Genius is in the doing

We’re paying too much attention to child geniuses, argues Jordan Ellenberg, a former prodigy who’s now a math professor and writer.

I started reading at 2. I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was 5. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples. In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry.

. . . Many advocates for gifted education are similarly delighted by kids like me, seeing us as a kind of natural resource, one we risk squandering as surely as we do fossil fuels. . . . “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles,” the Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski said in a recent interview. “Schizophrenia, cancer—they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy. But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids.”

Most child prodigies grow up to be highly successful adults, Ellenberg writes. But “most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies.” Don’t expect the geniuses to solve all the riddles, he writes. The other 99 percent will have to do most of the work.

The cult of genius tends to undervalue hard work and the productive persistence that psychologists nowadays like to call “grit” — not to mention creativity, perspective and taste, without which all those other virtues may be wasted on pointless projects.

His math students believe that it’s not worth doing math unless you’re the best, one of the “special few,” complains Ellenberg, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. If you’re not a genius, you’re chopped liver. “Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person,” he concludes.

Math isn’t just for ‘math people’

I’m just not a math person” is “the most self-destructive idea in America today,” write Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in The Atlantic. You’re not just limiting your own future. “You may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.”

Mathematicians need high math ability, write Kimball and Smith, economics professors who’ve taught math. But few of us are aiming that high. “For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”

Belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the math gender gap, according to Oklahoma City researchers, they write.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues found students do much better if they believe “you can always greatly change how intelligent you are” than if they think “you have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.”

In Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard Nisbett recounts what happened when Dweck and colleagues told poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is malleable and can be developed by hard work. Learning changes the brain by forming new connections and students are in charge of this change process, psychologists told the students.

Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.

But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.”

Kimball and Smith conclude: “It is no picnic going through life believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.”

How would you improve science ed?

If you could make one change to improve science education, what would it be? Science Times asked 19 scientists, educators and students.

Quite a few called for science teachers who know science, math teachers who know math and lessons that ask students to solve real-world problems.

Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College wants teachers to “help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

Focus STEM courses on “creativity and invention,” says Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy.  The “traditional skills . . .  are tools to empower creativity.”

States aren’t rushing to adopt Next Generation Science Standards, which was developed by a consortium of 26 states, notes the Hechinger Report. California adopted the standards last week, joining Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas and Kentucky.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher from California – a state which got an ‘A’ in the Fordham ratings – has gotten attention for his critique of the NGSS. He said that basic content knowledge was needed before students could understand scientific and engineering practices, or how scientists ‘do science.’

Bruno worries the standards will confuse and overwhelm students by asking them to do too much at once.

California hasn’t decided when to implement NGSS, reports EdSource  Today.

Like the Common Core standards, their counterparts in English language arts and math, the new science standards stress problem solving, critical thinking and finding common principles or “cross-cutting concepts” that engineering and various fields of science share. They emphasize scientific thinking and big ideas over memorization in the hope that more students will become intrigued by science.

Implementing Common core standards in language arts and math is sucking up schools’ time, money and “mindshare.”

Missed lessons of Monsters U

A prequel to the popular Monsters Inc., Pixar/Disney’s new Monsters University is a Revenge of the Nerds ripoff featuring young Mike and Scully learning to be “scarers.” Pixar’s team “missed the chance to say something more interesting,” writes Rick Hess.

The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University . . .  it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

The movie “seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless,” writes Hess. “At a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft.”

Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline — or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils.

I like the Monsters University web site. The admissions page calls MU “a place for self-discovery, curiosity, and scholarship,” but warns only a fraction of applicants are admitted.  In addition to scaring, MU offers “academically rigorous” programs in scream energy, door technology and business, as well as “holistic training for the mind, body, and spirit.”

The message from the dean stresses MU’s diversity, which does indeed seem to be a strength.

Americans agree on God, country and sex ed

Nine out of 10 Americans agree on a few things, according to pollsters, reports AP.  Nearly all believe in God, country and teaching sex education in public schools. More than 90 percent:

—admire those who get rich by working hard.

—think society should ensure everyone has equal opportunity to succeed.

—think it’s important to get more than a high school education.

Americans also believe it’s their duty to always vote, though voter turnout doesn’t reflect that.

Teaching grit

Educators are focusing more on perspiration than inspiration these days, looking for ways to teach determination, resilience and grit.

Can technology teach grit? asks Anya Kamenetz. A new U.S.Department of Education report touts the potential of new technologies to provide optimal challenge (not too easy or hard), “promote academic mindsets, teach learning strategies, promote the development of effortful control, and provide motivating environments.”

Some of these tech tools and applications attempt to teach strategies like mindfulness (including meditation), metacognition (knowing about knowing), and growth mindset (the belief that one can change one’s own abilities by working harder.)

Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth believes grit is “more essential to academic achievement” than intelligence, writes Kamenetz.

. . . while teaching 7th-grade math . . . she noticed that some of her strongest performers weren’t necessarily the smartest kids, and some of the smartest kids weren’t necessarily doing that well.

“I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn, if they worked hard and long enough,” she said. “ I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational and psychological perspective.”

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher told my parents I wasn’t quick in learning math, but I sunk my teeth in like a “bulldog” and held on till I got it. I scored a gritty 4.5 on Duckworth’s eight-question grit quiz.

Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to success

Does confidence really breed success?  “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” says psychologist Jean Twenge. “Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

More students say they’re gifted in writing ability, yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s, says Twenge.

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

Self-esteem doesn’t lead to success, says Roy Baumeister, a Florida State professor who’s studied the topic for years. “Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success,” he says.

In one study, university students who’d earned C, D and F grades “received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.” They did worse than students with similar grades whose self-esteem had been left alone. “An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,” writes Baumeister.

Egalite, fraternite, no homework

France’s president, Francois Hollande, wants to ban homework because some children get more help from their parents than others. Is this  The End of Homework? asks Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

It’s not true that homework is just “busywork, with no effect on academic achievement,” writes Menand.

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.

U.S. students aren’t doing more homework than they were in the 1940′s, according to researchers.  A majority of students, including high-school seniors, spend less than an hour a day on homework during the school week.

Finland has the most successful educational system in the world, according to The Economist, writes Gill.  “Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short.”

The No. 2 country is South Korea, “whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity.” South Korean kids don’t just do homework: 90 percent study with private tutors or go to cram schools.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead.

Americans “want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else,” writes Menand.

Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.

Homework isn’t the root of all evil, but it’s often counter-productive, writes Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal,  in Ed Week.

If we really want students to be engaged with learning, we should allow them the autonomy to self-explore at home one their own and not give them death by ditto because it makes us feel better about the assignments we provide.

DeWitt quotes teacher Mark Barnes, who thinks homework “fails our students.”  Assigning homework “is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning,” writes Barnes. “Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material — mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class — and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures.”

Asian culture: Struggling shows strength

A Marxist slogan popular in my college days — Dare to struggle, dare to win! — applies to education, according to an NPR story. Struggling in school is seen as a problem in the U.S., but not in Asia.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. . . . struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds.  The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.

U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.

 . . .  in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Getting parents to change their beliefs about learning will be difficult. Americans try to build their children’s confidence by telling them they’re smart or talented. “As soon as they encounter a something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates,” says psychologist Carol Dweck. Praising the struggle –  “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it” — gives children the confidence to cope with difficulties.

Hard-working Asians ace admissions tests

Admission to New York City’s elite high schools is by test score only. Asian-Americans, who make up 14 percent of public school students, qualify for a majority of seats, reports the New York Times in Asians’ Success in High School Admissions Tests Seen as Issue by Some..

Civil rights groups complain low-income families can’t afford test prep. The city started free test prep programs for blacks and Hispanics, but was forced to open them to all students. Now 43 percent of participants come from Asian families.

Ting Shi, whose immigrant parents work long hours in a laundromat, used free test prep to qualify for Stuyvesant, the most elite high school. It’s 72 percent Asian, only 4 percent black and Hispanic.

In Asia, tests are “viewed not so much as measures of intelligence, but of industriousness,” students tell the Times.

Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted,’ ” said Riyan Iqbal, 15, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, as he and his friends — of Bengali, Korean and Indian descent — meandered toward the subway from the Bronx High School of Science one recent afternoon. “It’s all about hard work.”

No student, they said, was off the hook. Riyan, the son of a taxi driver and a Duane Reade cashier, and his schoolmates said their parents routinely plied them with motivational tales about the trials they endured back home, walking to school barefoot, struggling with hunger, being set back by floods and political unrest. “You try to make up for their hardships,” Riyan said.

Story ends with Emmie Cheng, a Cambodian emigre, who runs a shoe importing company. She spent $2,000 this year on tutoring programs and prep classes for her daughter Kassidi.

Cheng’s “father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war.” In the U.S., her mother worked in a garment factory.  “This is the easy part,” Cheng said.