Monday, December 28, 2009

Two approaches to learning

Sometime back in August, in a comment on one of my posts, Jorge suggested that I read Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning (Free Press, 2007). I got as far as obtaining a copy of the book and then somehow got distracted—too many books, too little time. When Linda Raschke referenced it in a recent webinar I refocused. I curled up with The Art of Learning, a truly marvelous book for anyone seeking to improve her performance.

Josh Waitzkin, in case his name doesn’t resonate, was an eight-time national chess champion in his youth. He was the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, a book written by his father and subsequently made into a movie. He then went on to become a martial arts champion with 21 national championship titles and several world championship titles. He also helped to develop Chessmaster, the best-selling chess-playing computer game series, now owned by UbiSoft. You might describe him as an overachiever.

I’m going to mine his book for insights over a series of posts, but there’s no way my desiccated summaries can begin to capture the passion of the book. You get what you pay for. Today’s theme is essentially the difference between statis and process.

There is little room at the top in competitive worlds. Most people who try will be disappointed. So, Waitzkin asks, what separates out the winners from the also-rans and the outright losers? And, “if ambition spells probable disappointment, why pursue excellence?” He suggests that “the answer to both questions lies in a well-thought-out approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and day-to-day enjoyment of the process. The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning.” (pp. 29-30)

Drawing on the work of developmental psychologists Waitzkin describes two differing views of intelligence—entity and incremental. The first view looks upon overall intelligence or skill at a certain task or set of tasks as fixed; the kid is inherently smart or dumb, is good at math but is a bad speller. The second view might adopt the old Avis slogan “we try harder” as its mantra; with hard work, incrementally, the bad speller can improve and perhaps even become a crack speller.

When challenged, those who have an entity view of intelligence are “brittle and prone to quit” because they have a “learned helplessness orientation”; the incrementalists keep plugging away. It is easy to destroy the self-confidence of the first group because “they feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered.” They find it difficult to come back from defeat.

Fortunately it seems that we can reprogram ourselves to view particular tasks/challenges as part of an overall learning process in which we are trying to achieve mastery rather than as stand-alone exercises that will be judged or graded. This reprogramming is not only good for the soul; it also improves performance on these tasks. Kids who received “mastery-oriented” instructions outperformed those who received “helplessness-producing” instructions.

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