Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Remember what the doormouse said, "Feed your head."

Today I'm inspired by a New York Times Magazine article that addresses the issue of talent or, more generally, earning expertise.

Their observations about the training of individuals is quite interesting though not surprising. Everyone is an individual who is capable of many talents and masteries assuming that effort is applied to the endeavors and that proper feedback mechanisms encourage further interest and are attended to.

That's often not at all what happens in schools. Special needs students receive Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) but often these "programs" suit the political needs of the school more than the interests of the students. Schools are about passing high stakes tests, not about nurturing educational interests of students although occasionally the two goals overlap.

Self-propelled learners often learn more out of school than in {I'll address this issue in some forthcoming posts], though school teachers and administrators cheerily announce the high acheivers as typical by-products of the educational millstones.

Students who for whatever reason don't fit the upper or lower bounds of the system are herded into general studies - a category so bland that it cannot offend anyone not put to sleep by its malicious disregard for the learning needs of the students being so labeled.

Contrast this reality with the recommendations of the author;

Freakonomics
A Star Is Made
by STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT
Published: May 7, 2006

The Birth-Month Soccer Anomaly


In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

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