I haven’t had enough time to read non-technical books for quite a while. Lourie Sand’s refreshing book Teaching Genius served as a nice break for me. It is about Dorothy DeLay’s teaching life. She was the violin teacher of, and many other famous violin soloists.
Itzhak Perlman and Sarah Chang’s violin performances are profoundly moving, even for people like me who don’t have a lot of exposure to the classic music. My father used to say that music is heaven and he insisted on having Beethoven’s music played on his funeral. I thought that was too extreme. But in Perlman and Chang’s work, I experienced what my father meant. How could DeLay’s tutelage turn out one star performer after another? I was very curious.
From this book, I got the opportunity to peek into the life of a great teacher. Many of the ideas could be borrowed for our own learning and for teaching our children.
What strikes me the most about Delay is that “she wants it to be true that we can learn anything.” In teaching, she doesn’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it, doesn’t follow her instructions, or doesn’t work hard enough. Instead, she tries to figure out why and what kind of thinking it must have gone through a student’s mind. She focuses on the learning process and uses her vast imagination to help each student to overcome her/his unique hurdles and achieve perfection. She believes that no matter how difficult a task is, if you learn to break it down, to do one thing at a time and really make yourself do that one thing, you will not feel overwhelmed and you will make progress steadily. In music, she believes, if you go slow enough, you can learn anything. After you can do one piece perfectly in slow motion, repetition could help you speed up. I can’t think of any area of human pursuits that this insight doesn’t apply.
The ultimate goal of DeLay’s teaching is to help her students to learn to “work independently and to know what they are doing.” In other words, she teaches the students to acquire the ability to teach themselves. She asked herself, “in order to do that, what will I have to know?”She imagines a circle of accomplished musician gathering in a room to listen and judge her students’ performance. She asks herself what each and every one of those musicians might comment on and what she could learn from those comments. Starting from that, she makes up the practice sheet for her students. In raising children, we can also ask ourselves how we want our children to judge themselves when they grow up and how people they will meet most likely to judge them? Perhaps the answers to these questions could help us form a vision as to how to help our children develop themselves.
DeLay believes that the true freedom is built upon “a disciplined base.” She figured out “a simple series of basics.” As long as her students don’t neglect their efforts on mastering the basics, “she allows them a certain amount of freedom to express themselves.” I thought that was a great balance to strive for in our own learning and in raising children.
When she was asked about the most important quality that she looked for in a student, she mentioned “perseverance”—the ability of “just keep going.” I like to think that such ability could be cultivated. When people have collected some experience of pursuing something till they succeeded, they tend to believe that it’s possible to succeed even if there isn’t a clear path to that end prize at the moment. I think it’s essential to start something small and follow through with success. Those successes will be the seeds we planted in our minds to help us persevere when we face bigger challenges.
DeLay thinks that pleasures, not fear, provide people with long lasting intrinsic motivation. To paraphrase the book, you succeed at mastering something and you get immense satisfaction from doing that. That nice feeling stays with you and you want to feel it again and again. So you take on one challenge after another. For DeLay, discipline is not depriving yourself of something you truly want. Instead, it simply is to have mental clarity and concentration. You think clearly what your goal is and you think about how you can get there step by step. The rest is simply to follow each step with concentration.
Great teachers do seem to provide another kind of motivations. DeLay has a knack to make students feel that their talents are extremely worthy and important. She never utters harsh words in her teaching. When she gives suggestions, she makes sure that her students don’t feel they are no good or hopeless. She believes in kindness and she said that “kids become what you tell them they are.”
DeLay often uses a sideway approach to address the problems. She remembers her frustrations when some of her past teachers tried to teach her by demonstrations. She knew there were many differences between her teachers’ example and her own playing but she can’t figure out what exactly was the difference that her teachers wanted to show her.So when it’s her turn to teach, she waits patiently. When, by chance, the students do something good, she would stop them, and point it out to them, saying, for example, “Now, that is a beautiful sound. Can you do it again?” Perhaps, we can also try to catch the moment when our children, or even ourselves, are doing something right and point it out.
Because of her reputation, she got some very young budding violinists to teach. Over the years, she has noticed that for the children to develop early, “a certain amount of adult pressure and physical presence is essential to establish practice routines and work habits” and “to make sure time is well spent.” In this case, she said, “encouragement and approval are the vital ingredients.” She observed that kids growing up under that kind of parental pressure and guidance often experience a crisis period in order to figure out whether they want to continue on the track someone older had put them on. I believe this is not just true for kids who got an early start under parental influences. Many of us thought we have followed the path of our own aspirations. But somehow at one point, we wake up and decide to take stocks and reevaluate our early decisions. It might be a painful process to go through but at the end of the tunnel, life is so much more beautiful.
In searching for good activities to fill up my daughters’ summer days, I returned to one of my old favorite, Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. It is a book worth spending quality time to go through multiple times. The central theme of the book is about learning and thinking, about how computer could help children acquire models to think with and to build their own intellectual structures. One of Papert’s big ideas is about debugging, especially debugging our intuition. Papert had great examples and analysis on that in the book.Papert is right that not many of us could get anything exactly right the first time. It is very important for us to cultivate the debugging skill and not get intimated. Papert think we can debug almost anything, concepts, mental and physical skills, our intuitions, problem settings, project works, to name a few. The most important step of the debugging process is to externalize what we want to debug and put it in a form or procedure that we can name, manipulate, critique and talk about, to break down and isolate parts to test, and to change.
I just finished reading Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms for the second time and I have the urge to read it again soon. It is so rich in ideas, both in depth and in breadth, and it includes many illuminating examples. The book is very old (second edition published in 1993) but this doesn’t diminish its value at all. Papert chose computational thinking as the thinking model and he explained how the programming language LOGO, part of it Turtle Talk, that he and his colleagues developed, could be used to help children explore and learn mathematics, physics, and grammar, the subjects children usually don’t have many opportunities to explore freely and discover by themselves, especially the parts that the formal methods and conclusions seem to be in contradiction with our intuition in daily life. Though the book talked a lot about children’s development, the essential ideas about learning and thinking Papert introduced should be useful for people at any age.
Papert seems to be a very colorful character. He described himself in the Afterword of the book like this. “I have always considered learning a hobby and have developed many insights into its nature by cultivating sensitivity to how I go about doing it. Thus, I have perhaps engaged in deliberate learning of a wider range of material than most people. Examples of things I have learned in this spirit include chapters of science (like thermodynamics), reading Chinese characters, flying airplanes, cooking in various cuisines, performing circus arts such as juggling, and even two bouts of living for several weeks with distorting spectacles (on one occasion left-right reversing glasses, on the other a rather complex prismatic distortion of the visual field).” It takes certain personally to try the distorting spectacles, I would imagine.
By training, Papert is a mathematician and psychologist. He was heavily influenced by Jean Piaget’s work on children’s intellectual development and he certainly expanded Piaget’s work in many significant ways. His research interest was not just to understand how children learn and think. He was an interventionist. He wanted to use his understanding to create an environment for children in which they can achieve the best learning and understanding.
The scope of learning Papert referred to is much broader than the learning in the traditional sense. Beyond learning facts and picking up skills, he also talked about how to make sense, how to develop and debug intuition. Here the examples he provided and his analysis are some of the best parts of the book. He paid great attention to the process of learning. He strongly believed that if you could externalize your thinking, if you could put your thinking in a form or procedure that you can name, manipulate, change, and critique, you have much better chance to develop a thorough understanding of whatever you want to learn or do. He disagreed with J.S. Bruner on his “influential classification of ways of knowing.” According to Brunner, “Some knowledge is represented as action, some as image, and only the third category as symbols. Bruner has asserted that “words and diagrams” are “impotent” to represent certain kinds of knowledge which are only representable as action.”He observed that in the history of science or in personal intellectual development, progress was often marked by seeking and finding a new descriptive language for what can not be grasped without it before. One example is calculus that Newton invented to help him work out the planetary motions.Papert believed that people could learn better if they can constantly push out what words can express. His own attempt in the book was to describe juggling in a computer-program-like procedure. It is a hierarchical design. He analyzed the motion and figured out what needed to be done to carry out juggling successfully. Then he moved into the component skills, which are essential to complete each step of the main procedure. With the clarity of all the identified component skills and procedure steps, it’s easy to isolate and trap bugs. For example, he mentioned that some people fail to juggle two balls because they track the balls with their eyes and they can’t track two balls at the same time. The solution was to fix your gaze at the apex of the balls’s trajectories.This example impressed me so much when I first read the book.
Papert thought that the affective aspect of the learning was as important as the cognitive aspect, if not more. He observed that what one can or cannot learn in many cases are not determined by the content, but by the personal relationship between the learner and the subject. He said, “New ideas are often acquired as a means of satisfying a personal need to do something one could not do before.” He thought that “The best learning takes place when the learner takes charge.”With this understanding, he considered rote learning as the worst model of learning since it is a dissociated model where material is treated as meaningless. On the other hand, Papert considered Piagetian learning highly effective. It is the type of learning that is embedded in other activities, and it is without curriculum or deliberate, organized teaching. Teachers for Piagetian learning could help the students by answering questions, working on projects side by side with the students, or showing something interesting to the students spontaneously. One of the vehicles Papert created for Piagetian learning is Turtle Talk. Children could start with Turtle geometry. Compared with the basic construct, point, in Euclid’s geometry, the turtle has a position and a heading, while the point has only the position. Children could apply their personal knowledge of how they move their bodies to instruct the turtle to move and trace out interesting patterns. I played with it a little and it is powerful and impressive. It is a full blown programming language. I plan to introduce it to my daughter this summer.
In Piaget’s line of thinking, children are builders of their own intellectual structures. Built on that, Papert argued that builders needed building materials and the source of those building materials is in the surrounding culture. Papert’s work implied that one of the best ways to help children learn is to make children’s environment discovery-rich by supplying them with many “seeds” of powerful ideas and models to think with. He related one of his own examples. When he was two years old, he discovered a set of differential gears. He played with them and fell in love with them. He internalized the gears and could imagine that he himself was the gears. He told us how much this model of gears in his mind helped him learn algebra effortlessly in school. He realized that not everyone was able to fall in love with gears. But somehow he hoped that the computers would have universal appeal. Turtle Geometry demonstrated his vision of what a model-to-think-with for children was like. It is a great model. It’s really too bad that it doesn’t seem to catch on more widely.
Papert’s understanding of how mind works is computational and it could be summarized with the Society of Minds theory. According to this theory, components of intellectual structures are more like people than precise and logical rules and propositions. The interactions among those components are more like social interactions than mathematical operations. He believed that thinking was to a large extent retrieving. “People can think only because they can draw on larger pool of specific, particular knowledge.”Based on this, he thought that logic and formal learning is continuous with social, bodily, and concrete learning. Following the same line of reasoning, it’s always helpful to relate the new material, whatever it is, to our diverse personal knowledge. The components, Papert called them agents, are modular and simple minded. They are often in conflict with each other. The conflicts are resolved by other simple-minded agents. There is no logical consistency in our intellectual system. One advantage for that is when we learn something new, if it’s in conflict with something old we already possess, we don’t need to reorganize our intellectual system to eliminate the inconsistency and to make use of the new knowledge or skill. Learning is essentially a local event. The implication is that we can put our new acquisition in our tool box as a tool. The more we practice this tool, the better we are able to use it. By introducing this new member to the old members, we learn when it is appropriate to use what tool. The interactions among those tools might bring global change in our intellectual system, but only very gradually. During the process, we can still function decently.
Papert had a very sharp observation about learning process. To paraphrase his idea, he thought getting to know a new domain of knowledge is like coming into a new community of people. We have to endure and enjoy the initial overwhelming and chaotic feelings. Details seem to be a blob of mess. They are not differentiated in our minds at all. When we get to know the community of people, we might have the luck to meet one or two important people to develop deep relationships with in the beginning and those people become a bridge for us or we can ask mutual friends to make introductions for us.If we are capable learners, we can pick out a few powerful ideas in the new domain and develop a personal relationship with them first. If we don’t have enough skills to do so, we can use a good introduction which can help us bring the new knowledge into contact with the familiar ones. Introductions can certainly make learning easier, but we all have to do our own work of getting to know. To make sense, to understand something back and forth till nothing more can be said about it, to perform a skill as if it is an instinct, to make the new knowledge our own, we have to give ourselves time to play with it, to learn the component skills and their combinations, to work with what we’ve got, and to “make something new with it in a personal and playful way.”
Papert talked about many learning enablers with in-depth examples. Other than the discovery-rich environment, models-to-think-with, articulating and analyzing one’s actions and thinking, developing and debugging intuition, he put great emphasis on developing qualitative frameworks, which are something you use to think about various problems before you decide what formal methods to apply. To Papert, it is important to separate the powerful ideas from their formalism. Many powerful ideas scattered around the book, and most of them came from the context of computation. Several of them influenced me a great deal. Here are some ideas that have influenced me a great deal:
·State and state-change operator
·Variables and procedures
·The concept of structured programming
·Self-contained world in which certain questions are relevant and others are not
·Finding intermediate case when dealing with two conflicting cases
Computer could be one of the biggest learning enabler. By providing Turtle Talk, “learning for kids becomes more active and self-directed.” Papert pointed out the two important functions computer could serve. “First, the computer allows, or obliges, the child to externalize intuitive expectations. When the intuition is translated into a program it becomes more obtrusive and more accessible to reflection. Second, computational ideas can be taken up as materials for the work of remodeling intuitive knowledge.”
How about if we want to help other people learn, as parents, teachers, or mentors? Papert had a very interesting point. He said that “all curriculum development could be described as reconstructing knowledge” “in such a way that no great effort is needed to teach it.” In developing curriculum or learning environment, here using mathematics as example, he emphasized three principles:
·Community principle: “The mathematics must be continuous with well-established personal knowledge from which it can inherit a sense of warmth and value as well as ‘cognitive’ competence”
·Power principle: “It must empower the learner to do personally meaningful projects that could not be done without it”
·Principle of cultural relevance: “The topic must make sense in terms of larger social context.”
It also helps if we can figure out the structure of knowledge we want to teach and modularize it to make it mind-size bite so that “it’s more communicable, more assimilable, and more simply constructable.”
Other than the ideas about learning and thinking, this book also gave me a refreshing insight about differential calculus. In essence, differential calculus connects the local and the global. Papert said that the “differential calculus “derives its power from an ability to describe growth by what is happening at the growing tip. This is what made it such a good instrument for Newton’s attempts to understand the motion of the planes. As the orbit is traced out, it is the local conditions at the place where the planet now finds itself that determine where it will go next.” Interestingly, this reminds me of life itself, to a degree.
I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book Outliers in one stretch. Gladwell told so many thought-provoking stories in the book and told them well. It is a fascinating book, just like his two previous ones, The Tipping Point and Blink. The subtitle of this book is “The story of success”. Gladwell claimed that “Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” He agreed that achievement is talent plus preparation. Among those two factors, he claimed that the preparation played a bigger role. His central point and big idea is that the quality and the amount of that preparation and in which domain and direction it lays are heavily influenced by external factors, such as parents, cultural heritage, and even birth month and year. Self-made high achiever is a myth and we could all benefit by noticing how our family background, our parents, our mentors and teachers, our immediate social and natural environment have shaped our experience in life. One interesting observation Gladwell shared is about cultural influence on people’s tenacity. He quoted the correlation between tenacity and how good children are at math.
Outliers is Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book. Just like his previous two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, this one is also an international bestseller. Gladwell is a good story teller. I found myself often absorbed in his stories. And those stories as he told them are certainly the best part of his books. His text flows and it appears to require very little mental effort to go through. This of course doesn’t mean that he has no depth or has no thought-provoking points.
The subtitle of the book is “The story of success”. Gladwell wanted to figure out what factors determine or at least account for the wild success of the top achievers. Those people stand out so far from the rest of us, therefore the title Outliers.
Many of us in this country wanted to believe that the extremely successful people are largely self-made. They succeed because they are intelligent, resilient, and they work hard. Gladwell wanted to convince us that factors outside each individual play far bigger roles than people usually give them credit for. He said, “It is not the brightest who succeed… Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” He told us story after story to show that many successes can be explained by the factors such as family background, cultural background, class, birth month, birth year, birth place, generation, historical background in terms of technology development, etc.
The book is divided in two parts, dealing with the role opportunity and legacy play in the success of outliers, respectively. In the first part, Gladwell used many stories to show that “success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.” In the second part, Gladwell showed that “the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears can play the same role.”
Gladwell observed, “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
Gladwell did agree that people who reached the top worked hard and they had a way to make sense of the world and of themselves that made them very productive in using their own talents and their external resources. However, he pointed out that the seed or inspiration that initially nudged them to consistently work in their chosen fields for extended period of time (say, 10,000 hours high quality work) is usually outside them. He talked about the so-called Mathew effect, that is, the accumulated advantage a person can have that amplifies any trivial initial differences. In simply words, if a person shows any special talent or interest in a domain at the very young age, no matter how unimpressive that special talent is to begin with, this person is likely to get more opportunity to train further in the domain, get better as a result, and therefore gain access to higher quality instructions or better further development opportunities. Gladwell used the stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy to show that they can’t get where they are without the extraordinary opportunities they had for practice. He said, “These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of the society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.”
One of the examples Gladwell used to discuss the effect of cultural legacy is the study of plane crash. Gladwell told us, “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors.” “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” Interestingly, there is one anomaly.“In commercial airlines, captains and first officers split the flying duties equally. But historically, crashes have been far more likely to happen when the captain is in the “flying seat.””, presumably when the first office made a mistake, it would be easy for the captain to remind him or correct him. A Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede came up with something called Power Distance Index (PDI) to measure people’s attitude toward hierarchy and authority. Different cultures have different PDIs. The ranking of PDIs by country has a very close match with the ranking of plane crashes by country. In other words, it is very difficult for the first officers from the cultural background of valuing and respecting authority to speak up clearly and assertively even when something was seriously wrong.
As a parent, two studies Gladwell mentioned surprised me and made me aware of my responsibility. The first one was conducted by psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman identified a large group of children with high IQs (average 140 and range 200) in California. He thought those children would become top achievers in their chosen fields. He kept track of their lives over many years and found the results very disappointing. As a group, those people didn't do better than a random sample from the population. Within the group, when he looked at the top 20% and the bottom 20%, the only factor that mattered is their family background. The top group overwhelmingly came from the upper or middle class. The second study was done by psychologist Annette Lareau. She was interested in how class, race, and family life affect childhood and create inequality in child development. According to her, “there are only two parenting philosophies and they almost perfectly divide along class lines.” Poor parents usually don't monitor their children's free time. They “tend to follow…a strategy of ‘accomplishment of natural growth.’” The advantage for children growing up in that kind of environment is that they know how to use them free time creatively and “had a well-developed sense of independence”. The middle class parents have the "concerted cultivation" style as she called it. That is, they were heavily involved in their children's free time. Two aspects of this involvement are worth noticing. The first one is that the middle class children have intensive schedule of many enrichment activities. These activities give them exposure “to a constantly shifting set of experiences” and provide them with opportunities to learn “team work and how to cope in highly structured settings.” They learn “how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up” when they need to. This concerted cultivation gives those children enormous practical advantages. The second aspect is that “middle class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn’t just issue commands. They expected their children to talk back to them, to negotiate, to question adults in positions of authority.” They also asked their children about other people they have regular contact with outside their homes, such as their teachers, coaches, and teammates.
Like many studies about success prior to this one, the methodology used in this book is retrospective, that is, to identify the outliers and trace back to figure out what factors were important in the formative years. Also in many of the stories told, the causal relationship hinted between a person’s success and the factors affected that is too clean and clear cut. Gladwell often used one story to demonstrate one important influence factor. He did consider all the important factors for any single case. It is certainly a very interesting study. However, I don’t believe those factors mentioned have predictive power. We can’t randomly grab a child from the crowd, just to observe where he/she stands in terms of his/her external environment and predict whether he/she will succeed, how successful he/she will be, and in what field. What I want to say is that life is very complex. There are countless ways for a person to do well, to succeed. For a person to appear disadvantaged from one perspective, it doesn’t mean this person is still disadvantaged from a different perspective. It is important for us to be aware of the influence of those external factors when we raise children, teach or mentor young people, and even when we develop ourselves. However, it is equally important to think about all the resources, gifts, and talents we have been given. The essential question for each and every one of us is to ask how we could best use what we already have internally and how we could arrange our external environment if at all possible to achieve goals that inspire us, given the ultimate limiting factors, our energy and our remaining time on earth.
Have you ever wondered how people who accomplished a great deal in life got to where they are? Were they lucky and born with natural gifts? Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People is the result of a very interesting retrospective study of people in several talent fields who have achieved world-class recognitions. According to Bloom and his coauthors, it took more than a decade for those people to perfect their skills in their respective fields. Only in the middle stage of their development, they showed their ability to learn quick and well. In the early stage, efforts are far more important than special qualities. One of Bloom’s big ideas is mastery learning. That is, “mastering the prerequisite earlier learning before proceeding to the more advanced learning has a positive effect on both the quality of the learning as well as on the rate of the learning.” They also found that learning was not an activity pursued in isolation. Parents, teachers/role models, and quality peers all have huge impact in the development process. Other than providing the financial and the emotional support, parents exerted great influence in the area of family values and how they model those values.
Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives and mastery-learning impressed me so much when I was interested in teaching and adult learning. His idea of learning in action had profound influence on me. A few months ago, through Ericsson’s book The Road to Excellence, I found Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People. The book is the result of a retrospective study of people “who had reached world-class levels of accomplishment”.
Bloom and his co-authors believe “that the quality of life is dependent on individuals having a sense of fulfillment in one or more roles and fields of human endeavor.” The development of competence and excellence is central to that fulfillment. Our educational system holds time for learning constant for everyone and expects some students to fail. Bloom was aware that without intervention the performance of individuals could be predicted with great accuracy based on their earlier performance data. However, he was an optimist. He had the conviction that effective education could change that. He also embraced the idea that learning is an interpersonal activity. He believed that human development was not achieved in isolation and the environment, especially the educational environment for particular people in the home, could have big impact.
In this study, they wanted to find out what contributed to the development of those very accomplished people. They investigated several factors: special individual physical and intellectual characteristics, role of home, type and quality of instruction/guidance, sources and types of motivation and reward over their developmental span, amount of learning and practice, the way they developed habits, interests, and values, and other factors each individual considered to be relevant. Initially, they wanted to select fields to represent four distinct areas of talents: athletic; aesthetic, music, and artistic; cognitive/intellectual; and interpersonal. They gave up on the last one because they can’t find consistent criteria for selection. They identified top 25 people in each of the six individual fields: concert pianist, sculptors, Olympic gold medal swimmers, tennis players, research mathematicians, and research neurologists. They interviewed those individuals, their family, and their teachers/coaches whenever needed and possible.
A few common themes were found across the talent fields.
·The development could be divided roughly in three stages, based more on the type and amount of learning experiences and less on age. The early stage is playful and exploratory. One of the pianists didn’t get the opportunity to go through this exploratory stage in the beginning. After several years of study, he lost the motivation to continue. Only after he spent some time to mess around and explore, he was able to resume his disciplined learning. In this stage, the motivations for learning are usually external. It is very important for the youngsters to enjoy the initial experience and get positive feedback so that they feel enticed to continue and want to know more. Their first teachers should be warm and encouraging but not necessarily very accomplished in the technical sense. At this stage, effort counts much more than the special gifts or qualities. The goal is to develop values and attitude, learning/practice routines and habits, discipline, and attention to details. The middle stage is devoted to technical mastery through systematic and disciplined study. Teachers are usually well connected in the field and with recognized expertise. They set directions for the students and offer knowledgeable criticism. The instructions are more formal but not mechanical. They aim for stimulating students’ desire for knowledge and skills and their love of study. Students are expected to play an active role in solving technical problems. And the bond between the teacher and the students shifts from love to respect. At this stage, students spend large amount of time on details and mastery of skills with precision. They become more responsible for their own development. The later stage is the perfection stage. The goal changed from technical precision to personal expression. Motivations shift from external to internal. Students usually have master teachers or mentors who “introduce them to the people, the institutions, and the experiences central to the field” besides helping them set their own directions and provide feedback. They learn to ask their own questions, think, experiment, become their own critic, and find their own way. They outgrow the imitation phase, and they “learn to create their own core problem and sample other aspects of their field”. Quality peers are very important at this stage. They compete but they also support each other emotionally. They learn from each other by “seeing how others tackle the similar problems.” And they push each other to stretch their limits. In summary, each stage has its own tasks and emphasis. The mastery of each stage forms “the prerequisite for being able to make the most of the subsequent phase”.
·Home influence. Parents all have preferences for specific types of activities. They encourage and reward the interests in the activities they value. Other than financial and emotional support, the most important influence parents have is in the realm of family values and how they model those values. Responsibility and household chore, discipline, productive use of time, setting goals and doing one’s best to attain, work before play, high standard of task completion, learning, and participatory hobbies are mentioned repeatedly.
·A long-term commitment to learning—for all the talent fields studied, it took more than a decade to get to the highest level of achievement. The learning gets increasingly complex and difficult. It is essential to build and rebuild commitment along the way. And it helps to have “enormous motivation, much support from family, the best teachers and role models possible, much time and a singleness of purpose and dedication”.
·Characteristics—strong interest and emotional commitment, desire to reach a high level of achievement, willing to work hard and long, and ability to learn rapid and well (especially in the middle stage of development). The fast learning ability is “in part a result of the earlier learning experiences where the individual was expected to learn something to a high standard before proceeding to a more advanced task in a particular talent field.”
There are also differences across talent fields.
·Pianists, swimmers, and tennis players devoted so much time and effort in their particular fields in the early and middle stage. Their parents also valued, encouraged, and invested a great deal in their particular activities. They learned to do one thing so well and found their identities in doing so. No alternative pursuit seemed to be as attractive.
·Sculptors, research mathematicians, and research neurologists weren’t given clear career direction from their parents. They were encouraged to “pursue what they truly interested in and to the best of their ability”. Their parents influenced the way they pursue their interests but not what they should pursue. Their parents just provided the best kind of education and introduced them to as many things as possible. They learned to be self-sufficient. “They were content to play alone and be able to focus on fairly complex tasks for a long time.” They valued the process of inquiry. One important factor in choosing their career direction was the role models/teachers, people who were doing good work and were excited about what they were doing. Both research mathematicians and research neurologists are enthusiastic readers.
·Compare to other parents, research neurologists’ parents are very busy, interested in a wide variety of things, and are fully engaged in their own work and involved in the community.They envisioned a secure future for their children including both financial security and autonomy over one’s work. Besides their scientific interests and intellectual curiosity, many of the research neurologists had strong interest in people and had explored human behavior through literature, philosophy, psychology, and history. In school, they pursued athletic activities and participated in “school government or social organizations on the background of academic success”. They actively seek out activities they found pleasurable and only did what they enjoyed doing. They learned “how to juggle activities, doing what seemed most worthwhile at the moment without giving up competing interests”. They could be successful, though not the very best, at several things. As for their career direction, they stayed uncommitted as long as they can. Many of them didn’t choose their final direction until far into their medical school years. They drifted to find something they can focus on and they eliminated the choices along the way.
One interesting observation is about accumulative advantages. “Those who are initially successful have greater opportunities for future success”. In a society as well as in a family, opportunities and resources are disproportionally given to people who have demonstrated success and showed promises.The related observation is that “if start early enough, work hard enough, and care enough”, you can master the system even if you don’t know the system in the beginning.
Overall, the book is not an easy read. It is very long and it was authored by a few people. It’s a bit repetitive and tedious. However, I think it’s worthwhile to plow through.
Do you know what skills and knowledge will be valued in the future? What kind of individuals do you think will emerge from our educational system? In his latest book, Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner detailed his vision of the valuable cognitive qualities. His first three minds concerned about the thinking capacity for individual problem solvers. The disciplinary mind, the synthesizing mind, and the creating mind. His last two minds focused on how we relate to others and our roles in the society. The respectful mind and the ethical mind.Gardner put great emphasis on the respectful atmosphere in education. He said, “In the absence of civility, other educational goals prove infinitely harder to achieve.” This is also true for any endeavor that requires more than one person’s participation. One of Gardner’s big ideas is that the disciplinary mastery is the foundation of creativity and synthesizing ability. The disciplinary mastery doesn’t mean merely getting familiar with the facts and figures. It is about mastering the distinctive ways of thinking in a particular field, be it scholarly fields, professional fields, or crafts and trades. Gardner’s short list covers one science, math, history, and at least one form of arts.
Howard Gardner is a professor of psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. His claim of fame is his theory of multiple intelligences described in his book Frames of mind. His latest book, Five Minds for the Future, is a very thought-provoking one. In this book, he shared his concerns about the current educational system. His five minds summarized his vision of the essential cognitive qualities needed for the future.
·The disciplinary mind. It is the mastery of the distinctive ways of thinking in a discipline. It knows the processes and the structures, not just merely the facts and figures.The disciplinary mind has a sense of the purposes and boundaries of the discipline. It has developed an intuitive grasp of when the conventional wisdom in the discipline is appropriate and when the thinking needs to be flexible. The discipline here also meant the practice of “applying oneself diligently, improving steadily, and continuing beyond formal education.” The disciplines could include major scholarly fields, major professions, and crafts and trades. Gardner’s personal short list covered math, one science, history, and at least one form of arts. He believed that the disciplinary studies of these fields should be accomplished at the precollege level because they offer gateways to natural sciences, social sciences, and arts and crafts. Gardner’s prescription for acquiring the disciplinary mind is simple. First you need to identify the important topics in the discipline that you want to master. They can be contents or methods. And then spend a significant amount of time, over a significant period, on the topics to achieve genuine and robust understanding by “using a variety of examples and modes of analysis”. Finally, you demonstrate your deep understanding by applying what you have learned to unfamiliar problems or situations.
·The synthesizing mind. It is the ability to reconcile and make sense from large amount of information. It is the ability to pick out the crucial elements to make a point or tell a story. It is also the ability to “integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.” The synthesizing process Gardner laid out is quite similar to a typical problem-solving process. He showed us several kinds of common synthesizing forms: narrative; taxonomies (often in charts or tables); complex concepts; rules and aphorisms; powerful metaphors, images, and themes; embodiment without words (such as in some art forms); theories; and meta-theories. If you are interested in synthesizing, the examples Gardner gave for the above forms are quite interesting and worth the time to get acquainted with. He had a great observation of different synthesizing manners. He called them “Lumpers” and “Splitters”. Lumpers connect everything to everything else. “Splitters make distinctions, enjoy contrasts, always ask, “Why do these not connect? What is the difference, what is the crucial distinction?”” Gardner argued that the lumping “paralyzes the critical mind” since it’s hard to “make priorities, distinctions, illuminating comparison” and it would be difficult to know how to disprove and where to start. He used two books as contrasting examples. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for splitter and Ken Wilber’s Brief History of Everything for lumper. The way Gardner described these two books and the parts he quoted are quite amazing.
·The creating mind. Sided with Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s theory of creativity, Gardner viewed creation as a social phenomenon of three factors coming together. Variations generated by individuals who have had disciplinary mastery; presentation of those variations in the culturally acceptable format; and the quality of the creation recognized by the relevant field(s) and the creation has nontrivial influence on the future development in the field(s). At the individual level, the creativity is the “capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions, and phenomena” beyond existing knowledge and syntheses. It is also the ability to offer “new solutions, to fashion works that stretch existing genres or configure new ones.” At the social level, if the variations are not adopted, they are not genuine creations.To cultivate the creating mind, it is important to encourage the flexibility and multiple perspectives in thinking and exploration. It is no less important to participate in the conversations relevant to the particular problems you are trying to find solutions for. One other crucial skill to hone is critical thinking. Compared to the usual college prep classes, Gardner observed that art classes were better in developing healthy critical thinking skill so that it helps instead of thwarting the creative efforts. The ultimate goal is to become “our first and sharpest critics.”Along the way, it’s worthwhile to learn how to give and receive constructive criticism, and to judge “which criticism are worth attending to and which are better ignored.”
·The respectful mind. The foundation for Gardner’s respectful mind is that “a perspective may be different without being deficient.” His concept of respect goes beyond tolerance and political correctness. The respectful mind is aware of the differences. It appreciates and responds “sympathetically and constructively to differences among individuals and among groups.”It has the capacity to forgive, to find common ground, and to seek to understand. After all, regardless of our ways of life and our ideals and perspectives, we are all human beings who crave to be affirmed, to be heard and understood, and to feel important. We all desire encouragement and appreciation.We all make mistakes and wish to be forgiven.In Gardner’s view, “A truly respectful individual offers the benefit of the doubt to all human beings” and “She remains open to the possibility that her judgment may have been wrong.”
·The ethical mind. Gardner “would like to live in a world characterized by good work: work that is excellent, ethical, and engaging.” His ethical mind focuses on one aspect of our work life. That is our role and explicitly how we fulfill that role in the society. He used Yo-Yo Ma’s example to show the three important aspects of fulfilling our professional role: do our own part of the work in an excellent fashion; work productively and harmoniously with others when necessary; and pass on our knowledge, skills, understanding, and orientation.
Across all five minds, Gardner called our attention to the significant influence role models have. He also pointed out the importance of peer quality. He said, “One of the most important functions assumed by parents is the determination of the peer group.” I can’t agree with that more.
The synthesizing and creating minds share a lot of similarities in training. Exploration, exposure to different kinds of systems and thinking, representing entities in multiple, diverse ways, multiple avenues to approach and solve a problem, hobbies and activities that don’t involve single right answers, and an environment that is tolerant of (new) productive mistakes are all helpful. The differences between synthesizers and creators are in their motivations and results. As Gardner pointed out, “The synthesizer seeks order, equilibrium, closure; the creator is motivated by uncertainty, surprise, continual challenge, and disequilibrium.”
In training for disciplinary mind, Gardner saw no use in memorization. From first hand experiences, I believe memorization could play a crucial role if use appropriately. For example, I used to remember many physical constants and memorized many Chinese poems and classical essays. The former helped me develop an intuitive understanding of the physical world, in the sense of order of magnitude; the latter helped me internalize the rhythm and the intonation of the language, the structure of the sentences and paragraphs, the way the ideas flow, and the nuances and variations of expressions. Also Gardner’s prescription of disciplinary training is a bit too linear to my taste. In my own case, many times, my understanding of a specific topic deepened only after I have left the topic and have acquired understanding of some other topics, related or unrelated.
I think Gardner missed at least one important piece of the educational goals. For lack of better words, I’ll call it the discriminating mind. I have my doubt that individuals could do work ethically in Gardner’s terms in the long run if they don’t have the ability to define and find meaningful and engaging work. From reading Gardner’s other books, I can guess why he didn’t touch this topic. One reason might be the value system this topic would involve. However, other than the specific value system each of us holds dear, there is also the process aspect we can talk about. We only have very limited time and attention. Even though we need to respect other people’s perspectives and ways of life, we need to have the ability to discriminate, to judge, to prioritize, and to make a decision about what is the best for ourselves. It is not self-evident to me that the combination of Gardner’s five finds could help us find our way. What missed are the self-awareness and the process of gaining that self-awareness in the professional context and social context.