Slowing Down, Feeling Dumb, Getting Smarter

by Guest Blogger
June 11th, 2013

Assuming everyone reading this blog is an adult, I think there’s one experience we all share: Time going by too fast. Unlike when we were children, the weeks, months, and even years seem to fly by. Someone once told me that it’s because each for each day you live, any one day is a smaller percentage of your life. There may be something to that, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. I think adult life seems to fly by because adults so rarely do new things.

If I want to slow down the clock, I try something new. A new yoga class or recipe can slow down an evening. A couple of years ago, building on my love of hiking, I took a forestry course that slowed down the fall as I struggled to identify various trees by their (strikingly similar) leaves. My new job has slowed down this entire spring—and since I still have a lot to learn, it’s looking like I’m going to have a pretty slow summer.

Most people I’ve talked to about this (okay, that’s not many) agree that tackling something new temporarily alleviates that sense of life passing by, so why don’t we learn new things more often? There are plenty of obvious answers; I’ll skip to what I think are the real answers (and, yup, this is the part where a blog feels too much like a diary). New things are often hard, confusing, and when they make you feel dumb, scary.

Since children are confronted with newness almost daily in school, I think adults—especially adults in education—should feel obligated to push themselves into new territory with some regularity. The benefits could range from empathizing with students to being better able to digest research on learning.

I was thinking about this today as I read a recent talk by Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist writing a book titled Brilliant: The New Science of Smart. She explored eight facets of intelligence. While the whole talk is worth reading, she makes a few points that are especially relevant to those interested in Core Knowledge:

Beliefs can make us smarter. Many of you have probably encountered the work of Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who wrote the terrific book Mindset. Dweck distinguishes two types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and unchanging, and the growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be developed through learning and practice.

These beliefs matter because they influence how think about our own abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when faced with a challenge or with adversity.

Anyone trying to engage students in a rigorous curriculum should be very familiar with Carol Dweck’s research. While the fixed mindset is quite common in the US, research supports the growth mindset: learning new things actually makes your smarter. Sadly, students with a fixed mindset have been found to avoid challenging work for fear that it will show that they are not smart. Students with a growth mindset are more eager to take on challenging work and to be persistent. Dweck’s research not only highlights the importance of teaching the growth mindset, it has produced specific ways of praising and interacting with students to reinforce the message that effort and mistakes are essential to cultivating intelligence.

 Expertise can make us smarter…. An expert’s knowledge is deep, not shallow or superficial; it is well-organized, around a core of central principles; it is automatic, meaning that it has been streamlined into mental programs that run with very little conscious effort; it is flexible and transferable to new situations; it is self-aware, meaning that an expert can think well about his or her own thinking. Expertise takes a long time to develop, of course, but the adolescent and young adult years are not too soon to begin encouraging students to go deep in a subject area that interests them.

Just as I think adults should force themselves out of their comfort zones and into new territory, I agree with Annie that youth should be encouraged to develop true expertise. In fact, I’d say we could start much younger than adolescence. The seven-year-old who knows more than the average adult about dinosaurs or ballet is already getting a taste of the pleasure of expertise. Students with deep knowledge of a topic experience the meaningful boost to self-esteem that comes from a real accomplishment. Neither their content knowledge nor their knowledge of their own competence can be taken from them. If all children had the opportunity to develop some expertise, just think how much easier it would be to explain the growth mindset and convince all students that intelligence comes from effort, not just genes.

Attention can make us smarter. You’ve probably heard about the ‘marshmallow test,’ a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. Mischel found that children who could resist eating a marshmallow in return for the promise of two marshmallows later on did better in school and in their careers.

Well, there’s a new marshmallow test that is faced every day, almost every minute by our students: it’s the ability to resist the urge to check one’s email, to respond to a text, to see what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter. I know we’ve all heard that ‘digital natives’ grew up multitasking and therefore excel at it, but the fact is that there are information-processing bottlenecks in the brain—everybody’s brain—that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same time.

This, of course, is directly related to the growth mindset and expertise—you can’t attain them without paying attention. And yet, it’s one thing to convince students that the more you know the smarter you are—it’s another to convince them that no one smart enough to learn about the world while texting. Multitaskers tend to think they are good at doing two or more things at once—like texting, checking Facebook, and doing homework. But in fact, no one is good at it, and multitaskers tend to be worse at focusing their attention.

So what if students aren’t paying much attention in class, can’t they just Google what they need to know whenever they need to know it? Probably not. Even the ability to look something up requires a base of knowledge. As Annie put it: “The ready availability of technology may persuade students that they don’t need to learn facts anymore, because they can always ‘just Google it.’ In fact, research from cognitive science shows that the so-called ’21stcentury skills’ that we’re always hearing about—critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity—can’t emerge in a content-free vacuum. They must develop in the context of a rich base of fact knowledge: knowledge that’s stored on the original hard drive, one’s own brain.”

So, here’s to having some empathy and productive praise for those students whose “hard drives” are assimilating as much new knowledge as possible. And here’s to making sure that those of us who haven’t learned anything new recently make a little time this summer to slow down, overcome our fears, and tackle a foreign topic.


  1. This is exactly what is not happening in schools today. NPR just ran this story on how kids are reading basically at a 5th grade level clear through high school.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 12, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  2. Google is written on a 5th grade level.

    Comment by Cindy — June 23, 2013 @ 7:26 am

  3. I agree there are not enough hours in the day. We need to re-charge just as the student do. Keeping learning fresh is our job. I want my students to want to learn from me and be excited to come to school.

    Comment by Marni — July 18, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

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