides a very readable, lay introduction to what we are learning from neuroscience about how people make decisions.

Reading the book this week I am particularly struck by a section on the importance of learning from our mistakes.  “Unfortunately,” Lehrer writes, “children are often taught the exact opposite.  Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart).  [Carol] Dweck [a Stanford psychologist] has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge.  The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn” (p52).

Lehrer goes on to describe a study in which teachers praised some students for their effort, and some student students for their intelligence.  The students who were praised for their effort went on to learn more in subsequent work.

I think this passage particularly spoke to me because it reminds me of how I was mostly taught.  I was praised for being intelligent and for ‘getting things right.’  So I came to think of education as a process of figuring out what I was naturally ‘good at.’  When I occasionally encountered subjects that didn’t come easily, I tended to quit (thinking I can’t learn this) rather than to try harder.

We need to encourage our students to believe they can learn, even things that first seem hard, because they can:  that is how we all learn.  That is what we are learning from neuroscience.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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