Do our Kids Learn how to Learn?

In the last few days I’ve gone back to revisit Carol Dweck’s work in the area of growth mindset. The success of the Brainology program with senior elementary students had me thinking about ways that I could incorporate similar sessions into our first year program.

As I tried to gather examples I could use to demonstrate that ‘we’re not born with talent and that, with effort and practice, one can excel at a chosen activity’, I realized that the majority of cases involve some form of doing. Kids don’t seem to balk at the endless playing required to become the best at Guitar Hero, the drills and practices required to make the sports team, or the time, skill, and effort required to create an animation for YouTube. There are endless opportunities for skills growth, but what about cognitive growth?

In the ‘good old days’ we were forced to remember things very early in our academic careers … times tables, proper spelling, poetry, the capitals of provinces, states and countries, verb conjugations, historical dates … the list goes on and on. We studied them over and over until they were firmly rooted in our little heads. We also had to remember phone numbers, bus schedules, and how to get from point A to point B. Every one of these activities forced us to stretch our brains just a little bit. We may not have always liked it, nor can we recall great chunks of it now, but we did learn how to learn.

Today we have digital memories. Instead of remembering things, we Google them. Documents are spell checked for us, we program numbers into our phones, and use our GPSs to get where we’re going. Technology has made our lives easier, but is this ease of access is eroding away at our ability (and desire) to really learn concepts through effort and practice?

One of my colleagues had a student tell him “I only have time to do it; I don’t have time to learn it.” It seems to sum up what many post-secondary faculty are observing … students practice a combination of strategic and surface learning; they do what they need to do in order to pass the course, and cram to pass the test. Deep learning requires one to integrate new information and experiences into our existing knowledge base, but if a student doesn’t make any effort to remember and relate fundamental facts and relationships, then how can he/she possibly learn and grow? Maybe the underlying message from that student was really “I only know how to do, I don’t know how to learn.

Now I’m certainly not condoning the return to the rote learning of yesteryear, but it is critical that we somehow help our students build effective learning strategies. Since ‘doing’ is what today’s students seems to do best, we must help them cross the chasm from simply ‘doing’ to ‘learning-through-doing’. Offering our students level-appropriate, challenging, and authentic learning experiences will allow them to acquire content-specific knowledge and skills, while developing and strengthening executive processes such as planning, critical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, reasoning, and self reflection.


About N. Nelson

A college professor with more than 30 years of teaching experience, I am constantly exploring how the current educational paradigm can be adapted to better meet the needs of today’s learners, while still reaching the mandate placed on us by the community and employers to prepare these students for life and careers beyond the college. I enjoy sharing my teaching experiences and expertise through Professional Development Workshops on topics such as Project-Based Learning, Flipping your Classroom, Impacting Student Success, Engaging Large Classes, and Stretching your Teaching Comfort Zone. I am also willing to share my experiences and expertise on the processes required to meet the updated CEAB engineering accreditation requirements.
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