Don't count 'em out in first grade

Karin Chenoweth takes on Charles Murray’s educational determinism on Britannica Blog.

For one thing, people have genetic limitations, but in most cases no one really knows exactly what they are, what they limit, or how to measure those limitations — in part because the human brain has the capacity to compensate for those limitations in surprising ways. Which raises the question: What sorting mechanism would be sufficient for this purpose? How reliable is it? Couldn’t there possibly be children who should go to college despite scoring low on whatever first-grade measure we allow Murray to choose?

Good instruction makes a huge difference, Chenoweth argues.

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  1. And just as soon as there is a big supply of that good instruction around for everyone, we’ll all be geniuses.

  2. Nothing like setting up straw men, to knock them down. I don’t think Chenoweth read the book.

  3. Early assessments must be lacking something – when I was tested for the gifted program in 1st grade, my parents were told that I’d be fine as long as I avoided science and math (I have a PhD in genetics). My brother, who had some mild problems/delays due to meningitis as an infant, was described as somebody who would never have much hand-eye coordination. He played basketball and was the king of complicated puzzles as a kid. We’re both glad that our parents never told us about our ‘limits’!

  4. Charles R. Williams says:

    What is missing here is the fact that the primary educators of children are their parents. Cognitive ability and character, whether genetically determined or environmental, are largely fixed by the time a child enters school. Of course, an outstanding school can make a big difference for many children. We don’t know how to replicate outstanding schools on a large scale with the resources available.

  5. While it’s true that, to some degree, genetics may impose some limitations on potential, I’m not confident that we can determine, with accuracy, just what that potential is.

    Just about 20 or so years ago, children with Down’s syndrome were considered to be hopelessly retarded, incapable of being educated for all but the most servile work. Today, many Down’s children have exceeded those gloomy predictions.

    I’ve taught for almost 20 years. In that time, I’ve learned not to make a snap decision about any child’s potential. I used to think that the most important factor was intelligence; I now believe that desire to succeed is far more important. That desire, or ambition, can be developed and nurtured.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    I love how school teachers who all struggled through algebra keep trying ton convince the world that everyone can learn quantum mechanics is they just spent more on education, were properly motivated, and if the parents cared enough.

    In the real world, everyone recognizes that everyone cannot learn quantum mechanics, or topology or ancient Greek. It would be better if schools were designed with the real world in mind.

  7. A better way to state that is that not everyone WANTS to learn those disciplines. After all, even “slow learning” ancient Greeks learned Greek.

    I resent the implication that ALL teachers struggled through Algebra. I didn’t.

    You seem to believe that only gifted students can eventually become teachers. In fact, in my experience, some of the best teachers weren’t at the top of the class at one time. Struggling with a subject, and succeeding, may be better preparation for teaching that subject – you have a richer understanding of how a student might not “get it”.

  8. linda seebach says:

    @ Linda F. 3:44
    “After all, even ‘slow learning’ ancient Greeks learned Greek.”
    Yes, but only a tiny fraction of them were literate. How many of them could have learned algebra, had it been discovered yet, is of course unknown.

  9. Parent 2 said, “Nothing like setting up straw men, to knock them down. I don’t think Chenoweth read the book.”

    Thank you, Parent 2. If Chenoweth had read the book, she would have found that Murray said nothing of the sort. In fact, he takes great pains to say that nothing like this should be done at such an early age.

  10. …genetics may impose some limitations on potential…

    Ya think? Genetics imposes itself 100% when it comes to eye color, height, weight, predisposition for mental illness, skeletal structure blah blah. Why can’t you just admit that some human beings are more limited than others? Some women are beautiful and some aren’t. Some men are athletic and some aren’t. All the nurture, good teaching and desire in the world isn’t going to make me learn quantum physics. I know my limitations and would have been cheated if some teacher had told me that if I had just tried harder I would have gotten it. And after I didn’t get it, I suppose said teacher could have said, “You really don’t want it bad enough or you would get it.”

  11. I’m convinced, based on years of teaching a wide range of students, that genetic predestination is less important than desire – or ambition. All the potential in the world won’t rescue an indifferent underachiever. Many students work above their “ability level” – often out-performing the genetically gifted.

    You may not have been able to INVENT quantum physics, but you certainly were capable of learning it – given a teacher who was willing to work with a non-gifted student.

    Predisposition for mental illness? Yes, such illnesses as tendency to mood swings, depression, and schizophrenia run in families, but the onset may be triggered by substance abuse or traumatic events.

    Height, eye color, and the like are 100% genetic. Beauty is not – a wide range of physiques and features can be considered beautiful.

    You sound like someone who wants to excuse his place in life by whining “it’s not my fault, I was born this way!” My less successful students often do the same.

  12. It’s good to carefully separate the two questions: 1. do people have performance limits which are genetically (or phenotypically somehow – in utero, in the first couple of years of good or bad parenting) set and 2. how accurately can you measure these limits, if you grant that they exist at all. And LindaF is sort of armwaving on the theme of Diligence Will Triumph.

    Edison’s view was: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” And he famously tested thousands of materials looking for the right thing to make electric light filaments. LindaF would like Edison, I bet.

    I think Edison noticed the perspiration because the inspiration came to him as an unearned gift. To reach the highest levels, you have to be very smart and work terribly hard, usually (except for Feynman, of course) you can reach medium heights by smart x lazy or normal x diligent. Dull x diligent won’t get you there. And Dull x lazy puts you in a terrible place.

    Can you measure smart? In First Grade!!? Well, my kids are being tested pretty regularly as they go through, and they seem to be fairly stable in how they do relative to the average. My mother had four kids who varied between +1 and +3 standard deviations on tests and who kept their relative positions all the way through – despite identical high aspirations for us all. I hate the idea of consigning some kid irrevocably to hod-carrier based on a bad day in first grade. It’s also not so good to make a kid for whom hod-carrier is a reasonable ambition feel dreadful and failed because algebra does not work for him despite his best efforts.

    I think the best course is likely to test, to assume the tests help identify what path is most likely to work for the kids, but to be alert for signs that mistakes have been made, and to rectify them.

  13. We don’t know how to replicate outstanding schools on a large scale with the resources available.

    Actually in one sense we do – see the Direct Instruction guys.

    In the other sense, we don’t know how to make school districts adopt Direct Instruction, or another programme that is as effective.