You can learn anything. You can develop any skills and cultivate any abilities. When you work hard, use effective learning strategies, persist in the face of difficulties, and reflect on your progress, you can become anything you want. Here at The Learning Code, we know these things are true about you. In this post, we introduce a working definition of learning to support these beliefs. We also share a powerful learning principle designed to help you develop positive beliefs about yourself and to protect you against negative messages that you might receive from your instructors, peers, media, or other people in your life.
Before we talk about our belief that you can learn anything, let’s develop a shared understanding of the meaning of the verb to learn.
We define learning as a growth process that happens inside your brain and leads to changes in your life. These transformations occur based on your experiences and increase your potential for improved performance and future learning (adapted from How Learning Works by Ambrose et al.).
Some features of this definition are worth exploring more deeply:
1. Learning is a growth process that takes place in your mind. Learning literally involves activating brain cells, growing new pathways in your brain, and strengthening existing connections.
2. Your brain is in a constant state of growth and change. When you dedicate more effort and struggle to master a specific skill, your brain grows more and you learn more. If you stop exercising the parts of your brain dedicated to that skill, these pathways will weaken and eventually fade away.
3. Learning involves changes in your knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. As you learn, your body and your brain physically change as well. These changes unfolds over time and cannot occur in an instant. To learn and change, you must repeatedly engage in focused practice over many days, weeks, months, or years.
4. Learning is not something that others can do for you or to you. Rather, learning is something that you do for yourself.
5. Learning occurs as a direct result of the strategies you use to learn as well as how you interpret and respond to your experiences. Your beliefs about yourself and the techniques you use to learn are fundamentally important in determining how your brain grows.
It is worth mentioning that almost every word in the definition above has a mountain of scientific evidence to support the claims made within. Not only is this working definition useful as we help you develop effective and efficient learning habits, but this definition includes scientifically validated facts about learning!
We can and will write thousands of words on each of the components of learning highlighted in the definition above. We will also frequently revisit this definition. Stay tuned to The Learning Code for more on this.
In this article, let’s focus on one of the most important aspects of our definition of learning which is belief. Every member of our Learning Code community believes in you! We know you have the capacity to accomplish great things and to learn anything you want. We also recognize that belief is like a flower: in order to help it bloom, you need to spend energy feeding it on a daily basis.
In fact, your beliefs about yourself are much more meaningful than our beliefs about you. The messages and stories you tell yourself about your own ability matter. What you believe to be true about yourself is a crucial factor that influences how you learn. We sum up this idea in our first learning principle.
|Learning Principle 1: What you believe about your own intelligence and ability is very important.|
You may not be consciously aware of your own mental attitudes and beliefs towards learning. But, the theories you have about your own intelligence play a significant role in how you respond to the myriad of challenges that arise as you learn something new. A team of psychologists conducted a study on this subject and found that students who believe that they can grow their brain develop a number of strategies that improve their performance over time. The same was not true for students who thought about their own abilities as fixed qualities that cannot change.
For the purposes of this conversation, let’s focus on two competing theories about intelligence and ability. We’ll call these the growth-mindset theory versus the fixed-mindset theory. The growth-mindset theory posits that by investing significant effort and practicing using effective strategies, you can change your intelligence and ability. The fixed-mindset theory holds that your intelligence and ability are fixed qualities, endowed at birth, and immutable over time.
Depending on which theory a learner believes, psychologists have found patterns in the way that learner engages in the process of learning. The table below highlights some of the differences between growth-mindset and fixed-mindset beliefs.
|Learners with a growth mindset||Learners with a fixed mindset|
|Concentrate effort on learning goals to improve their skills and ability.||Fixate on performance goals aimed at documenting their ability and achievement.|
|Believe that when they are faced with challenges, they can grow and improve by increasing their effort.||Believe that when they struggle, it is pointless to work harder because they just aren’t good enough and there is nothing they can do about it.|
|Attribute failure to either low levels of effort or low levels of mastery, but recognize they can change these factors with more practice.||Blame failure on their inadequate ability and, because they believe that they cannot change their ability, they feel helpless.|
|Rely on mastery-oriented strategies: when they are finding it difficult to accomplish an important task, they increase their effort or change their strategy.||Rely on helpless strategies: when they struggle to accomplish something important, they either give up completely or try again using the same strategy.|
It turns out that the growth mindset theory of intelligence is a much more accurate description of what actually happens inside our brain. There has been an explosion of research in cognitive science called neuroplasticity that indicates our brains are growing and changing all the time. Moreover, many scientists who have studied talent acquisition and high performance have found that talent is grown by repeatedly engaging in specific training practices.
The problem is that if you hold fixed-mindset beliefs about your own abilities, you are very unlikely to seek out new information and develop new techniques to improve your performance. That makes sense. Why would you try new strategies and invest more energy if you do not believe that such effort will produce results? Sadly, this misinformed belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With that in mind, we implore you to believe in yourself as strongly as we believe in you. You can do great things! You have the capacity to grow your brain and to become more intelligent. Recognize that when you work hard using effective strategies over a long period of time, you can learn and develop powerful skills. We know these things are true about you and we hope you know this too. To help you develop your beliefs, we suggest implementing specific practices.
|Learning PRACTICE 1: Write down some growth-mindset affirmations and keep them in a special place that you view on a daily basis.|
One way to start developing growth-mindset beliefs about your own ability is to develop a habit of repeating growth-mindset affirmations each and every day. Examples of these type of statements include:
- I can learn anything I want.
- When I work hard using effective learning strategies, my brain grows.
- My brain is growing and changing all the time.
- When I struggle, my brain becomes more sophisticated.
- Every mistake I make is an opportunity to learn more.
- The more mistakes I make, the smarter I get.
Write these down in a special place. You might post them on your bedroom wall, keep them in your wallet, or put them by your front door. A few times each day, spend three uninterrupted minutes reading these statements and reminding yourself that these are based in scientific evidence. This practice is powerful not only because it helps you develop a positive self-image as a learner but it also protects you against negative messages.
More than a few authority figures in our society are unintentionally or even willfully blind to the myriad of theories developed by experts in learning and cognitive sciences. While it is sad to see someone with a fixed-mindset belief make judgements about themselves, such misguided faith becomes dangerous when these people ascend to positions of power.
Often, leaders with a fixed-mindset theory of intelligence project their beliefs unto others who are not prepared to challenge false fixed-mindset messages. This results is a system of education and social hierarchy in which many learners receive false, negative, and even harmful messages about themselves. Because much of this messaging happens throughout childhood and young adulthood, many learners internalize these false ideas and make career decisions based on an inaccurate self-image.
One of the first steps you can take to disrupt the damages caused in this system is to advocate for yourself. Write down your list of affirmations and read those out loud to yourself multiple times a day. Then, when you are confronted with someone in your life that makes you feel inadequate or sends a negative message about your ability, recognize this person may be projecting uninformed beliefs that they hold about their own abilities onto you. At this moment, go back to your affirmations and replace the negative fixed-mindset messages with your growth-mindset beliefs.
When you work hard, your brain grows. You have an infinite capacity to grow and learn. Our Learning Code Community knows this is true about you. We are here to remind you: look deep into your own eye in a mirror and tell yourself out loud: “I can learn anything I want.”