This is the seventh in a series of blogposts on Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel’s seminal book on the science of learning, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press, 2014). This week focuses on the seventh chapter, ‘Increase Your Abilities’. For posts on previous chapters, see our blog.
In November, we hosted a webinar with the book’s authors, which is available on our podcast.
Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
This chapter investigates what research in neuroscience, psychology and education studies suggests about how intelligence, abilities and skills can be developed throughout life, and offers practical strategies for how this research can be applied in education (and in parenting and our own lives).
Regarding research, the chapter focuses on research concerning how the brain changes throughout life, and how human beings can influence those changes and raise their IQs (p. 165). Regarding strategies, the chapter describes three cognitive strategies for optimising our intellectual abilities and cognitive performance, which they call ‘cognitive multipliers’: strategies or behaviours that maximise the performance of the intelligence we have (pp. 178-9). These are:
1. growth mindset (pp. 179-183);
2. deliberate practice (pp. 183-185);
3. constructing memory cues (pp. 185-198).
The chapter’s ‘takeaway’ is:
- Our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth and can be significantly shaped throughout our lives. This fact is particularly important for motivation – it ‘is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us, “Why bother?”’.
- A fundamental principle for effective learning and the development of intellectual capacities and skills over a lifetime is that ‘effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability’. This is important for growth mindset: ‘To embrace this principle and reap its benefits us to be sustained through life by a growth mindset’.
- Mastery and expertise ‘most certainly entails self-discipline, grit, and persistence’: ‘with these qualities in healthy measure, if you want to become an expert, you probably can’.
- Conscious mnemonic devices ‘can help to organize and cue … learning for ready retrieval until sustained, deliberate practice and repeated use form the deeper encoding and subconscious mastery that characterize expert performance’ (p. 199).
Neuroplasticity is the relatively recent neuroscientific concept that the ‘brain is not hardwired but plastic, mutable, something that reorganizes itself with each new task’ (p. 166). The authors go through several important areas of current research on the neuroscience of learning, memory and intellectual capacities (pp. 166-7 & 169-71). Their discussion covers various areas of the brain and neuroscientific processes and outlines how these underpin sensory experience, cognition and motor skills, including learning and memory. They draw upon evidence for neuroplasticity from the success of strategies for improving learning and memory such as retrieval practice, spaced practice, rule learning, rehearsal, and the construction of mental models (p. 172). (For more on these learning methods, see our previous blog posts on the book.)
The authors argue that while most of our capacities are inherited genetically, we can develop our intellectual abilities significantly throughout life. They argue that children’s brains acquire a huge amount of information during the early years, but evidence suggests that ‘most learning is acquired after synaptic formation stabilizes’ – that is, after our early years (p. 167; see also p. 168). Important quotes from the chapter supporting these views are the following:
‘We come into the world endowed with the raw materials of our genes, but we become capable through the learning and development of mental models and neural pathways that enable us to reason, solve, and create’ (p. 165). (A ‘mental model’ is ‘a mental representation of some external reality’ (p. 6).)
‘[T]he architecture and gross structure of the brain appear to be substantially determined by genes but … the fine structure of neural networks appears to be shapred by experience and [is] capable of substantial modification’ (p. 168).
‘[T]he speed of our mental abilities is determined by the robustness of our neural connections’; this is ‘largely determined by our genes, but … our neural circuitry does not mature as early as our physical development and … continues to change and grow through out forties, fifties, and sixties’ (p. 170).
‘[H]uman intellectual development is a lifelong dialogue between inherited tendencies and our life history’ (p. 173).
The authors also discuss the phenomenon of ‘neurogenesis’, where the hippocampus (the area of the brain that consolidates learning and memory) can generate new neurons throughout life. Neurogenesis is thought to play a central role in human beings’ lifelong ability to learn: it ‘plays a role in the consolidation of memory and the beneficial effects that spaced and effortful retrieval practice have on long-term retention’ (p. 172). (For more on consolidation and its role in memory formation, see this blog post.) Another particularly interesting area of their discussion on the neuroscience of learning is the neuroscientific evidence behind ‘associative learning’, the process in which we learn and remember the relationship between seemingly unrelated items (p. 172).
Chunking and automaticity
The authors discuss the neuroscience behind the process known as ‘chunking’ and its relation to how we can master certain cognitive processes such that they become ‘automatic’. Chunking is defined as the neurological process where sequences of motor and cognitive actions are grouped together such that they can be performed as single units, without requiring us to make a series of conscious decisions about the various sequences that constitute a particular ‘chunk’ of sequences. Over time and with practice, such sequences can become reflexive – that is, automatic – ‘as automatic as habit’ (p. 198). For example, they discuss how chunking relates to the speed at which experts can perform certain tasks, such as professional sports players responding to events instantaneously (pp. 171-2).
Automaticity is the stage of learning where recalling a particular area of knowledge has become effortless. Automaticity results from thousands of hours of deliberate practice (discussed below). It requires overlearning: learning beyond ‘initial mastery’, such that recall is automatic and skills are fluent. (For more on overlearning and deliberate practice, see this blog post.)
Interestingly, the authors note that the ability people exhibit where they perform complex skills instantaneously, such as cricket players playing shots in response to balls bowled to them at 90 miles per hour, is exhibited by most of us when we type (p. 172).
This chapter builds upon the discussion in the previous chapter on the nature of intelligence and theories that provide evidence suggesting that IQ is buildable. In this chapter, the authors put forward more evidence that suggests that IQ is buildable (pp. 173-6). They offer an overview of evidence that suggests that the theory that IQ and intellectual potential are hardwired from birth is untenable (p. 165).
Evidence suggests that IQs have risen over the past century, following improvements in living conditions and learning environments (p. 165). A useful notion to explain one of the reasons why this has happened is that of ‘environmental multipliers’: environmental factors that ‘can deliver a disproportionate effect from a small genetic predisposition’ (p. 178). For example, a tall child playing basketball is able to develop a proficiency for certain aspects of the sport that a shorter child with the same aptitudes won’t be able to develop simply by virtue of not being taller (but, the shorter child may develop a higher aptitude for shooting 3-pointers by virtue of having to rely on practising this skill more to compete with taller players) (p. 173).
Certain environmental multipliers can enhance cognitive development. For example, two children who are equally intelligent and exposed to the same learning stimuli may develop different levels of intelligence over time because one of them is more intellectually curious than the other (p. 174). Over time, a child who is a little more curious than other children may become significantly more intelligent if they’re in an environment that feeds curiosity (p. 178).
The authors discussion of environmental multipliers is based on the work of the social psychologist Richard Nisbett, whose 2009 book Intelligence and How to Get It is one of the points of focus in this chapter. Nisbett discusses the increasing pervasiveness of stimuli over the past century that can significantly enhance cognitive development. The pervasiveness of these is used to support evidence behind why IQs have risen over the past century. One fascinating example is of a puzzle maze included in McDonald’s Happy Meals just over a decade ago that ‘was more difficult than the mazes included in an IQ test for gifted children’ (p. 173). This is not itself an example of an environmental multiplier, but rather of a seemingly insignificant factor in our environment the exposure to which can reap significant learning benefits for some children.
Other important points about IQ the authors discuss are how IQ has improved following improvements in living conditions (p. 173); the relation between socioeconomic status and the development of IQ; studies that show how nutrition affects IQ (pp. 174-5); and how pre-school relates to the development of IQ (p. 176).
The discussion of environmental multipliers leads into a discussion of the related concept of ‘cognitive multipliers’: strategies or behaviours that maximise the performance of the intelligence we have (pp. 178-9). They outline three cognitive multipliers (p. 179):
1. growth mindset (pp. 179-183);
2. deliberate practice (pp. 183-185);
3. constructing memory cues (pp. 185-198).
What follows is a brief overview of this chapter’s discussion of these three areas.
1. Growth mindset
The authors discuss the distinction between growth and fixed mindsets (pp. 179-180). Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindset holds that we tend to adopt two types of mindset: ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’. A fixed mindset involves beliefs that abilities are fixed; a growth mindset involves beliefs that abilities can develop. Students with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their abilities cannot be changed. Students with a growth mindset tend to believe that with hard work and effort, they can improve.
Encouraging a growth mindset involves replacing students’ beliefs that abilities are fixed with beliefs that abilities can develop. Dweck holds that ‘Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient’ – that active ingredient is a growth mindset (Dweck, quoted on p. 183).
A central theme of the discussion on growth mindset is on the relation between growth mindset and resilience. The authors discuss the work of author and journalist Paul Tough, whose 2013 book How Children Succeed develops Dweck’s work to argue that our success is less dependent on our IQs than on character skills and dispositions such as persistence, curiosity and grit (p. 182).
Dweck argues that failure is beneficial for developing resilience – failure ‘gives you useful information, and the opportunity to discover what you’re capable of doing when you really set your mind to it’ (p. 183). Tough argues that an ‘essential ingredient’ for building resilience is ‘encountering adversity in childhood and learning how to overcome it’ (p. 182). Children who are ‘never allowed to fail or overcome adversity on their own initiative’, he argues, are ‘denied the character-building experiences essential for success later in life’ (p. 182).
The authors suggest that the takeaway from Dweck and Tough is that ‘discipline, grit, and a growth mindset … imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success’ more than IQ (p. 183).
One particularly interesting piece of advice the authors put forward is that aiming for ‘learning goals’ is better than aiming for ‘performance goals’, because by aiming for the former, we are more likely to increase our abilities (p. 180). They draw attention to evidence that suggests that focusing on performance goals is even a problem for people with roles where we would expect aiming for performance goals to be especially important, such as star athletes (p. 181).
2. Deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a systematic method of effortful, highly focused, goal-oriented practice which aims at improving performance. It involves intentionally engaging in skills-based learning. For an outline of what deliberate practice involves, see this blog post.
The concept was coined and developed in the 1970s by K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a renowned expert on the psychology of expertise and performance. The authors discuss Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice and argue that it is an effective technique for optimising performance, leading to mastery and expertise (pp. 166 & 183-185). They describe fascinating cases of ‘memory athletes’ applying deliberate practice to remember enormous amounts of information in intricate detail (p. 195).
3. Constructing memory cues
‘Mnemonic devices’ are ‘mental tools to help hold material in memory, cued for ready recall’ (p. 185). A particularly interesting example of a mnemonic device discussed in this chapter is a ‘memory palace’: a ‘more complex type of mnemonic device that is useful for organizing and holding larger volumes of material in memory’ (p. 185). Memory palaces are based on the method of loci (p. 185) (for a discussion of this method, see this blog post).
A fascinating real-life example of memory palaces being used effectively is described, where A Level students used memory palaces to prepare for psychology exams (pp. 186 & 190-2). One of the students was a student of memory athlete and teacher James Paterson, whose remarkable mnemonic skills and how he applies them in his teaching are described (pp. 163-4; 166; 193-5).
The authors make some important points about memory cues and how these can be applied to teaching and learning, such as taking into account, when we construct memory cues, the fact that we remember images better than words (p. 186). ‘Images’, the authors write, ‘cue memories’ (p. 187). Memory palaces focus on the imagery of memories. They also discuss the benefits of using rhyme as a mnemonic tool (pp. 188-9).
The authors note some of the shortcomings of using mnemonics as shortcuts, even in cases of memory athletes (pp. 196-7). An important point they make about the value and use of mnemonics is that their utilising mnemonics ‘to raise intellectual abilities comes after mastery of new material’ (p. 197). So, for long-term learning benefits, mnemonics should always be used in conjunction with teaching and learning strategies that aim to develop mastery.
Here are two questions we might consider.
1. Applying growth mindset in the classroom
Dweck’s research shows that emphasising effort is more beneficial for long-term learning and the development of abilities than emphasising intelligence, because ‘Emphasizing effort gives a child a rare variable they can control, but emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of a child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure’ (p. 182).
What are the most effective ways to apply this in the classroom?
2. Expertise and ‘expert generalists’
Given the demands of gaining expertise through deliberate practice, which research suggests takes around 10,000 hours (i.e., around a decade of deliberate practice), the authors write, ‘Most people who achieve expertise in a field are destined to remain average performers in the other realms of life’ (p. 185). However, there is increasing research to suggest that some people are better suited to mastering several areas, rather than reaching expertise in one (or a few) (see David Epstein’s 2019 book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and this blog post).
If some students are better suited to becoming generalists rather than experts in one area, how can we best support the development of generalists in schools?