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"I Can't Draw" and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves

Updated: May 11, 2023

Once upon a time, when our brains were very young and trying to figure out the world, it took in lots of information from that world and tried, haltingly, to use that information to learn how to operate in that world. Some things worked; others didn’t. Eventually, the brain began to see patterns. Some things seemed to go together. Like a flat surface with legs becomes a table, and a table is used for eating, for gathering people together and so forth. Later we discover that there are categories for things, like furniture. These patterns help us simplify the world, because the brain comes to understand with little thought what an object is and to what category it belongs. No need to rediscover with each encounter.

Our young brains also are learning how to do things: to walk, to ride a bike, to use various tools. This is complicated, of course, because we are simultaneously developing our motor skills, learning to use sensory input that we need to fine tune movement, and the cognitive skills to go with both. In the end, our brains learn to coordinate specific muscle groups to enable walking, or the muscles controlling our hands to enable fine motor skills, like drawing. Our brains use networks in the frontal lobe to compare what behavior or motor output it had planned with what actually happened, with the idea of detecting errors and correcting them.

Here’s what usually happens when a child is learning to ride a bike. Some kids get a tiny bike with no pedals, one in which they can learn balance, but their feet are easily on the ground; they use the stepping pattern they already know to push the bike forward. They might also have a low-to-the-ground bike with a wide seat and with pedals. They eventually graduate to a standard bike, and in most cases, a parent or sibling runs alongside steadying the bike, while the child’s brain learns how to balance, pedal, and steer all at the same time. In other words, they are actively taught.

Same story with music. Suppose you want a child to learn an instrument. In most cases, the child is actively taught.

Curiously though, developing the skill of drawing often is different. Suppose a child has been asked to draw his family. At the beginning, she would draw stick figures, with details like clothing coming later, often needing a teacher to say people wear clothes so put clothes on your stick figure, and here’s how. In some schools, the early art curriculum teaches children to deconstruct a shape into simple line segments, or to draw objects in the foreground before those in the background, or to creatively change the drawing into something else if a mistake is made rather than abandoning it. But many children must figure out on their own how to draw. Their drawing skills may never get significantly better, and they are often disappointed at their efforts. The child’s brain, registering the repeated evidence of lack of skill, concludes that this is a pattern: “I cannot draw.” Thereafter, the brain will continue to collect supporting evidence for this lack, and yet will disregard evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps “I can’t draw” is not a terrible limitation in the grand scheme, but there is another very common story that does come with limitations: the “I can’t do math” story. Now math is indeed taught in schools, and many schools now have math resource teachers or tutors to work with children who are struggling. Some children learn their facts easily, love multiplication and division, geometry or algebra, and maybe are inclined to pursue math as an indispensable component of their career path. Their brain’s story, supported by parents and teachers, is that they are good at math. But other students struggle.

Sometimes that means that the child as a pre-schooler has not had the experience of exploring through play basic math concepts like number sense (which number is bigger, etc.), measurement (longer, shorter), or even the language of math (before and after, greater than or less than.) These are fundamental to developing math skills in elementary school. Later, learning flexible strategies for solving math problems becomes important, as is a growth mindset: I learn from my mistakes, I learn by practicing, I can get this. When children with weak math foundations meet more difficult math challenges, and perhaps hear from adults around them that they can’t do math either, the brain again will take these experiences and understand them as “I can’t do math.” The brain remains on the look-out for corroborating evidence and, that one decent math test? Just a fluke. The can’t-do-math story can be significantly limiting – difficulty handling even routine finances or planning budgets and limiting career options.

Some of these stories our brains develop and tell us are deeply held stories, almost part of our personal profile of ourselves. They are challenging to root out, but it is possible to do so later in life through considerable effort, a positive growth mindset, and the astonishing capacity of our brain to learn and adapt.

Post by: Dr. Nadia Fike


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