Are you smarter than you think you are? Only time will tell…

Jameel Hassan
6 min readJan 3, 2021

Over the years we have followed the same suite of learning. We start school, pass each grade to graduate from high school and then start a university/college education(roughly speaking). We never considered to question it (at least I didn’t). Are we actually learning the best way there is? What if we rethink how “learning” should take place and what it needs to entail?

The problem is not entirely “what” we learn. That is a separate topic for discussion. But let us consider “how” we learn in the contemporary world. We always have a specific set of topics to learn, and these topics are always covered in a stipulated period of time (terms/semesters). At the end of the term, we take a test (or a combination of a mid term and end term exams) to determine whether we have learnt the subject material well enough to “pass” the test. Lets assume you are an excellent student — you will question this by the end of this — scoring above 75% in all your subjects except in Mathematics. Given the current scheme, there is no much difference between your grades in Mathematics and the rest. You will simply move to the next grade and carry on. But what happened to all those left out percentages, the 15%, 10% and the extra 25% in Mathematics that you did not score? Did you actually learn the subject or did it accumulate into knowledge that you do not know in a subject that you did “pass”? Could it possibly be that it is this accumulation that made the subjects harder and not the introduction of the alphabet nor the incoming imaginary numbers as you delved deeper into it? I am not being the parent asking for a 100% grade, but WHAT IF the answers lie in exactly that, but just in a different setting?

Let us consider the construction of a building with the context of the current learning curriculum. We ask the contractor to lay the foundation within 2 weeks. You check up on the performance, it’s 85% satisfactory, GREAT! Let’s move to the first floor. A week later, yup 75%, that is great and we move further. If we are lucky, we would see the building to completion and then…. see it crash. However, for most cases the building crashes halfway through. That’s the accumulation that we did not account for in our learning curve, the flaw in the design. Instead, what if we fix “what” we wanted to learn and allow enough time to actually master it. We simply switch the variable to time allowing extended time. This might allow one student to cover more content than another. But they both would have mastered what they learnt. In fact, this is exactly what Sal Khan did with Khan Academy (a savior to engineering students ;) ).

The Khan Academy started off as a simple tutoring session by Sal to his cousins who were struggling with math. With an increase in interest, Sal started making YouTube videos and uploaded them for his cousins. Surprisingly, the students found the videos more helpful than Sal himself. The main reason being, it allowed them time to think about the content and replay it tens of times if needed to understand the subject. This slowly grew into an academy which covered numerous topics and the feedback online was fascinating. People were literally finding this mode of learning a saviour to their current curriculum. Taking this a step further, Sal Khan implemented this in an actual school in the USA and the results were astonishing. No wonder the students were performing outstandingly in the contemporary exam setting, but there was something more that the data revealed. The “brighter” students casually did take off fast in the learning curve, but over time, the “not so brighter” students eventually caught up with the “brighter” students and surpassed them in performance. In fact during his talk at MIT — the world’s leading engineering school — Sal stated,

“…to some degree we were fortunate bi-products of the old system.”

The concept of learning at one’s own space is interesting in the case of Khan academy. This disrupting mode of education would lead to meaningful outcomes in education. However, the outcomes of such a system will be a reality only in the distant future. What is more important is how we the readers of this should perceive this. This has created the understanding that with effort and time, anything could be learnt. What it requires is consistent motivation and being oriented towards learning what we seek and not be pressured by time. Now more than ever, knowledge is not constrained by time. It is rather a matter of effort and dedication to what you aspire to learn.

The Dunning Kruger curve

An interesting concept pops up when we look into learning called The Dunning Kruger effect. The problem with contemporary learning style is that you need make past the “Valley of despair” in the stipulated time frame. Only then are you able to continue on in the given subject matter. However, more often, the time taken to make past this valley will be different for different people and thus leads many to be stuck in the Valley of despair. Unfortunately, one might even find people stuck at the Peak of Mount Stupid — a terrible viewpoint(pun intended). Therefore, what we need to focus on is to build in us the dedication to ensure that we go past this Valley of despair. Learning is definitely not a linear process, and nor is it after the valley. It is only with consistency, perseverance and grit can the slope of enlightenment be ascended. As Sal Khan proved with his academy, it is only through an extended period of time that the “not so bright students” surpassed the “brighter students” in performance. In fact, we no longer can even be certain which students are smart and which are not, Only time will tell.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

— Ira Glass

TED Talk by Sal Khan on learning for mastery