THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING TO LEARN
Jason Wolfson isn’t sure how many Lego sculptures he’s created. Standing in the basement of his house, he’s surrounded by dozens of his creations—a Lego dragon, a Lego airplane, a giant Lego moth with six-inch Lego wings. In boxes, in small plastic bags, on the table in front of Wolfson, there are still more constructions—a half-built lunar module, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, a cowboy, all made from Legos.
Some of Wolfson’s constructions are finished—large artful works of bricks, part Warhol, part toy, part real-life fantasy. Other sculptures are half-built designs, creations in the making, like an artificial heart sculpted out of Legos. Along the walls, along the floor, pushing against the top of the room, are all of Wolfson’s raw materials—hundreds of thousands of plastic bricks.
“Ah, these meteors are awesome,” Wolfson tells me, plucking out a little gray meteor from the plastic box and showing it off to me in his palm, like some sort of rare diamond.
I lean over to gaze at the small item, afraid of knocking over another Lego sculpture that stood in front of me, maybe the giant Eiffel Tower.
Without question, Wolfson is an unlikely Lego devotee. He loves movies and vacations in Florida and does CrossFit on weekends. He grew up outside of Philadelphia and ran track in high school and helped head up his college fraternity. Today, he works as an engineer and lives with his wife, and he’ll hang a large American flag out in front of the house each Independence Day. Like many forty-somethings, his hair is thinning a bit. He often quotes films from the 1980s. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him wear anything but blue jeans.
But in many ways, Wolfson’s interest in Legos makes perfect sense, and when he toured me through his basement, he typically would spin out a little story, a way of explaining why each sculpture mattered. When Wolfson pointed out his true-to-size replica of the muppet Gonzo, he explained that his wife loved the Jim Henson-created puppet.
As Wolfson showed me the blue police box made from the small bricks, he began to talk about his devotion to the TV show Doctor Who. Or the dragon-like Jabberwocky that Wolfson had once fashioned out of hundreds of Legos? Wolfson always loved Alice in Wonderland.
At first, Wolfson’s stories seemed cute and charming, something to tell the writer in his basement. But the stories turned out to be a crucial part of his devotion. They made Wolfson’s Lego sculptures something of value, something of substance, something that had meaning. After all, Wolfson wasn’t interested in any pile of little plastic bricks. He didn’t care about any old box of dog-chewed Legos. Rather, he was fascinated by the pile of bricks that he had transformed into a scene from his favorite novel or an iconic phone booth from his favorite TV show.
To a degree, we’re all part Wolfson. We may not have a burning passion for Alice in Wonderland, the Muppets, or Legos, but in our mind, we all see the world through the frame of meaning. We engage in activities that we believe have value. Drive often boils down to an issue of significance, and the more relevance that we see in an area of expertise, the more that we want to learn about that area of expertise.
This idea is crucial. Motivation is the first step in acquiring any sort of skill. It’s hard to learn something if we don’t see any meaning in it. We’ll start this chapter by examining how value drives motivation. But meaning is important for another reason—it’s the very first step of understanding. If we see something as valuable, we’re making sense of it. We’ll cover this idea in the second half of the reading, where we discuss the role of understanding in generating our expertise.
The storytelling approach has its roots in the brain, where, for all its rich complexity, our mind works as a type of storyteller. Like a film director, we're always creating some sort of narrative, some type of understanding, some sort of meaning.
If you walk into a room for the first time, for instance, you will immediately formulate a value-laden story that explains the room’s purpose. If it’s a large space with a long, well-polished table, you might think: A meeting room. If there are a few barbells on the ground: Gym.
The same thing happens in two dimensions. Sometimes we will see a beautiful young woman in a drawing—sometimes, we will see an older lady—but we’re always seeing some sort of meaning in the image. It’s never just a bunch of random, meaningless squiggles.
This is more than an odd cognitive quirk, because meaning is something we have to create, a type of power that gives power to the world around us. In this very philosophical sense, we find our own value, with meaning serving as a matter of perspective, a frame of mind, an attitude that makes something either wonderfully important—or devoid of meaning. In this sense, value is the ultimate fuel of motivation. We’re driven to take action because of the power of meaning.
The point is that when it comes to learning, meaning isn’t something that finds us. It’s something that we need to uncover on our own. Take statistics, as an example. Without question, data analysis is a powerful tool. In fact, it’s become nearly impossible these days to get far in many fields—banking, medicine, sports management—without some basic grasp of statistics.
Yet people generally don’t have an intrinsic desire to master statistics. Condemn the elaborate nature of linear regressions—or the dust-dry manner in which the topic is usually taught—but most people aren’t powerfully inspired to spend the rest of their days reviewing statistics programming code or plotting histograms.
A psychology professor at the University of Virginia, Chris Hulleman is well aware of this tension. As a researcher, he has a statistics program like R or STATA loaded up on every one of his computers—it’s basically impossible to publish a research paper without any sort of robust data analysis. But at the same time, most of Hulleman’s psychology students grouse at the mention of correlations. Many groan. A few whimper. For the students, statistics seems tedious, a painful, boring topic without any sort of relevance or value to their lives.
In college, Hulleman was an All-American offensive lineman, and he still has the energetic attitude of someone who has spent a lot of time playing competitive sports. So some years ago, he decided to try and address this problem, to see if he could do more to spark his students’ interest in statistics, and together with some colleagues, Hulleman had some psychology students write about why statistics was relevant to their lives.
Hulleman and his colleagues prompted the students with questions like: Can you see yourself ever using statistics in you life? Can you imagine using statistics in your career as a nurse, salesperson or manager? The students then spent some time writing short essays, each filling a page or two of a notebook.
The outcomes were clear. By drawing a connection between their lives and statistics, the students became much more motivated in their studies; in some cases, they came close to jumping a grade level, from a C average to a B average. In other words, the act of explaining why statistics mattered to them—in their future careers, their hobbies, the families they’d one day create—helped improve their grades.
Since then, Hulleman has rolled out similar initiatives in various settings. He has had high school students write about the value of science to their lives, penning short descriptions of why science matters to them. Together with researcher Judith Harackiewicz, Hulleman has also provided pamphlets to parents to talk with their children about how science can shape careers, suggesting ways that the parents make science homework seems more meaningful.
Inevitably, a person or two will pen some snide remarks. “Man, quit wasting my time,” wrote one high school student in a flash of defiance. But most people engage. Students will write about how they might need math once they have jobs at a company. Others talk about how the skills could help them in their personal lives. Many note that there’s an intrinsic pleasure to a skill.
Hulleman and I spoke early one afternoon, and he argued that there are lots of ways to create a sense of value. Rewards, novelty, context—they all make a difference when it comes to creating a personal sense of meaning. In this regard, intrinsic motivation—or inherent interest—is itself a type of value. We do something because we want do it.
Psychologist Kenn Barron—who works with Hulleman—gives a different way to understand this idea. Not along ago, Barron wrote up a formula. “I tried to boil down 40 years of research to fit onto a cocktail napkin,” he told me. The formula is motivation equals a mix of costs (or the amount of effort it will take to complete the task), a sense of expectancy (or the notion of self-efficacy—which we will discuss in the next reading) —and a feeling of value, or meaning. The last variable is crucial, according to Barron, and it’s a matter of:
“Do I want to do the task?”
There’s something familiar about this argument, admittedly. After all, we’ve all had teachers who have proclaimed: “This is important.” My parents said it all the time about my schoolwork, too: “You’ll need this later.” Now I hear versions of the idea from my company’s HR department: “Your retirement account is central to your future.”
But the take-away from this line of research is different. In short, just telling people that something is important is not enough. In fact, Hulleman has found that simply telling people that information has value can backfire. When we’re told how to feel or think, we can feel threatened or overly managed.
Instead, people need to find meaning in the activities themselves. In other words, value has to go from the person to the material, from the individual to the knowledge or skill. “It’s about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” Hulleman told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’”
Great public speakers provide another way to understand this idea, and a good presenter will ensure that the material seems directly relevant to their audience. Former president Bill Clinton was well known for this type of charm, and he would foster a common bond with his audiences. So if the topic of conversation was the Maldives, a skilled politician like Clinton might ask his audience if they had visited the nation. If the topic was a battle, then find out if someone has a relative who served in the military. Discussing a boring IT tool? Get people thinking about their own computer.
This idea explains why we’re more motivated to learn something if we have—or will have—some experience with it. When it comes to learning, we want to understand our world, to fill in our knowledge gaps, and in this regard, meaning is often self perpetuating. The more that we know about statistics, for instance, the more that we typically want to know about statistics.
If I know that Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, the more that I'll want to know more about the planet. Or if I know something about data analytics, I’ll be more interested to understand Simpson’s Paradox, in which trends are reversed within averages.
To a degree, this idea underscores a theme that we will revisit often in this course. Learning is often just as much social as it is cognitive. In this regard, our knowledge gaps merge with our meaning gaps, and the more that we bring feelings and facts together, the more that we develop expertise.
“The more connected students are emotionally - to a topic - to a teacher - to a content area - the more invested they are going to be to that topic, and the more they’re going to learn,” says researcher Winsome Waite.
Legos remain a good example. The bricks have become popular with adults because they make it easy to uncover a sense of relevance, and today Lego expos will often have tens of thousands of visitors, while glossy online magazines like Brick Journal chronicle the latest approaches. There are also Lego skills classes and books devoted to Lego techniques and a professor of Lego at the University of Cambridge.
Wolfson himself has spent decades perfecting his Lego skills for this reason. Because of the meaning that he finds in the bricks, he has learned how to create curved Lego structures—which is difficult given that the bricks themselves are planar. To create a smooth look, Wolfson also developed the skill of building Lego constructions with the studs on the inside. For one project, Wolfson even developed a new programming code so that the Lego construction would play music when someone walked by.
Before I left Wolfson’s house, he showed me yet another Lego construction, a dark blue moon landing set. Wolfson had built the kit when he was five years old, sitting in his grandmother’s dining room, perched alongside an eight-sided wooden table, his legs tucked into a low-slung chair. As we spoke, Wolfson gently held the construction in his hand, showing me the different details. The construction was an ode to his childhood self. It was something valuable.
Now when it comes to Legos, this idea might be oddly obvious. But, in the end, though, what’s perhaps most interesting about the power of value is how easy it is to underestimate its power. For all sorts of reasons, we forget that people ultimately want meaning.
When programmer Markus Persson first launched the online game Minecraft some years ago, for instance, few believed that the program would ever succeed. After all, the game had no dramatic car chases or displays of daring-do. In Minecraft, there are not even points to figure out who is the winner.
Instead, the game provides people with building blocks and allows them to create whatever they want in the online world. Using digital blocks, people can build sprawling castles or most anything else. If you love the Eiffel Tour—and want to build a facsimile out of blocks—this is your game. But, as the writers of Persson’s biography argue, no banker wanted to invest in the gaming technology because it was “completely against what everyone thought people wanted” in a video game.
But despite the conventional wisdom—and a vast market built around shoot-‘em-up games—Minecraft has became one of the most popular games ever produced. There are more than 100 million users around the world, and Minecraft has outsold Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, even Call of Duty. Why? Because the program allows users to create something relevant to their lives. As Persson recently told a reporter about Minecraft, “you can build anything you want to build yourself.”