Learning Disposition

Fellow: Noah Rachlin

A compelling body of research has shown that helping young people to respond positively to challenge and struggle is critical to how they learn and what they learn—in school and throughout their lives. Whether in the classroom or outside of it, engaging with a new community online, or developing a new skill, young people must have the capacity to understand failure and adversity as natural parts of the learning process. Informed by research in the field, Noah Rachlin is leading an effort to help students and teachers see mistakes not as impenetrable roadblocks but as natural parts of the learning process. Rachlin has defined this practice as “learning disposition,” which he breaks into four key concepts: mindset (“I believe it is possible to improve”); motivation (“I want to improve”); deliberate practice (“I’m going to work at the upper limits of my ability to improve.”); and focus (“I will commit myself to this work over time”). He believes that these components are essential to any kind of learning encounter and can serve young people in powerful ways, enabling them to become agents in their own learning.


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.