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Mastering the Art of Learning

Mastering the Art of Learning

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Updated on May 21, 2014

All parents would like to inspire in their children a love of learning. They undoubtedly want to help them find passionate interests, and develop the drive to reach high levels of achievement in those interests. The question is how?

Josh Waitzkin could put a tick next to all those boxes by the age of nine when he won his first National Chess Championship. After the release of the film based on his life, Searching for Bobby Fisher, the media frenzy and pressure to perform, in combination with a new coach, drastically altered his chess career. He drifted away from competitive chess in search of other pursuits, and since then has reached high achievement in the martial arts, becoming a master of Tai Chi Chuan and earning the title of World Champion.

In his book, The Art of Learning, Waitzkin maps out the factors that have lead to his success starting as a young child:

1. Praise the process

What happens when your child comes home with an A on his math test? Most likely he gets praise, but it's the quality of that praise that matters, says Waitzkin. It's important to compliment your child on the work that was done to get the A, rather than the grade itself. It's the difference between saying “Wow, you're smart in math!” and saying “I'm so proud of how hard you worked.”

The psychology behind this goes back to two central theories of intelligence. The entity theory of intelligence says that success or failure is wrapped up in ability. Entity learners are more prone to quit, having developed a learned helplessness from years of thinking in the black and white frame of, “I'm smart at math, but I'm bad at English.” Waitzkin says a focus on results can also lead to a fear of failure which often cultivates an “I don't care attitude” among entity learners. If you don't care, then failure doesn't matter, right? The incremental theory of intelligence says that success is directly related to effort, which suggests that learning happens in stages. This way of thinking allows kids to be master-oriented, not results oriented. And when that happens, anything is possible. “Whenever you see someone fail or succeed, talk about the process, the mistakes that got them to that place,” Waitzkin says. “Have everything focus on the journey.”

Waitzkin suggests that parents discuss this process-focused language with their child's teacher. Otherwise, you'll have “two steps forward in one setting and two steps back in another,” he says.

2. Invest in loss

Once kids learn to be at peace with failures, they can then learn to use their imperfections to their advantage when faced with adversity. “Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process,” Waitzkin says. He uses an example from his young chess career, when dirty-handed opponents would get him angry and throw him off his game. “Instead of stifling myself, I needed to channel my mood into heightened focus,” Waitzkin says.

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