A lot of attention has been paid to building learning capacity for organizations. Indeed, a Google search for “building learning capacity” yields over 8 million results, the first few pages of which (like most searchers, we didn’t go further), describe learning capacity in organizational terms. Learning capacity is important in an organization because it enables the organization to incorporate new knowledge into its practices. In this context, capacity building is all about sharing knowledge within a community to get better outcomes.
At the same time, any community of learners is made up of individual learners and learning capacity can also be addressed at the individual level.
First, we must acknowledge that everyone has the ability to learn; that’s what our brains do. As we interact with the environment, the neurons in our brain make connections. Those connections are strengthened with practice and may be pruned away if they are not used. Another term for the brain’s ability to learn is neuroplasticity. Our brains are constantly changing; they are constantly learning.
Second, we need to consider that not every brain is equally effective at learning. Some things may be easy for one person to learn, but hard for another. Some students struggle with reading but are whizzes at math. Things that are easy to learn when we are young (like languages) become harder as we age. While it may seem that we have little control over these differences, our learning capacity is something that can be built, to a far greater degree than most of us understand. This is why we distinguish between learning ability and learning capacity.
We have identified 3 Keys to building individual learning capacity. We will discuss them through the lens of a teacher helping students develop learning capacity, but the principles can be applied to our own learning capacity as well.
Key 1: Understanding a student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
Cognitive skills are the mental processes our brains use to take in, store, organize, comprehend and retrieve information. They include processes like attention, visual and auditory processing, short-term and long-term memory. Each student has cognitive strengths and weaknesses. When we understand how these processes contribute to or impede learning for an individual student, we can identify strategies that help that student leverage their strengths and support weaker processing areas.
It’s not enough to know that a student struggles in math or is a slow reader. Students may struggle in math for many different reasons, including limited working memory, underdeveloped visual-spatial skills, or problems with sequencing. In reading, visualization, verbal reasoning and working memory often play key roles. When you know a student’s learning profile, then determining the best strategies is not a matter of guesswork and is directed at root causes, not surface symptoms.
Key 2: Training students’ cognitive skills in a comprehensive and integrated way.
Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning. As Dr. Pat Wolfe says, trying to teach students who don’t have strong cognitive skills is like trying to build a house without first building the foundation. Teachers often have no choice but to assume that students come to our classrooms with that foundation. After all, teachers have not generally been taught how to develop a student’s attention or memory or visual-spatial processing skills. Nor do teachers generally have the time to work one-on-one with individual students in the ways trained therapists do.
This is where technology comes in. Research is showing that cognitive skills can be developed to a far greater degree that people may think with the right kind of computer-based training – training that is comprehensive in the range of skills developed – and that works like cross-training, integrating skills as they are strengthened. The criteria for effective digital game-based cognitive training are much better understood today and the results, both in terms of cognitive growth and improved academic performance continue to accumulate.
Key 3: Nurturing a growth mindset.
It is tempting to put this key first. After all, individuals who believe that intelligence is not fixed and that abilities and talents can be developed are better able to learn from their mistakes, to be resilient when they experience setbacks, and to take responsibility for their own learning. We don’t put this first for an important reason – the concept of a growth mindset is often misunderstood. It is not simply a belief structure; it is a pattern of how we respond to mistakes and challenges. A student’s effectiveness in practicing a growth mindset has much to do with their experience in coming up with alternative strategies when the first thing they try doesn’t work and with seeing the results of working to achieve something they didn’t think they could achieve.
The first two Keys can play a significant role in supporting the development of a growth mindset. When teachers and students understand a student’s learning profile, students can come to own the strategies that help them learn best. And when students have seen their cognitive skills expand with training, the concepts become real and tangible.
As Einstein said, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” He is also quoted as saying, “The only thing that interfered with my learning is my education.” If education were more about intellectual growth and about building individual learning capacity, we might find we have students better equipped for the world we live in and the organizations they will be part of.
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