In a recent article published in Human Development, researchers outlined a series of six factors of intellectual engagement that they argue, when present across all stages of life, can help to maintain and even spur cognitive growth. Cognitive growth, or the continuing development of cognitive faculties such as creativity and skill development, has, to this point, been theorized to occur rapidly during infancy through young adulthood (e.g. learning to walk and speak), and then level off during adulthood and middle age before declining during the older adult years.
There are a couple of ways that learning has been discussed in the research. The first is that of highly-specialized learning. Think of this as applying knowledge you already have in a specific situation, like you would at your job. This type of learning is focused on efficiency and short-term application; you take what you know and apply it in relatively familiar circumstances. Learning to do a new type of report for your boss? That’s probably specialized learning.
The second, and of more interest to us here, is broad learning. This type of learning is concerned with the acquisition of a broad variety of skills across a range of environments. Broad learning is also noted for its ability to foster what is called “far transfer”, which happens when skills and abilities can be generalized to tasks in which you’ve received no training or in which you have no previous experience. Plunk someone with a history of broad learning down into a novel situation and marvel as they are able to navigate it using skills they’ve acquired elsewhere in seemingly unrelated domains.
But what does broad learning mean from a practical perspective? As Dr. Emilie Wapnick says in a recent New York Times article on the subject, “In university, I took film classes, philosophy classes, geology classes, music classes. But many of the skills I acquired in these classes also ended up being useful in real, albeit unexpected, ways. The improvisation skills I learned in a music class ended up being useful years later when giving presentations. And the legal classes I took made me a more persuasive writer.”
While attending college offers many a structured opportunity to explore different areas and topics that they may find interesting, there is no reason that mentors can’t help to promote broad learning in their mentees (and themselves, too).
The researchers focused on six specific factors of intellectual engagement that are commonly present during life’s early years, but decline in prevalence as we get older:
- Open-minded input-driven learning
This manner of learning, in research speak, dictates that you learn by observing and using patterns in the environment rather than relying on previously existing knowledge that you’ve gained elsewhere.
Think about it like this – You are tasked with walking into a room of strangers and greeting them. Using your favored open-minded input-driven learning style, you understand that you could go in and shake hands, as that’s typically how people greet one another in your experience. But you wait. Instead of walking into a room and using your previous knowledge of how people greet one another, you watch and observe how others are greeting each another to create an understanding of the norms of the room. Are they shaking hands? Hugs? Kisses on the cheeks?
- Individualized scaffolding
Scaffolding occurs when one slowly and incrementally increases the difficulty of the items being learned based on the progress you’ve made in learning it so far. For example, you didn’t jump straight to calculus as a child. You had to learn long division first. It’s a responsive method that slowly builds upon existing knowledge to extend what you are capable of to new heights.
- Growth mindset
A growth mindset is one in which you believe that skills and traits, like your artistic ability or skill in math, are able to change and improve. The opposing view is the “fixed mindset”, where traits are unchanging and what you see is what you get. There are limits, but those who have a growth mindset have been shown to be more willing to tackle difficult problems, make mistakes (crucial in learning new skills), and persevere in the face of setbacks. Click here for a previous article that touched on how to foster a growth mindset in youth.
- Forgiving environment
A forgiving environment is one where mistakes are allowed and the pressure to succeed immediately is tamped way down. Such an environment is also encouraging and reduces the presence of negative stereotypes or low expectations. Think of this environment as one where the response to the question of “Have you done this?” is “Not yet,” rather than, “I can’t.” Mistakes can be made, and lessons can be learned as a result.
- Serious commitment to learning
This factor goes beyond simple, superficial learning where you pick up gardening for a few weeks before losing interest. Declaring your New Year’s Resolution of losing 25 lbs. and giving up on the gym by mid-February is not an example of serious commitment. There are a lot of reasons one gives up learning a new task, but in order to foster continued cognitive development, dedication and grit is important.
- Learning multiple skills simultaneously
This factor is, you guessed it, the process of learning many different skills at the same time. This happens when we’re infants and learning to walk, speak, and interact with others all concurrently. Later on, when we’re tasked with completing core classes in school from different domains of knowledge, we’re engaging in learning multiple skills simultaneously.
So what does this mean for you as a mentor? There are two tracks to follow here: 1) how you can help your mentee become intellectually engaged in broad learning; and 2) how you can go about implementing these factors in your own life. As stated, these findings apply all across the lifespan, and as we become more specialized in our knowledge (e.g. becoming more proficient at our job), we have the tendency to lose our intellectual engagement with novel information and situations.
Fortunately, as a mentor you are in an excellent position to accomplish both of these goals by integrating these six factors into your mentoring relationship. Whether you’d like to learn a new language with your mentee or seek out information on astronomy or physics, there are a wide array of opportunities for mentors and mentees to get creative with the six factors. If they are successful, then the benefits can resonate throughout the lifespan.