Sunday, October 01, 2006

Creating Talent

A while back I blogged about a New York Times piece by the authors of Freakonomics, giving a facinating example of how talent is made. This questions the common conception of talented individuals being distinguished by some almost mythical attribute "talent." The New Scientist recently published a similar article called "How to Be a Genius" (subscription required for the full article). The author, David Dobbs, cites a recently published book The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance summarizing research in the field. One review reads in part
"[the book] 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."
After mulling this over for a while, I started to wonder why we don't pay more attention to attitude in education. That is, we try to teach content and abilities, and we brag about good teachers who can motivate students, but we don't (as far as I know) take student attitudes seriously enough to try to measure them. If we could measure them, maybe we could improve them.

For example, general education at a liberal arts college is supposed to expose students to a range of subjects. Usually unstated is the goal that we hope a student will find a subject that really interests her, and she'll pursue that through a degree program. And this may even work, but I'm sure that we've never tried to find out if this happens. Moreover, the general education program as a whole isn't really designed with that goal in mind.

The convenient bureacracy of learning divided up into neat classes and programs largely ignores learning that happens outside the classroom. A student who is good a cramming for tests looks the same as one who slowly mulls over ideas in really immerses himself in a subject--as long as the test scores are the same.

So suppose that in parallel to our existing way of looking at education as a collection of knowledge and skills, we began to find ways to affect attitudes of students toward intellectual activity. The objective is to start the kind of positive feedback loop that is described in the articles cited: interest leads to practice, which leads to ability, which leads to enhanced interest. If an intellectual activity is pleasurable, one is more likely to spend one's own time doing it.

I chair our Institutional Effectiveness Committee, and proposed such a program at our last meeting. As usual, I'm impatient to get to the 'doing' part of any project, so working with committees is usually frustrating. I have to say that the idea didn't get an overwhelming reception, probably because it's new and radical, and (more importantly) work for someone. Since I'm the Institutional Research director, I'll just forge ahead with some trials. I already built a little rating system in Flash. You can see it here. I'll probably attach it to the student's portal home page and put some test items up to see what they tell me.

I've already changed the way I teach my math class this semester, based on these ideas. The first thing I did was distribute the New Scientist article and discussed it with the class. I'm also spending more time taking little detours into the really cool corners of math and computer science that have the potential to hook them on the subject. But mainly I stress the need to actually practice to become good. It takes a lot of work to be innately talented!

There is yet another article on the theme What Kind of Genius are You? that appears in Wired, comparing famous artists' productivity as they aged. The author, Daniel K. Pink found that

[...] genius – whether in art or architecture or even business – is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. Galenson maintains that this duality – conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus – is the core of the creative process.
This resonates with Lee Smolin's two types of scientists--those who solve existing problems, and those who go looking for new ones. He explores this and much more in his excellent new book The Trouble with Physics.

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