Two Approaches to Learning

By Ron Pereira Updated on July 6th, 2008

Hermit CrabHave you ever watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher? It’s the one about the child prodigy chess player. Well the child, Josh Waitzkin, is all grown up now and has written a book called The Art of Learning.

I am not done with the book yet, and will offer more detailed insight later, but I did want to share one of the topics of discussion with you this evening.

In the first part of the book Waitzkin discusses some “foundational” topics – one of them being how there are at least two approaches to learning.

He gives credit to a certain development psychologist named Dr. Carol Dweck for identifying the distinction between the entity and incremental theories of intelligence.

Entity Theorists

Waitzkin explains:

Children who are entity theorists – that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents or teachers to think in this manner – are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve.

Now re-skim that paragraph only this time replace the words children and kids with men or women. Do you know any entity theorists? I do.

Incremental Theorists

Waitzkin goes on to explain how incremental theorists are very different.

Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning – lets call them learning theorists – are prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped – step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

Hermit Crabs

Waitzkin uses a hermit crab to describe the differences between the two theories. He explains that as time passes the hermit crab eventually out grows its shell and must find a new one.

Since the hermit crab is a very soft and delicate creature this transitioning period from the old shell to a new shell can be very dangerous due to predators, etc. Waitzkin then writes:

That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from. Someone stuck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to find a new shell.

I absolutely love this analogy!

It’s about Instruction

The good news is any child (or man or woman) can be transitioned from an entity theory learning style to an incremental theory of learning with ease. Tomorrow night I’ll explain!

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  1. Jeremy Garner

    July 7, 2008 - 11:06 am

    I believe that both theories are correct. The illustration with the hermit crab is good for incremental learning but there are different areas that we are all naturally strong in.

    We can acquire new skills that we didn’t “inherit” or “learn” in our past, but being effective is finding your strengths and functioning there. The hermit crab can never grow wings like an eagle. A flying fish can only fly a limited amount of time compared to the eagle, but then an eagle can not swim well at all. We can all learn from one another and “evolve” to greater levels of performance but we are each unique.

    What one can accomplish with ease may only be achieved with great effort by another.

    What do you think?

  2. Ron Pereira

    July 7, 2008 - 9:21 pm

    You bring up some great points, Jeremy. I think we are basically saying the same thing. The key, as you said, is to evolve and adapt and learn. Thanks for the excellent thoughts.

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