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The Guardian’s terrible article on giftedness

28 Jul

Let me stipulate, before I begin, that I believe that most students could substantially improve their academic performance. But I cannot accept the assertion implied in a recent Guardian headline: “Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child.”

What evidence does the Guardian supply for its assertion? It’s almost entirely anecdotal. For example, we are told that:

Most Nobel laureates were unexceptional in childhood. Einstein was slow to talk and was dubbed the dopey one by the family maid. He failed the general part of the entry test to Zurich Polytechnic – though they let him in because of high physics and maths scores. He struggled at work initially, failing to get academic post and being passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office because he wasn’t good enough at machine technology. But he kept plugging away and eventually rewrote the laws of Newtonian mechanics with his theory of relativity.

There is a lot wrong with this account. The story of a family maid years after Einstein was a grown and famous man is hardly strong evidence. Just how slow was he to talk? Doesn’t “high physics and maths scores” count as evidence of giftedness? As a child Einstein taught himself calculus and his employment problems were largely due to Antisemitism.

Te article also says:

Lewis Terman, a pioneering American educational psychologist, set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who excelled in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman expected they would. But he did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both physicists – whom he dismissed from the study as their test scores were not high enough.

I didn’t know about Luis Alvarez, but I did know the story about Shockley. Terman study was a longitudinal study of gifted children who had an IQ above a defined cut score. Shockley’s IQ was high but just not high enough to be in Terman group. The students identified by Terman did well in life, having above average academic and professional achievement. It might be worth pointing out that Nobel prizes are not that common and while IQ does a good job of capturing highly valued cognitive skills it may not be a good measure of creativity.

Later the article makes this astonishing admission:

While the jury is out on giftedness being innate and other factors potentially making the difference, what is certain is that the behaviours associated with high levels of performance are replicable and most can be taught – even traits such as curiosity.

Wait a second, the article is supposed to be arguing that giftedness doesn’t exist, but the author not only concedes that it exists, but also that some aspects could be innate. There certainly are “behaviours associated with high levels of performance” but we do not know to what extent these behaviors can be taught.



How to practice effectively

24 Mar

(Hat tip to BoingBoing)


2 Dec

There has been a lot of attention to the idea of developing expertise. We would like to know what are the most effective techniques for becoming an expert in any domain. Perhaps, we should take a more atomic view and study expertise in very small domains, such as this:

Niall Brady writes “It took me just under a year to get a spoon into a mug while filming it all on snapchat. One attempt a day. This is a compilation of the clips I remembered to save.”

The 10,000 hour rule backlash

15 Aug

The 10,000 hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. As we have noted here there were a number of serious problems with the kind of claims made on its behalf, in particular claims that talent is illusory and superior performance is only the result of intensive practice. Now the reservations, previously voiced in academic journals, are beginning to make themselves felt in the popular press. Witness this article in The Washington Post:

“That rule was in turn loosely based on a 1993 study of accomplished violinists in Berlin, which found that the most accomplished students had spent 10,000 hours practicing by the time they were 20 — far more hours than the less accomplished students had spent practicing. Gladwell estimated that the Beatles and Bill Gates had also put in 10,000 hours of practice fiddling with guitars and computers, respectively, by the time they went big.

There’s one problem with this idea: Research suggests it isn’t true. Practice is helpful in improving performance in a variety of fields, from athletics to chess. But it plays a surprisingly small role in determining whether people become virtuosos.”

One of the problems with the way scientific controversies get reported in the media is that the claims swing between extremes. First, we are told that talent doesn’t matter. Later we are told that talent is the only thing that matters.

Ericsson’s work on peak performance has made a real contribution and he has discovered important insights into effective training that may have important implications for education. The 10,000 hour rule is misleading, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Deliberate practice in action

20 Jun

I have written a lot about the 10,000 hour rule. As I have said before, I take a middle ground. It is wrong to assert, as Malcolm Galdwell has, that there is no such thing as talent and the difference between experts and novices is simply total amount of practice. On the other hand, I think the research on deliberate practice has yielded interesting insights that might help us all improve performance.

There there’s this:



Hat tip to BoingBoing.

The five hour rule

23 Nov

As I have pointed out before, there is reason to be skeptical of oversimplified versions of the ten thousand hour rule. Talent is a real phenomenon and it does contribute to performance. Having said that, I think we can learn a lot from studying the intense training regimes of high performers. The lessons learned may have  broad applicability for education.

At the other extreme is the five hour rule:



(hat tip to BoingBoing)

More on the 10,000 hour rule

14 Oct

Slate weighs in on the ten thousand hours rule.

When we hear that it takes an average of ten thousand hours to become an expert in most fields, we should ask what is the standard deviation around that average? One way to think about an average is that it is a single number that describes a set of results. The standard deviation tells us how well an average characterizes a set of data. If the standard deviation is zero, then all values equal the average and the average gives us perfect information. As the size of the standard deviation grows the average becomes less informative.

How good is the ten thousand hour average?:

 “However, recent research has demonstrated that deliberate practice, while undeniably important, is only one piece of the expertise puzzle—and not necessarily the biggest piece. In the first study to convincingly make this point, the cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli found that chess players differed greatly in the amount of deliberate practice they needed to reach a given skill level in chess. For example, the number of hours of deliberate practice to first reach “master” status (a very high level of skill) ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 hours. This means that one player needed 22 times more deliberate practice than another player to become a master. “

As we can see from the video below, the ten thousand hour rule is very much alive in the popular mind:


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