Monday, October 28, 2013

Are People Naturally Good at Math ... or Art?

"I can't draw."

"I'm no good at math."

Americans have long seen the world in terms of absolutes and natural ability, rather than an uncertain world of potential and possibility. And that naivete and prejudice has been one of the nation's greatest weaknesses. These myths are increasingly challenged by the likes of Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink and, now, Miles Kimball and Noah Smith who are writing about "The Myth of ..." being bad at math. As in Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code, it's becoming more clear that success has much more to do with hard work and the simple belief that ability is a result of effort and attitude. Of course, there is certainly evidence on the side of biology as well, and this is nowhere more evident than in David Epstein's fascinating book The Sports Gene.

One of the key components for improving performance in any task or skill is the idea of "deliberate practice."  This concept was well-extrapolated in Malcolm Gladwell's well known book Outliers in which he brought the concept of the "10,000 hours to true mastery" into the public's consciousness.  However, the 10K hours was only effective - or perhaps most effective - when it was deliberate practice.  That is, the practitioner challenges himself with the most difficult practice regimen with the express intent of "getting better."  Drake Baer of FAST Company summarizes a lot of this when he argues "Why Deliberate Practice is the Only Way to Get Better." Perhaps if we started focusing on these concepts in school, we might be much more effective in motivating students toward successful paths.

So, whatever we do know about skills and mastery, it's certainly not just nature or nurture - that much is true.

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