Chapter 1 Reading – Teaching Smart People How to Learn

September 1, 2009

This article points out a significant problem faced by virtually any business or other entity—that, when problems arise, individuals often lack the ability to effectively analyze what went wrong because they focus on external causes rather than looking internally to see how they personally contributed to the problem.  This is something that I would estimate we have all seen happen in a variety of settings, both in and out of the workplace, and something many of us have probably done ourselves. No one likes to think that they contributed to a problem, much less that they are the problem, and that tends to lead people to look to external sources when trying to get to the root of where things went wrong.

I think the author has found a good solution to this problem, but I wonder if it can work in all work environments. The author recognizes one potential obstacle to success in noting that this approach is unlikely to succeed unless upper level management takes the lead in implementing these changes.  But you also have to have employees who are willing and able to look into themselves and see how they contributed to the problem at hand. It is all well and good for managers to do this, but if you do not have employees who are willing to engage in this level of evaluation of themselves then the process is not going to succeed.  Certainly one solution to this is to let those employees who are unwilling to engage in this process—and thus unable to learn—go while keeping those who are sufficiently self reflective, but what do you do when the resistant employees constitute a majority or even all of your workforce?

The author’s focus on the fact that many of these people have experienced little to no failure during their formative education makes me think we need to encourage this level of self reflection early on.  Perhaps education should, from the beginning, focus not only on teaching people how to get the right answer, but also on why they did or did not succeed. And, regardless of the outcome, students should be encouraged to think about and discuss what went wrong, what worked out, and what can be improved with a focus on what they themselves did rather than looking to external circumstances. If this level of self reflection is ingrained from an early age as a necessary tool for success, I think the author’s suggested solution will be more likely to succeed, and may even occur naturally, since that way of thinking will become the default rather than the exception.

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