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Anyone Can Learn Anything

Note: This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Are there some people who intrinsically cannot learn? Are there some people who can only learn some things? I don’t think so. In fact, I think anyone can learn anything under the right circumstances.

For all those who struggle with one subject or another, this may seem improbable or even utterly wrong. We all feel more adept in some areas than other ones. We all know how difficult, how impossible, learning math can seem for many.

But even if we lack definitive research to prove this notion of human potential, liberated from cultural and socioeconomic constraints, imagine what doors open if we fully embraced the possibility. Imagine if we treat this notion that anyone can learn anything as a first principle, a responsibility to recognize and serve.

The implications are enormous, challenging educators and other policymakers to rethink the design of our schools and classrooms, and encouraging everyone who gave up on learning something because they believed they lacked the ability to grasp it.

As educators, this pushes us to ask how we have failed to create the conditions where our students can learn anything, and to think through the conditions needed to fully support learning so that any student can reach their potential. 

It may seem improbable to achieve this goal, but this should not be a reason to ignore it. Quite the contrary, this may be exactly the reason to pursue it. Because once we open up this possibility, we open up a way of thinking that challenges us to find solutions that can enhance teaching and learning.

This includes fully recognizing there are different kinds of intelligence and different ways people learn. Harvard educator Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking work posits that there are eight kinds of intelligence, and that we all draw from multiple realms. This reinforces what we already know intuitively: that there is not one path or one way to teach or learn. It puts the onus on our schools, at every level, to recognize and serve this individuality.

How far we still have to go, particularly because socioeconomic differences have essentially cut off large swaths of our population from educational advancement. Talent and ability are not determined by zip code or family income, nor are those with greater wealth more intrinsically equipped to learn and advance. Yet only 15 percent of the lower half of the US population (based on family income) are likely to get a college degree.  

It is our obligation—morally and for the social and economic benefit of our society—to create the conditions that allow talent to flourish among the most diverse population possible. This is one of the core missions of my university.

Engaging the notion that anyone can learn anything also means asking hard questions about the design of our educational systems and the pressure to categorize and pigeonhole students—to place them in one box, one track, or another.

College students are required to pick a single major, yet often fail to fully explore other fields that are critical to their capacity to identify and grasp complex, multi-faceted problems. Well before they get to college, most students are already inclined (or encouraged) to pursue one subject or related fields where they feel most comfortable and capable, rather than tackling multiple majors or struggling with subjects that previously seemed impenetrable.

“This is what I’m good at,” we often hear, as if that gives us a pass on those other fields that are harder for us.

At Arizona State University, we are working to overcome this tendency by increasing the number of transdisciplinary schools and programs. We encourage students from diverse fields to work with each other and find the common threads that enhance their ability to ask questions that depend upon a wide range of knowledge.

We have seen that this process not only opens up new pathways of understanding and enterprise, it also inspires students to explore worlds that previously may have seemed inaccessible. This has led to a hybrid degree program like arts, media and engineering that draws on the creativity of the arts and methodologies from engineering sciences.

We are also taking advantage of new digital tools to help students fill in the gaps in their knowledge and serve the varied ways and pace that students absorb information and deepen understanding. A struggling college algebra student, for example, can benefit from tools that recognize what’s wrong in a given equation and provide a follow-up question to address the missing piece. Such advances in technology are helping us make a real difference in student outcomes. (Check out this video.)

Given the scale of the challenge, these might appear as small steps to create the right conditions for achieving human potential. To be sure, by the time most students reach college, the patterns of mind and the cultural pressures are already well-ingrained, making it tough to reshape those well-worn grooves. But it can be done with a shift of attitude, a commitment to rethink and redesign, and the desire to maximize our society’s potential.

The human brain is the most powerful, most complex object in the known universe. It is an unbelievable gift. It is up to all of us to help each other make the most of this bountiful resource. 

Michael M. Crow
September 7, 2017