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I’m still learning: A Q&A with Annie Murphy Paul

The number of responses to my last blog on ways to get smarter this year makes me think that a lot of people are looking for a quick fix in 2014. To get the latest scoop on intelligence, I interviewed Annie Murphy Paul, author, creator of The Brilliant Blog and a researcher who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Not surprisingly, my interview with her was...brilliant.
January 22, 2014

The number of responses to my last blog on ways to get smarter this year makes me think that a lot of people are looking for a quick fix in 2014. Annie Murphy Paul is an author, journalist and consultant who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. She writes the incredibly smart Brilliant Blog at, and her next book, Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter, will be published by Crown in January 2015.  Annie will be speaking at Sandbox Summit@MIT in March. Here’s some of the wisdom you can expect to hear. Not surprisingly, my interview with her was so…brilliant….that I’m presenting it in two parts. Here, Part 1.

WS: At Sandbox Summit, we always start with the premise that play is how kids learn. How does research support this?

AMP: One of my very favorite psychologists is Alison Gopnik of UC-Berkeley. Her wonderful books, The Scientist In The Crib and The Philosophical Baby, explain how young children learn about the world through experimenting, exploring, and investigating in a self-directed way. She makes a very persuasive case that forcing children into an adult-directed, “academic” learning environment too soon is ineffective—it ultimately gets kids no farther “ahead” than other kids who learned through play. And it can actually backfire, leaving those pushed-too-soon kids with an enduring aversion to this no-fun thing the grown-ups call “learning.”

WS: Parents, educators, and toy and game makers so often equate learning with ABCs and math. Are you suggesting that the “academics” are secondary?

AMP: I’ll get personal here for a minute and admit that as a first-time mother, some eight years ago, I was acutely susceptible to the pitches made by the manufacturers of “educational” toys. I mean, who doesn’t want their babies to grow up smart? But, fortunately, a wise friend who was a mother to older children said to me, “To a baby, there is nothing more endlessly interesting than a human face.” And it’s true–just think of all the things babies learn by looking at faces. They’re learning about emotion, about language, about cause and effect, about love and attachment. So my kids and I did without the Baby Einstein videos and the flashcards. My own experience as a mother, and my reading of the research literature, makes me confident that the stuff young children need to learn about is, first, the social world of people, and second, the physical world of things. ABCs and math can come later–and they will, as long as children have a chance to master what’s really important first.

WS: How does creativity, curiosity, and collaboration fit into the learning spectrum? Can those skills be taught?

AMP: My favorite word, and one that I use a lot in Brilliant, is “evoke.” I’m not sure if creativity and curiosity can be taught, but I’m sure they can be evoked–drawn forth, coaxed out by an attentive parent or teacher or a fertile and supportive environment. I’ve thought and written a lot about the power of interest to foster learning, and what’s most striking to me about it is that interest not only gets us to immerse ourselves in a subject to start with–it also helps us pay closer attention, understand more thoroughly, and remember more accurately that material. In other words, interest greases the wheels of learning at every stage. But interest is too often thought of as a nice extra–kids have to learn XYZ, and if they’re interested in it, all the better. In fact, interest is absolutely essential to learning well, and parents and teachers could benefit enormously from the discoveries researchers have made about how to evoke interest. A Brilliant Blog post on that topic is here.

WS: Is there an age when we learn best? Can an 80 year old learn as well as an eight year old?

AMP: Learning can happen at any point in our lives, but some aspects of how we learn do change as we grow older. Children’s brains are incredibly plastic, and they can easily pick up things–like how to pronounce the words in a new language–that older people struggle, often fruitlessly, to master. But that language example I just offered is actually an unusual one. In the case of other kinds of knowledge, adults can learn quite well, sometimes even better than their younger counterparts. A big difference between child and adult learners is that adults simply know so much more already–so the most effective learning strategy for us grown-ups will involve making connections between our stored-up knowledge and the new information.
WS: Tell the truth: If you practice what you preach, are you beyond brilliant?

AMP: Ha! I’ll say this: I am good at finding brilliant people to read and to talk to, and I hope I’m good at explaining and synthesizing their brilliant (but too often obscure) ideas for a general audience. I’ve picked up a few things along the way, but my brilliance is definitely a work in progress.
I’ll refer here to one last brilliant thinker: the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck is the author of the life-changing book Mindset, which shows that people who believe they can get smarter actually do.

See more of Annie’s remarks on my next blog. Email her at The Brilliant Blog ( , or send me your smart comments at


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