"I Can't Do That... Yet": Cultivating a Learning Disposition

Project Overview

Learning is hard.

Trying to understand a complex mathematical proof, revising a paper for a history or English class, conducting a science experiment, and learning a new language are especially difficult tasks. Furthermore, these struggles do not exist only within the four walls of a traditional classroom. Every day, students also face challenges as they practice for piano recitals, refine their jump shots, or work to further develop their abilities as budding photographers or writers or scientists. Yet, too often, a lack of immediate mastery can be perceived as a sign of weakness—or worse, inability—and their response is, “I can’t do that.”

With pervasive issues such as these in mind, Noah Rachlin, instructor in history and social science and Tang Institute Fellow, is working on his project, “‘I Can’t Do That…Yet’: Cultivating a Learning Disposition.” The project—which explores the concepts of mindset, motivation, deliberate practice, and focus—aims to help cultivate in students a “learning disposition” so that they are prepared to overcome the inevitable challenges of learning both in and out of the classroom.

Rachlin is considering how educators can help students transition from thinking or saying, “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.” In doing so, Rachlin believes that educators can empower young people to be lifelong learners who are comfortable embracing difficult tasks because they have come to perceive challenges as natural and essential components of human growth and development.

In place since 2014, the curriculum and ideas associated with “I Can’t Do That…Yet” represent initial strategies aimed at helping students cultivate a learning disposition. Which strategies and interventions have proven to be most effective in your own context? How have you supported efforts aimed at encouraging students to embrace the learning process? We look forward to hearing your feedback, insights, and additional ideas related to building a learning disposition.

Interested in learning more? The table below offers a wide range of growing resources on the topic. We’re always looking to to expand this list and welcome any literature recommendations you have to share.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities..

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.                                  –from Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success 

You Can Learn Anything

Selected Readings on Mindset

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

With the exception of rote tasks that do not require any creativity, in a great many ways, intrinsic motivation leads to far more productivity and creativity than extrinsic motivation and is less susceptible to corruption, dishonesty, and abuse.

Intrinsic motivation or what Daniel Pink refers to as “Type I Behavior” “depends on three nutrients: autonomy, mastery, and purpose…is self-directed…is devoted to becoming better and better at something that matters and…connects that quest for excellence to a larger purpose.”

The Science of Motivation

Selected Readings on Motivation

Deliberate Practice
Deliberate Practice

“Struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you [better]…experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful.”  – Daniel Coyle

“We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn.” –Robert Bjork

Odell Beckham Jr.: The "impossible" catch

Odell Beckham Jr.: Practicing that same "impossible" catch before the game

Selected Readings on Deliberate Practice


Multi-tasking is a myth. The brain cannot actually focus on more than one thing at once. Individuals who present as really good “multi-taskers” actually just have a very strong working memory.

Interruptions are particularly detrimental to performance and have been shown to cause an average of 20% decrease in academic performance in certain studies. In a research study with a particular focus on text message interruptions, students lack of cell phone use led to a full grade and a half better performance.


Selected Readings

Procrastination (2 min)

Productivity (3 min)

Selected Books


NurtureShock by Po Bronson; Ashley Merryman
ISBN: 9780446504126
Publication Date: 2009-09-03


Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
ISBN: 9780345472328
Publication Date: 2007-12-26


Aptitude Myth by Cornelius Grove
ISBN: 9781475804355
Publication Date: 2013-06-21


Changing Minds and Brains by Reuven Feuerstein; Louis Falik; Refael S. Feuerstein
ISBN: 9780807756201
Publication Date: 2014-12-01



Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel H. Pink
ISBN: 9781594488849
Publication Date: 2009



How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
ISBN: 9780547564654
Publication Date: 2012-09-04


Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown; Henry L. Roediger; Mark A. McDaniel
ISBN: 9780674729018
Publication Date: 2014-04-14


The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
ISBN: 9780553806847
Publication Date: 2009


Outliers: the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell
ISBN: 9780316017923
Publication Date: 2008


David and Goliath: underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants by Malcolm Gladwell
ISBN: 9780316204361
Publication Date: 2013



Brain Rules by John Medina
ISBN: 9780979777721
Publication Date: 2008