Adult Learning, Fluid vs. Crystallized Intelligence

Are you a Tortoise or a Hare — Learner?

Everyone has heard the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. It’s a favorite story, especially for children. Children love the idea that a slow turtle can actually beat the quick rabbit in a race. To me, the Tortoise and Hare story is a great example of how the underdog can win. And, it’s a good metaphor for how our educational race through early life can occur. If our proverbial finish line to formal education is to have a successful and well-paying career, it may surprise people to know that it can certainly be the Tortoise (slow learner) who wins this race over the Hare (fast learner). I’ll give you the two major reasons why — (1) speed in learning can lose its value over time, and (2) motivation can become the most important element in learning.

When we’re very young, it’s very easy to spot the Hares in our schools. These are the kids that seem to breeze through their subjects. They can grasp new concepts quickly, and they get straight As without really trying. They’re the lucky ones, we say — the ones with the “high IQs”. This is, of course, is similar to how the Hare jumps ahead in the race. But something changes in how we learn as we reach adulthood. We go from having “fluid intelligence” — the ability to learn entirely new things — to having “crystallized intelligence” — the ability to learn what is useful and adaptive to adult life. This means our brains begin to stop wanting to learn all new concepts, like in childhood, and want instead to learn the practical knowledge that is needed to be successful in adult life.

In the Tortoise and Hare story, the Hare stops to take a nap because he’s so far ahead, and this can also happen to really high achieving students. Having learned everything so fast and easily, they can lose interest and fail to see the meaning in what they have learned. Somehow, just getting the A grade starts to lose its value over time, and they can decide to take a little nap from learning. The Tortoise, on the other hand, keeps moving forward and catches up. Slower learners can learn content just as well as faster learners, it just takes them more time.

The second way that the Tortoise can pull forward in the race is through motivation. Sometimes it is the Tortoise who finds an area of study that greatly interests them, and their motivation can soar, making them want to work that much harder. It is generally agreed upon that the people who go farthest in life are those who work the hardest — Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, as Thomas Edison says. In this regard, if the Hare begins to lack motivation, speed in learning will eventually peter out. The Tortoise and Hare story can be a great lesson for all of us, because it shows that it’s never too late to get ahead in learning and achievement. Keep learning throughout your life because a slow and steady progress can oftentimes beat an initial quickness and win the race.

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