The Art of Instruction

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

Boy raising his hand

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” ~Albert Einstein

Last night we discussed two different learning theories – entity and incremental.

I read about these theories in the book The Art of Learning which was written by Josh Waitzkin – an eight time National Chess Champion and subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fisher in his youth.  He then went on to win twenty-one National Championships in martial arts in his later years.

In last nights article I explained that even though an individual is plagued with an entity theory learning style, meaning he or she sees their knowledge level as a “thing” or “entity” that cannot evolve, they can change.

Nothing to do with intelligence

Now then, it should first be noted that, according to Waitzkin and other developmental psychologists, an individual’s intelligence level has nothing to do with their learning theory. Instead, these individuals – especially children – are basically handed their learning theory based on the instruction they receive from their teachers, parents, etc.

Forming an Entity Theorist

There seems to be a very fine line in how instruction can and should be delivered in order to either help or harm the student.  Waitzkin writes:

Entity theorists tend to have been told that they did well when they have succeeded, and they weren’t any good at something when they failed.

So a kid aces his math test, comes home, and hears “Wow, that’s my boy! As smart as they come!” Then next week Johnny fails his English test and hears “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you read?” or “Your Mommy never liked reading either – obviously it’s not your thing.”

So the boy figures he’s good at math and bad at English, and what’s more, he links success and failure to ingrained ability.

Now, you may be thinking… what kind of jerk parent would act like this? I hope the answer is not many. Sadly, I imagine there are a few.

But what about at the office or in the plant? Have you ever known a manager to ridicule an employee who made a mistake, or made someone feel like they were just a replaceable number in the ERP system? I sense a few more hands going up into the air.

Forming an Incremental or Learning Theorist

Waitzkin then goes on to explain the other side of the coin.

Learning theorists, on the other hand, are given feedback that is more process oriented. After doing well on an English essay, a little girl might be congratulated by her teacher with “Wow, great job Julie! You’re really becoming a wonderful writer. Keep up the good work!”

And if she does badly on math test, her teacher might write “Study a little harder for the next one and you’ll do great! And feel free to ask me questions any, that’s what I’m here for.”

So Julie learns to associate effort with success and feels that she can become good at anything with hard work. She also feels as though she is on a journey of learning, and her teacher is a friendly assistant in her growth.

What do you think?

What do you think about all this? I got several emails today about my article last night. Some folks agreed…. while some saw things differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Mike Z

    July 7, 2008 - 10:18 pm

    Agreed for the most part.

    I would also say that it stems from our internalization of positive results and externalization of negative results. If we pass a test, it is because we are smart. If we fail a test, it is because all my roommates do is drink beer.

    As parents, we typically react opposite to this. We externalize success and internalize failure of our children. You failed because you are not smart. You passed because you finally shut off the TV.

  2. Peter Lemons

    July 8, 2008 - 7:46 am

    Ron, I agree 110% and have most definitely known managers who ridiculed and snubbed employees who were struggling or made mistakes.

    And in my opinion, it’s not about internalising or externalising success or failure. It is about externalising the “learning process” to those we are tasked with leading which hopefully brings out their best.

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