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Learning, struggling, building character, and expanding our minds

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This week, some brief—and a bit more personal—reflections on the value of our mental challenges and struggles, and how they help us develop our mental capacities. To paraphrase Khan Academy founder Sal Khan, modern research is demonstrating that our intelligence is not fixed. The more we challenge ourselves to learn in varying ways, and the more we struggle to acquire knowledge, the more we teach our brains to grow.  In the last post, we saw the story of a 57 year-old man who “failed” at learning French but completely revitalized his brain in the process. The individual in question, William Alexander, discovered the effect of his linguistic struggles by measuring his neural activity … Continue reading

How to make our brains grow

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For a long time, I have believed that we learn the most from the tasks we struggle with, as opposed to those that might come easier to us. Of late, I have been reading about the importance of “growth mindsets” on learning. And, I have come to believe that teaching young people mindsets toward learning—character and grit when faced with difficult tasks, for example—may be far more critical to success than the actual subject matters we teach.  It makes intuitive sense to me that we expand our mental capabilities by challenging our brains with difficult tasks. If, as researchers seem to believe, the brain is like a muscle, we make it stronger by … Continue reading

Language learning and systems thinking

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I’ve been reading a lot this week about language study and what some researchers and writers are discovering about its effect on the brain. (In a previous blog entry, I mentioned William Alexander’s Flirting with French, which has some surprising, medically-supported conclusions about how his brain changed after a year of intensive study.) As I continue to explore, and to reflect on my own experience, I am increasingly convinced that there are some enormous benefits of foreign language mastery for one’s mind and character.   Of course, I should admit to having something of a bias that comes from my interest in the subject matter. For many years, I have enjoyed studying language, particularly French and Spanish, … Continue reading

Learning a new language: why we should bother!

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I find myself beginning this week’s post with the same reference as last week’s, to Simon Kuper’s piece about language learning, entitled “Learning another language? Don’t bother”.  By way of recap, the writer states that native speakers of English have little reason to learn other languages, since the rest of the world is now mastering English, at least at conversational levels. And technology, in the form of applications that translate instantly (and even speak for us!), will be there to help us navigate world travel. Kuper concludes that, for English-speaking people today, the costs of language study probably outweigh the benefits.   The author opines that the only useful level of linguistic … Continue reading

Struggling to learn a language, growth mindsets, and another opening to systems thinking

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Last week, I referred to a Financial Times opinion piece by Simon Kuper about language learning, entitled “Learning another language? Don’t bother”. The article makes the point that, for native speakers of English in today’s world, there is little reason to learn a second language. With the rest of the world mastering English at acceptable levels, and with the advancement of smartphone apps that translate on the spot, the writer opines that the costs of language study probably outweigh the benefits. Reading the article made me curious enough to purchase one of the books cited therein, William Alexander’s memoir Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My … Continue reading

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