The Importance of Attitude in Learning: Why It Outshines Aptitude

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Limitless Mind" by Jo Boaler. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does the aptitude theory of learning hold water? What can help you excel even if you’re not in the “gifted” category?

Science now says that we’re capable of learning more and better than we think. So, built-in aptitudes are no longer seen as the be-all and end-all when it comes to how much and how well we learn. Math educator Jo Boaler explains that the way we think about learning matters tremendously.

Keep reading to discover the importance of attitude in learning.

Attitude in Learning

The aptitude theory of learning has negative effects on both struggling students and those considered “gifted.” Now, we’re discovering the importance of attitude in learning. While an attitude of growth has many benefits, it may take effort to relearn how to learn.

Many teachers and parents tell students that they’re simply not good at certain subjects in school. Sometimes this is done with good intentions, such as to offer comfort when a student struggles, but sometimes it’s a symptom of systematic prejudice, such as telling girls and students of color that they’re not good at science and math. Boaler points out that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy—students who are told they’re low achievers tend to give up and stay in that group, and teachers who pass that judgment on a student put less effort into helping them succeed. Studies show that fixed-thinking beliefs—that you’re either good at something or you’re not—can become ingrained as early as the age of three.

(Shortform note: Proponents of classifying students based on ability point to certain advantages of the system, especially for children with special learning needs. Special education programs ideally provide more personalized student-teacher interactions, programs designed for students’ particular needs, and access to specialized learning materials not available in general classrooms. However, such programs can stigmatize students and impede their social development. While the idea of segregating regular classes by students’ perceived ability levels came under fire in the 1980s, the practice went through a resurgence in the 2010s even as Boaler’s research was arguing against it.)

Boaler says that even students labeled as “gifted” or told they have an aptitude for a particular subject can suffer from the effects of being labeled. If they believe their abilities are a fixed commodity, then when they start to feel challenged by a subject, they’ll think their talent has run out. Gifted students see any possible failure as a source of shame, so they avoid it. They’ll hide any difficulties they’re having by not asking questions and avoiding difficult tasks. Praising students for being talented or smart encourages them to not challenge themselves so they don’t risk losing their elevated status. Students segregated into high-achieving groups will also compare themselves to others and may feel like frauds if they’re not at the top of the class.

(Shortform note: “Gifted and talented” education programs blossomed during the 1960s and ’70s, spurred on by the scientific and technological competition between the US and the USSR. Long before Boaler, though, psychologists questioned the negative emotional impact of labeling students as gifted. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, first published in 1979, Alice Miller pointed to depression in adulthood as a result of linking a child’s self-worth to their capacity for achievement. More recent studies show that so-called gifted children feel emotions more intensely than their peers, an experience that can be misconstrued as emotional immaturity and manifest as behavioral problems in response to isolation and parental expectations.)

But how do you overcome a lifetime of being taught to believe your talents and intelligence are fixed, and how do we keep from passing these same beliefs along to our children? Boaler insists the key is to adopt the belief that you can learn anything. This isn’t merely a case of wishful thinking—research shows that your beliefs about learning have a direct impact on the way your brain functions. People who adopt the attitude that they can learn show heightened levels of brain activity compared to those who believe their mental acuity is fixed. Plus, if you reframe your attitude toward being challenged by a subject so that you view it as a process of growth instead of a sign of weakness, it will change the entire way you approach learning.

(Shortform note: The psychological power of reframing your outlook reaches far beyond its educational applications. In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins presents reframing as a fundamental tool of self-motivation. He explains that self-limiting beliefs restrict many of the decisions you make and hold you back from many opportunities for growth. Once you identify your negative self-beliefs, whether in Boaler’s realm of education or in other areas, you can question those beliefs, challenge the assumptions they’re based on, and take measures to change your conceptions of yourself in ways that are more beneficial.)

Boaler says that changing your attitude toward challenges and failures is the first step toward broadening your horizons. Instead of approaching failure with judgment, see it as a sign that you’re on the right track. Just as physical exercise can be painful and exhausting, so, too, is struggling with a problem or a concept a sign that you’re working your brain’s metaphorical muscles. Teachers and parents can reframe students’ fears about a subject by reminding them that just because they don’t understand it yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t with hard work. Self-doubt is a natural part of learning, so students and teachers must all understand that making mistakes should be valued as an essential educational tool.

(Shortform note: While Boaler focuses on the role of teachers and parents in fostering healthy attitudes toward learning and problem-solving, television is another avenue for introducing this message to children. Many children’s programs today are built on the premise that anyone can learn anything and that perseverance through difficult problems is a vital part of the learning process. One such show is Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, in which one character famously tells another that being bad at something is just the first step to eventually being good at it.)

Exercise: How Did Your Beliefs About Learning Shape Your Education?

In Limitless Mind, Jo Boaler contends that being labeled as a high, average, or poor achiever, as well as being told that you are or aren’t good at a subject, creates a limiting mindset that can keep you from reaching your full potential. Think back to your time in school and reflect on what kind of messages (positive or negative) you were given by parents and teachers and what impact they had on your educational growth.

  • During your early school years, were you labeled as an above- or below-average student? If so, what expectations do you feel were set for you? As a result, do you feel you received more or less attention from teachers than other students in your class?
  • Were you ever told that you had a special aptitude for any given subject? If so, what was it, and why? How did being told you had a talent affect your efforts and dedication to that subject?
  • Were you ever discouraged from doing well in a subject? If so, what reason were you given? If you chose to pursue that subject anyway, how did you go about it? If you chose to return to it as an adult, how would your attitude toward it be different?
The Importance of Attitude in Learning: Why It Outshines Aptitude

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jo Boaler's "Limitless Mind" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Limitless Mind summary:

  • Why everything you thought you knew about natural abilities is wrong
  • Why attitude is more important than aptitude when it comes to learning
  • How to apply the science to boost your learning

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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