Friday, April 15, 2016

It isn't either/or

I have been reading (and enjoying) Anders Ericsson’s new book, Peak. Ericsson’s career has focused on researching how one achieves world class performance in competitive fields such as music or chess. His concept of “deliberate practice” has been written about widely in popular literature.

I was thinking of the concept of practice, and intelligence in the context of false choices recently. One of the tasks on the WISC (the intelligence test many children take when assessing for giftedness) features a test of working memory. The test giver reads numbers to you and you repeat them back (and repeat them backwards). The strings of numbers get longer.

Ericsson isn’t writing about children’s intelligence tests (and none of this should be construed that I am arguing with his points), but anyway, he opens his book with a discussion of such a working memory test. One of his early experiments was to turn a decent-but-not-top Carnegie Mellon student (where Ericsson was teaching) into the world random digit memory champ. Through diligent, deliberate practice, the student was able to repeat back 82 digits, which had not been done before. Now digit memorization is its own whole big competition, and the champions can repeat back hundreds of digits.

Getting this reasonably intelligent young man to 82 digits, then the world record, required about 200 hours. So it is reasonable to infer that a generally diligent young child might be coached to remember strings of 8, 9, 10 digits fairly easily. At least this subtest of the WISC would seem to be easily manipulated.

So...then what? Long time readers of this blog know that there have been a string of articles over the years pointing out that there is X, Y, or Z problem with intelligence testing, or the current state of gifted education, and therefore the idea of giftedness is itself a myth. Even if all these woes are accurate, though, therefore...what? What do you do with a bright child who is completely bored out of her mind in class, who teaches herself to read at a young age, who memorizes long strings of facts because she finds them fascinating, who pipes up from the backseat at age 5 with such interesting observations as “you know, multiplication is just a faster way to add?”

The point is, there can be facts that point in various directions that can be simultaneously true. Sure, certain elements of intelligence testing can probably be coached. It can also be true that there are extremely bright children whose educational needs are not being met in the regular classroom, and who need individualized instruction that challenges their frenetic brains. They need to be given an opportunity to work at the edge of their capacity, instead of being bored all the time. Few things in life are truly either/or, and this isn’t one of them either.