How We Make Education Worse Than Random

Education: Boy Studying - Lewis Hine

There are a lot of aspects of education that that are complicated and that we don’t pay enough attention to. Commenter Colin Keesee brought my attention to a curious fact about sports. Since there are date cutoffs for which league a child will play in, those who just miss the cutoff will be up to 12 months older than those who just make the cut off. Thus they will be up to 12 months bigger and more physically and mentally developed. This is all discussed in an interview Malcolm Gladwell gave with ESPN, Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell.

The result of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The older students get more playing time and attention, thus making them even further ahead of their younger competitors, who would often have as much if not more talent. In the interview, this is applied in terms of hockey and the NHL, but the data do not show what they claim (the correlation is in the opposite direction that the theory would indicate). But the point is a valid one.

I remember in little league baseball, there was a huge difference in the size of the boys. I’m sure some of this had to do with the ages of the boys. But another issue is just that some boys mature faster than other boys. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, they are all arbitrary. Just because a boy is small an uncoordinated at 8-years-old does not mean that he won’t be big and graceful at 14.

We have a great problem with focusing on early bloomers. Mozart was an early bloomer but Beethoven really wasn’t. And Einstein wasn’t. And certainly Cervantes wasn’t…

But what I noticed in my very limited experience with organized sports was that far more coaching time was spent with the boys who needed the least help. And the reason for that is obvious enough: people think that greatness is something you are born with. Thus, why waste your time coaching an incompetent given that they are never going to be any good?

Education for Those Who Don’t Need It

Throughout my life, I’ve been shocked that this attitude is everywhere. I don’t really care about sports. But this is applied to math and writing and every other human activity that involves education. Because I do have a knack for systems and analysis, I’ve look back in horror at the way people “taught” me to write and play chess — two things I’m rather good at, but only because I taught myself in adulthood.

It’s especially true with chess education which is concrete. When I teach a child to play chess, I first teach them the moves, but then we go on to basic tactics like combinations and forks. And I teach basic strategy from the beginning. What’s so frustrating about all this is that the way chess is normally taught goes entirely against the march of human progress. We don’t expect each generation to rediscover the entire intellectual history of humanity. But we do when teaching chess.

Interest Trumps Natural Ability

The way I learned to write was very interesting in that it shows someone with mediocre talents can become pretty good if they are obsessed with it and work on it a lot. I know lots of people who used to be better writers than I am and who still know a lot more about the mechanics. They were born with more talent. I was born with more interest. And interest trumps talent.

My favorite example of this is Mozart, because everyone thinks of him as the ultimate example of intrinsic greatness. But it just isn’t true. He was trained from the youngest age. And he worked very hard. After he studied counterpoint in France, his compositions took a great leap forward. None of this is to say that he didn’t have natural ability, although I do wonder how much of that was in the genes and how much of it was being surrounded by music even before his birth.

Education Often Makes Things Worse

We have a great problem with focusing on early bloomers. Mozart was an early bloomer but Beethoven really wasn’t. And Einstein wasn’t. And certainly Cervantes wasn’t — having written his only great works starting in his late fifties — and mostly in his middle to late sixties.

The universe is a cruel and fickle place. The problem I have is that as a species, we haven’t learned to push against that. In fact, in education, we have a strong tendency to reinforce it, or even make what would normally be random be distinctly unjust.

6 thoughts on “How We Make Education Worse Than Random

  1. I remember a study where a group of children were divided at random. Half were given to a teacher who was told they were gifted. The other half, given to a teacher who was told they were slow. Sure enough, the “gifted” students did significantly better than the “slow” students. I don’t remember where I read this study, so if anyone has more info…

    >And certainly Cervantes wasn’t — having written his only great works starting in his late fifties — and mostly in his middle to late sixties.

    Then there’s hope for me yet!

    • I’ve heard many variations of that. I don’t doubt it but it could be apocryphal.

      Yes it’s what I hang on to as well. :-)

  2. Not only are some people late bloomers, others are not sure what exactly they are passionate about until much later in life.

    I would have more to say but my brain is mush. I am going to take a nap.

    • Also, we have a bias toward obsession. Being a generalist is not something we admire, even though the economy itself is more rewarding of it. I’ve always been fascinated by people who are obsessed with something from an early age and then for the rest of their lives. But I also think they miss out on a lot.

      • That is true-people are expected to be specialists these days instead of being able to just like lots of things equally.

        Then again I become obsessed for a few years and find something else to do. I get it from my father.

        • Yeah, I’m a serial obsessive too. It’s actually a great habit if you want to accumulate a lot of trivia — and trivial skills. Be your own circus!

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