Lately I’ve been obsessing about meta-cognition, the way we think about our own thinking. In some quarters this is called an “intra-personal” skill, grouped with things like controlling your own attention, switching intentionally among tasks, and regulating your emotional responses to stress.
Such mindfulness, the cultivated awareness of our own neuro-cognitive activity, has a couple of benefits. For one, understanding the quirks of our own intelligence makes it easier to learn the next new thing. For another, people who know themselves well are often easier to be around and work with. In this sense, the intra-personal facilitates the interpersonal.
It’s become my recent obsession as the impacts of computing and robotics get clearer. We used to tout the benefits of college in terms of knowledge acquisition – major in x, then master the details of x, then go sell yourself as an x-ist until you retire.
The tacit assumption was that any other positive results of your time in college – for example, a fuller engagement with the civic life around you – was a kind of collateral benefit, determined largely by things beyond the curriculum, like your personality.
But as the content knowledge of particular subjects becomes ubiquitous and free, and as we automate the routine parts of most careers, the different learning outcomes of college are getting reordered. These days the highly valued outcomes have more to do with creativity, drive, and getting along.
So then isn’t that what we should be focusing on?
But before we scuttle all our 100-level Intro courses, we may want to distinguish carefully between “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” The whole enterprise of formal education, from daycare to doctorate, is based on the latter. We assume people can learn, so we educate them.
In the student success mainstream where I swim, growth mindset is all the rage. Assuming anything is fixed strikes my peers and me as backward, invidious, and even harmful.
Yet whether we like it or not, we have to make useful distinctions among the different styles and rates of learning we can reasonably expect from our students. Some things will forever be out of reach, just as the NBA will never go recruiting for short people. The story of our potential is mixed.
The assumptions behind our criminal justice system are similarly tangled and contradictory, as our reasons for punishment hold people individually accountable, but then disproportionately incarcerate the impoverished and insane, conditions over which the convicted have little control.
Our departments of “correction” – a name that implies a growth mindset – administer life sentences and capital punishment, tip-offs to an underlying fatalism.
Much of the U.S. legal system dates to the 13th century, interestingly around the time the west founded its universities. For an absorbing account of how those structures have slipped out of step with what we now believe about human conduct, potential, and accountability, see Adam Bonfornado’s Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.
So which one is it? Can we learn to get along, to better direct our conduct toward ourselves and others, or can’t we? Where should we draw the new line dividing the things we can teach from those we can’t?
However appealing we find the tenets of growth mindset, I know firsthand that there are limits. In my case, I have a catastrophically weak sense of direction. I know of only two people whose inability is as bad as mine, and it’s more serious than it sounds.
My wife gets frustrated when I can’t find my way back to a room we were just in, or don’t know how to get to a road she drives us down every weekend. She thinks it’s a question of attentiveness or effort (growth mindset), and of course she’s right. But I also know it’s more complicated, because for me that minimum effort is a lot greater than it is for others. I simply lack the internal magnets and gyroscopes the rest of you take for granted.
I can work around this limitation – I’m better than most people at reading mall directories and roadmaps, for example – but I also know I will never be a good field botanist, or hiker. To deny that would be foolhardy, and possibly fatal.
What we don’t yet know is how much we already rely on such workarounds in other walks of life, and how many disabilities we hide even from ourselves.
In other words, we’re still figuring out where to draw the new line.
If college learning is going to catch up to societal need with a new emphasis on the explicit development of intra-personal and inter-personal skill, then we’ll need a better idea of what’s even possible.
To figure that out, I think it’s helpful to look at very long term learning outcomes from college. The Gallup Purdue Index is one early stab at this, aiming to get beyond starting salaries to look instead at long-term measures of well-being like health, happiness, and satisfaction with life, across very large populations of graduates, to ask what college is getting right.
Another early example of this new approach is in a recent book from researchers at California State University Northridge. A team of faculty and staff spent ten years – incredible in our context of administrative turnover and instability – soliciting the views of four cohorts of freshmen about what helped them succeed at various stages of their college careers.
A surprising number of the respondents named the research project itself, and the routine of regular interviews each semester where they could think about their own learning, and how they organize it. In the words of one:
It would help me think about, okay, who really made an impact on me in terms of the professors, and how did it kind of sculpt how I see things and how I can move forward.
I think it’s likely that very long-term and large-scale datasets, like those in use at Purdue and Northridge, will help us understand which neurocognitive capacities can grow, and which ones defy the tools of education.
Image credit: Daily Mail; Wes Hardaker, Captured on Earth Photography