The Ability to Learn

October 12, 2009

In an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled, “The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know?”, John Taylor Gatto (2005) references ten learning abilities identified at Harvard University as “essential for adapting to a rapidly changing world of work.” I’m posting them here as Gatto identified them:

• The ability to define problems without a guide.

• The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.

• The ability to work in teams without guidance.

• The ability to work absolutely alone.

• The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.

• The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.

• The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.

• The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.

• The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically. [Note: dialectic, debate to resolve a conflict between two contradictory or seemingly contradictory ideas, with truth on both sides; grappling with essential tensions].

• The ability to attack problems heuristically. [Note: heuristic, trial and error solutions, discovery learning, rather than using set rules].

These abilities are things students can develop—or get better at if they already possess them—while they are in school. School is about much more than attending classes and doing the work that’s assigned, but most of the benefits of school have to be pursued actively and deliberately, and often entail just plain hard work.

Which of the ten learning abilities do you already have? Which do you need to work on?

I thought about it all the time.
•Sir Isaac Newton on how he discovered the law of gravity



  1. Z,

    My website is “under construction” at the moment but I hope to have it back up sometime over the holidays.
    Anyway, I think that, “The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data” is the ability that I have. I learned this ability from my years as a retail manager. I would be thrown pieces of irrelevant data on a daily basis. 99.9% of the information I received was garbage. I only cared about what the daily profit margin was and my percent to sales. That’s retail jargon for, “Did we make any money yesterday?”

    “The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one” is the one I need to work on. I am really good at giving orders but not very good at convincing people that my course is the correct one. I blame this on my stint in the military as well as my years in retail. I am slowly breaking this habit of barking, but every so often the voice of the sergeant comes out of me and I often say to myself, “Why did I just do that?” I then proceed to apologize to my “victim”.

  2. Hi, Nathan,

    I look forward to your website.

    I enjoyed reading the what and the why you provide here. I definitely believve that art as a discipline can promote many of the skills listed although I also think that this is not always acknowledged. Your background gives you an advantage when thinking about these issues.


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